In his Nobel speech, Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov described journalism as the “antidote to tyranny.”
The editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta and his staff face frequent threats because of the independent paper’s investigative, hard-hitting coverage. Several of its journalists and contributors have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya.
A memorial to Politkovskaya was vandalized in December, just a few days after Muratov and Philippine journalist Maria Ressa were handed the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.
In an exclusive interview with VOA’s Russian Service, Muratov spoke about the struggle to defend and uphold media freedom in Russia and how the threat of violence and legal action affects reporting.
This interview has been translated from Russian and edited for length and clarity.
Question: In your Nobel speech, you called journalism an antidote to tyranny. But in Russia, 15 years of freedom after the end of the Soviet Union have given way to censorship, persecution and killings, and a rollback of civil liberties and democracy. Why is this antidote not working in Russia?
Dmitry Muratov: Society allowed it, the country allowed it, the people allowed it. I reread a book by American researcher Olga Velikanova about the (Soviet) constitution of 1936. This constitution, “Stalin’s constitution,” was unique in its set of freedoms: equal voting rights, no more persecution of “kulaks” (wealthy members of the peasant class). It was considered the most progressive European constitution.
Stalin submitted it (nationwide) for discussion — but hundreds of thousands of letters poured in, saying, “We don’t want your freedoms. We don’t want those put in labor camps to come back. They may claim their property, but now it’s ours. Why do you give voting rights to collective farmers?”
I agree with Velikanova when she says that Stalin (soon) realized that people were ready for nonfreedom, for repression.
It seems to me that in many ways this story is happening again, of people not being ready to take responsibility for themselves. If that’s the case, then they are not ready to resume responsibility for this basic value of freedom of speech.
Question: Do you think that people are deterred from demanding change because of an awareness of what may happen if they do?
Muratov: I would divide this question into two parts.
In the last century (the Soviet Union and Communism) lost about 100 million people. So how can we judge the country after that? Every family was orphaned in some way, everyone lost someone. Yet the only thing left that people could rely on was the state (even when it was responsible for their loss.)
The second part of the question is more complicated. There was a moment in the 1990s when it seemed like we had freedom. Where did it all go?
I don’t have an answer to that question. But for the first time in our history, money became an issue. Under socialism, everyone earned roughly the same, from 114 to 350 rubles. Members of the Politburo received 520.
Now you have to pay the mortgage, otherwise the family can be evicted. Largely, in my country, money did not come to mean personal freedom, the freedom to choose. Rather it meant dependence, dependence on the state.
I’m not willing to condemn people … for not prioritizing freedom of speech, because for them, the freedom to feed their family is the priority.
Question: What support do Russian journalists need from colleagues, from human rights activists, or even foreign countries?
Muratov: Readers’ support is very important. Nobody in the parliament represents the people. Only the authorities are represented. Therefore, the media have become a kind of parliament for readers by representing the interests of the people.
Ten years ago, a wonderful slogan was left at Bolotnaya Square (in Moscow). I wish I could give an award to the author of this slogan.
It read “Вы нас даже не представляете,” which translates as “You do not even represent us” or “You are incapable of envisioning who we are.”
(Editor’s note: the Russian word “представляете” has multiple meanings including “represent” and “envision,” which gives the slogan a double meaning.)
The Duma (parliament) still does not represent the people, but the media do. The media are a parliament of readers, and this is the most important thing.
In the past two and a half months alone, more than a hundred people have been declared a “foreign agent.” Let’s not pretend that is not the same as “enemy of the people.” Yes, in the Stalinist connotation — and in Russia it is the Stalinist connotation that is back in circulation right now — a “foreign agent” is an “enemy of the people.”
I am grateful to countries that have taken up the noble mission of taking in our journalists, human rights defenders, leaders of nongovernmental organizations.
Those countries have given us the opportunity to live and work, and to preserve the dignity of our professional journalists.
Question: Does foreign support increase the risk that a journalist in Russia will be designated as a “foreign agent”?
Muratov: The current financial monitoring system, which exists not only in our country but also in other countries, can see every penny from a foreign source. The safety of journalists depends on support, but if that support comes in the form of a dollar or a ruble, it certainly increases risks.
Those risks pose a huge threat to journalists, so I think that those countries we call democratic should think about how they can help and do no harm in the process.
Question: Some people criticized your Nobel speech for not mentioning the Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who harassed Novaya Gazeta. Some said that mentions of President Vladimir Putin were not critical enough. What is your response?
Muratov: You know, I don’t follow social media much. I run a professional media outlet. But I understand those people who criticized me, because they were forced to leave their country, otherwise they would have been imprisoned, arrested.
I can have my own opinion about Leonid Volkov (chief of staff for jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny), but I also understand perfectly well that if he had stayed, he would have been put in jail. How can I judge him, or (Navalny team members and supporters) Lyubov Sobol, for example, or Georgy Alburov? They’ve been pushed out of the country.
They have a high pain threshold, and they believe that there needs to be a different degree of outrage about what led to Navalny being a hostage in prison for over 300 days. Navalny has become a political prisoner based on false charges.
So at first I thought, “Are you stupid or something, don’t you get it?” and then I thought, “Maybe it’s me who doesn’t get something.”
If someone is disappointed (by my speech), I certainly will not apologize, I have nothing to apologize for. But next time, I promise to consider their feedback.
Question: What is more dangerous for journalists in Russia: direct violence or repressive laws?
Muratov: (There is) a hybrid war of the state against the media. It is a hybrid war waged by different people who consider themselves representatives of the state. The nature of hybrid war is such that you can be killed and not even know who did it.
However, if we are talking about which threat is greater for a journalist, the law or violence, the threat of physical violence, as usual, is greater.
(Vandals) desecrated the plaque to Politkovskaya on our building. Before that, they poured toxic liquid everywhere and made it impossible to work for a week. During a parade of Kadyrov’s troops (in Chechnya) they said that Putin should close (Novaya Gazeta) or they’ll take matters into their own hands.
We’ve been sent powders and a severed pig’s head, with an SS Nazi dagger stuck in it. By the way, I still have not found out who tortured the poor pig.
Then they sent us sheep. Ten sheep in a cage, to be exact, delivered near the entrance to the office. We saved the sheep, we gave them to a farm, and they are thriving. They thrive, as do the knuckleheads who wage a hybrid war against us, because they think they captured the state’s frame of mind.
Question: The Russian Constitution prohibits censorship. Could journalists appeal in court against what they consider censorship and win?
Muratov: Journalists cannot win in a Russian court. They can win in the European Court of Human Rights; we win all the time. But we always lose in Russian courts. That’s how things are now. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.
We have created a caste state, a corporate state. The ruling caste lives by one set of laws, while the rest of the people live by another. We live by the laws they made for us. Under these laws, we can’t do anything, can’t work, can’t fully perform our duties as journalists.
This article originated in VOA’s Russian Service.