In 1993, Mikhail Gorbachev spent a small portion of the money from his Nobel Prize for Peace, awarded three years prior, on eight computers requested by a modest journalistic startup. The latter grew to become Novaya Gazeta – a flagship of Russian independent journalism, whose long-time editor Dmitry Muratov has just become the third Russian, after Gorbachev and Andrey Sakharov, to receive the world’s most prestigious award. He will share it with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement that the pair represented all journalists who are fighting for freedom of expression “in a world in which democracy and freedom of press face increasingly adverse conditions”.
The prize feels well deserved, given Novaya Gazeta’s dogged dedication to the subject of human rights, especially during the first decade of Putin’s rule, when most Russian reporters moved into the relative comfort of business journalism and infotainment.
But with it, Muratov also seems to have inherited the controversy which surrounded Gorbachev – lionised in the West, but getting a cold reception at home, including from liberals. For many Russians, the decision betrayed the West’s tone-deafness and intellectual laziness that has long been dogging Russia discourse.
In Muratov’s case, the news about him getting the prize triggered outrage in the camp of opposition leader Aleksey Navalny. Having survived a near-lethal poisoning and jailed after his audacious return to Russia, Navalny had been seen one of Nobel Prize frontrunners this year.
On the surface, this reaction stems from a rather mundane spat pertaining to personal loyalties. But in reality it reflects more fundamental issues of ethics and compromise with an authoritarian regime as well as the conflict of generations in the Russian opposition.
In the days preceding Nobel Committee's announcement, Muratov threw his weight behind his friend – the editor of Echo Moskvy radio, Aleksey Venediktov – who was blamed by Navalny for complicity in election fraud during the Duma elections last month.
Venediktov had become the public face of the Kremlin’s highly controversial e-voting project, which is seen by Navalny’s supporters as the main tool of falsification, especially in Moscow, where it overturned the results at the last minute in favour of Kremlin candidates.
In a rude op-ed, Muratov blasted Navalny’s camp for criticising Venediktov and accused them of nothing less than promoting Stalinism, because many of the candidates backed by Navalny’s strategic voting initiative, known as Smart Voting, represented the Communist Party. Smart Voting boils down to supporting candidates who are most likely to derail those backed by the Kremlin, in a situation when any real opposition is barred from elections.
Navalny’s chief strategist, Leonid Volkov, responded to it by saying that he “puked’ upon reading the article. Muratov replied in kind: “As an advocate of human freedoms, I endorse your unalienable right to puke.” As a result, the very first reaction to Muratov’s award that came from Navalny’s camp was Volkov tweeting this very quote with no further comments.
While more diplomatic, other statements made by Navalny’s close allies betrayed disappointment. Lyubov Sobol congratulated Muratov while posting Navalny’s photo saying she believed the latter was “the main fighter for peace in our country and beyond”. Ruslan Shaveddinov said instead of “pompous speeches about freedom”, the Nobel Committee could have defended “a man who survived assassination and who is now being held hostage by the assassins”.
Upon receiving the award, Muratov made a graceful gesture by saying that he would have voted for Navalny, had he been on the Nobel Prize Committee.
Navalny returned the compliment following the weekend in a tweet posted on his account: “I sincerely congratulate Dmitry Muratov and @novaya_gazeta with the Nobel Peace Prize. This is a well-deserved reward, and the symbolism of the date suggests itself.”
But Muratov returned to making rude statements about his critics soon enough, including in an interview with the Kremlin’s Channel One.
The Kremlin reacted to the news that Muratov rather than Navalny had received the award with a sense of relief and a thinly disguised glee. Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov congratulated him, but on the same day the Kremlin designated another batch of Russian journalists as foreign agents – in a gesture mocking Nobel Commitee’s best intentions.
Ironically, Novaya Gazeta stands out in Russia's present media landscape as the only prominent independent news outlet that has so far avoided getting foreign agent status. By giving preferential treatment to Novaya Gazeta, the Kremlin is driving a wedge between two generations of journalists and political activists.
