Why do Some Russian Opponents of Putin’s Regime Criticize the Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Dmitry Muratov?

Among Russian opposition, opinions are divided: some congratulate the winner, Dmitry Muratov, Editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, while others accuse the Nobel Committee of cowardice and compromise. For the latter, the prize should have been awarded to Alexei Navalny, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya or Memorial. Who is right? Here is a personal opinion.

When Marie Mendras called me to tell me that the Nobel Peace Prize had just been awarded to Dmitry Muratov, I jumped for joy. The day before, on October 7, Desk Russie had organized an evening to commemorate a gloomy event: the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya. I write “gloomy” because this Thursday, October 7, also marked the end of the search for people who were behind the contract killing: from now on, this heinous crime is prescribed. In any case, the search for the perpetrators of the crime has hit a “glass ceiling”: many Russian commentators are convinced that the order to kill Anna came from a high level of power and that its instigators (or perhaps an instigator) have full immunity.

I met Anna in late 1999, when she was not yet known outside Russia. She had just published a series of reports in Novaya Gazeta on the beginnings of the second Chechen war, and I suggested that Robert Laffont publish them in book form. Anna agreed and, in a few months, we became friends. We saw each other several times a year: I often went to Moscow on a mission, she came regularly to Paris. After the first book, Laffont did not want to continue, but I found another publisher, Buchet-Chastel, and until Anna’s death, we published three more books by her, then a collection of her articles, posthumously, and a book of tributes from her friends and colleagues.

Photograph: Liudmila Barkova / Grani.ru

When I was going to Moscow, we often met at Anna’s house, in that big apartment where she lived with her two children, her mother and a big dog. But sometimes we could only see each other at her newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, and that’s how I got to know its editor-in-chief, Dmitry Muratov. Even then, between 2000 and 2006, Muratov was cautious. He sometimes curbed Anna’s ardor and made sure that her flamboyant, indignant articles, always on the side of the civilian population, whoever they were, did not cross a certain red line: she defended Chechen civilians so that they would enjoy the same rights and treatment as all other citizens of Russia, she denounced the concrete crimes of the military, without going so far as to openly accuse Putin’s regime, nor Putin himself, of war crimes, for example. The readers of the newspaper were left to draw their own conclusions.

Muratov saved Anna’s life on several occasions. I will mention two situations, but there were others. Once she was arrested by an officer in Chechnya and put in a big hole where she was subjected to a mock execution. It was Muratov’s alert and high-level contacts that led to her release. On another occasion, in 2004, she was poisoned on a plane to Beslan during the hostage crisis, and it was Muratov’s promptness that allowed for proper treatment (as in the case of Navalny).

Novaya Gazeta, founded in 1993 and headed by Dmitry Muratov, partly thanks to the support of Mikhail Gorbachev, has always published very courageous journalistic investigations and has never deviated from this editorial line in a society where nowadays even relative freedom no longer exists and where almost all media not affiliated with the government are labelled “foreign agents”. The Nobel Prize awarded to Muratov is a kind of safe-conduct that will allow his newspaper to stand and protect its brave journalists. As Muratov himself said: “We will try to help journalists who are treated as foreign agents, who are persecuted, who are expelled from the country. The Nobel Prize is a posthumous reward for our [murdered] colleagues: Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stas Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natasha Estemirova — they are the ones who received the Nobel Prize today.”

Dmitry Muratov press conference on October 8 // Video of Novaya Gazeta, screenshot.

The writer Boris Minayev expressed well the essence of Muratov’s personality: “[He] helps many people. Sick, suffering, unjustly condemned people. Dozens, hundreds of them. He supports them not only through the publications of Novaya Gazeta, but also personally, sparing no effort. Muratov is probably one of the last to represent this principle, this virtue of the journalist — to use his position to do good deeds.” These are qualities that Anna Politkovskaya also possessed: she systematically helped the people she met in her journalistic quest, because for many it was the last resort to get justice or, simply, to stay alive (thus, in the midst of the war, she brought to Chechnya medicines that could not be found there).

However, among the opponents of Putin’s regime, the news of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muratov provoked some hostile reactions. Their main reproach? The Norwegian committee was behaving cowardly in awarding the prize not to Alexei Navalny or Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, but to a more consensual journalist, who certainly has difficult relations with the authorities, but is careful not to condemn the regime completely. This decision, in the opinion of some opponents, would be a sign of weakness: it would be a matter of not offending the Putin’s regime too much. Here is what the political scientist Sergei Medvedev wrote: “With all due respect to Novaya Gazeta and Muratov, as they remain the last bastion of free journalism in Russia in its classical version (with a printed newspaper, brilliant reporting, eclecticism of genres, etc.), this prize is the continuation of the shameful policy of conciliation and compromise, of appeasement of the aggressor, that the West has chosen with regard to the Russian and Belarussian regimes.”

Documentary by Novaya Gazeta on the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, screenshot.

I think that Medvedev and some other intellectuals camp on a maximalist and unfair position. The theme of this year’s prize is journalism, freedom of speech; Muratov shares this prize with another journalist, the Filipina Maria Ressa, for “their courageous fight for freedom of expression threatened by repression, censorship, propaganda and disinformation”. Neither Tikhanovskaya nor Navalny are journalists: both are moral authorities who are waging a political struggle. As the writer and journalist Mikhail Chevelev put it, “to be indignant that Muratov received the prize instead of Navalny and Tikhanovskaya is like being indignant in the last century that Pasternak received the Nobel Prize [for literature], while Shalamov was still alive.” And he concludes: “The political Nobel has returned to Russia. And it was awarded to a man who is trying to do everything possible. In the current conditions. This is excellent news.”

To conclude, I will quote the balanced opinion of the famous journalist Sergei Parkhomenko, whom no one can suspect of any complicity with the current Russian regime: “This is a magnificent decision by the Nobel Committee. The peace prize awarded to Dmitry Muratov — and through him to Novaya Gazeta — is a clear and powerful statement: the problem of human rights is the most important in the world today, and the destruction of freedom of expression by totalitarian countries is one of the most serious crimes against these human rights, which causes enormous damage to humanity. Dmitry Muratov has deserved this recognition, and Novaya Gazeta has become a symbol of journalistic freedom, journalistic courage and civic dignity not only for Russia, but also for the whole world. […] But it is impossible to speak of this very good news without a certain amount of bitterness. Because, as we know, there is another person in Russia who is clearly worthy of this award — it is Alexei Navalny. And another organization is worthy of receiving this prize — it is Memorial. However, the Nobel Committee works in such a way that the representatives of Russia will not receive another Nobel Peace Prize for a long time. This is a serious and obvious injustice. There is no justice in our world: it is like that.”

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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