Novaya Gazeta’s heyday fell on the first decade of Putin’s rule. Russia was much freer than now, but journalists were more likely to become victims of criminal violence rather than repression by the government law enforcement agencies.
It was between 2000 and 2009 that Novaya Gazeta lost six of its contributors, who were assassinated or perished in suspicious circumstances. To a varying extent, all of these murders pertained to the atmosphere of lawlessness perpetuated by Putin. Upon hearing the news about the award, Muratov was quick to dedicate it to them.
During the much more repressive second decade of Putin’s rule, the paper continued to produce hard-hitting materials. Some made global headlines, like the investigation into extrajudicial killings of gays in Chechnya.
But the news agenda in Russia was now being driven by a new generation of media outlets and activist investigators. The focus of attention shifted from symptoms to the fundamental causes of the disease Russia has been suffering since the collapse of the USSR.
Ground-breaking investigations into the mind-blowing corruption of Putin’s entourage helped to explain why the authorities are perpetuating human rights abuses, which Novaya Gazeta has been focusing on all those years. They also reached an infinitely wider audience than Muratov’s newspaper.
This shift was led by Navalny and his investigative outfit. Apart from digging deeper than most journalists, Navalny’s team also revolutionised presentation, turning investigations into gripping videos spiced up with Generation Z humour. His team became the country’s most prolific meme machine.
Released in 2017, a video about Dmitry Medvedev had 44mn views at the time of writing. But that’s overshadowed by the video about Putin's Black Sea palace, posted at the beginning of 2021, which has been watched 119mn times. A plethora of small independent journalistic outfits, which emerged as the regime was destroying or capturing well-established independent news organisations, followed in Navalny’s footsteps.
The generational gap is even more obvious on the political side. Muratov is a member of Yabloko, once a highly respectable, but now an extremely controversial liberal force. Yabloko is tied in a bitter conflict with Navalny’s movement, which is accusing it of playing on Kremlin’s side. In a ridiculously self-defeating act, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky even called on Navalny’s supporters not to vote for his party in the last Duma election.
Navalny himself happens to be a Yabloko dropout. After flirting with the far right over ten years ago, he drifted towards creating a broad populist movement which strives to break out of the liberal ghetto and unite everyone who is opposed Putin’s mafia state.
Muratov’s generation tends to hold a pessimistic view regarding Russia’s prospects of building a democratic society. In an August interview with znak.com, Muratov said that majority of Russians have no desire for freedom.
That kind of thinking prods them towards seeking compromise with the authorities in order to carve out a niche, within which they could operate freely, sowing the seeds that – as they see it – will sprout many years from now. They tend to ignore fundamental cultural changes the country and society underwent in recent years and the fact that those seeds are indeed already sprouting.
Navalny, on the other hand, exudes optimism, which he made the main feature of his public personae. It shines through his social media posts even now that he has a good chance of spending much of his life in jail. Many of his supporters are in their twenties or even teens. They don’t remember a Russia other than Putin’s, which is a major reason why they want him to go. Navalny gives them hope instead of Muratov’s seen-it-all cynicism.
Now the Norwegian Nobel Committee is not supposed to follow all those nuances and petty conflicts in Russian politics. What it is supposed to do is think big, in global and epochal terms. But this is exactly where it failed this year.
By preventing a democratic transition of power, Putin is driving Russia, a nuclear superpower, towards civil conflict, which will have grave consequences for Europe and the rest of the world. Navalny’s exemplary peaceful and law-abiding movement provides a chance that it could be avoided. There may not be another one. Something to ponder when one weighs up the contribution of various personalities to the cause of peace.
On recieving the Nobel Peace Prize, Dmitry Muratov dedicated it to the journlaists that had been murdered at his paper Novaya Gazeta. "Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stas Markelov, Anastasiya Baburova, Natasha Yectemirova – these are the people that won today's Nobel prize."