Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov: ‘Putin makes fun of Western leaders when they still buy Russian oil'

The Russian journalist, editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper banned by the Kremlin, fears there is no end in sight for war in Ukraine

Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov: ‘Putin makes fun of Western leaders when they still buy Russian oil'

When politicians win the Nobel Peace Prize, it's often a sign that things are improving in their country. Perhaps they have ended a civil war after decades of fighting, or they've helped bring down a dictatorship and establish democracy.

A journalist being awarded the medal, on the other hand, is usually a sign that things are going badly wrong. It tends to mean they have been persecuted by their government, that freedom of speech is under threat and that conflict will soon erupt.

The decision to give the prize to Dmitry Muratov was richly deserved but turned out to be the worst of omens. The Russian editor-in-chief of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper received his award in Olso in December 2021 for reporting on the sins of Vladimir Putin's regime; one year on, his publication has been shut down and millions of Ukrainians are suffering because of his nation's tyrannical leader.

Things have been little better for his co-recipient, the Filipino journalist Maria Ressa. She faces a prison sentence of up to 100 years on trumped-up charges, punishment for her website, Rappler, investigating disinformation and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines.

Prior to Muratov and Ressa, the last journalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Carl von Ossietzky in 1935. The magazine editor revealed German authorities were secretly rearming, breaking the Treaty of Versailles. He was tortured in Nazi concentration camps and died of tuberculosis three years after his award.

Muratov, 61, needs no reminder of the mortal dangers his work poses today. Six colleagues at his newspaper have been murdered since 2000, the year Putin became president. They included the legendary Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in her apartment block in 2006 after years of critical reporting on Russia's wars in Chechnya.

In April, Muratov was attacked on a train with red paint containing a solvent which made his eyes 'burn horribly', with a US government source blaming Russian intelligence agents for this act of intimidation.

Despite the risks of remaining in his homeland – following Putin's ruthless crackdown on any reporters daring to tell the truth about his invasion of Ukraine – Muratov still spends much of his time in Russia and continues to speak out against Putin.

Asked about his personal sacrifices this year, he sidesteps this question. He would rather talk about the suffering inflicted on Ukraine and reflect on the death of Moscow's free press during 2022.

'In Russia, 262 media [outlets] independent from the state were shut down due to censorship,' he tells i. 'About 200,000 websites were blocked, about 10,000 of them for censorship reasons.

'More than 500 journalists have been forced to emigrate. Those who remain in Russia, including most of our Novaya Gazeta journalists, work under new laws in which military actions can only be assessed on the basis of the official perspective of the ministry of defence.'

'Propaganda is like radiation, it affects – ‘irradiates' – everyone'

Novaya Gazeta, or New Gazette, was founded in 1993 using the money that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev won with his own Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. It is part owned by the controversial Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB agent who owns The Independent and the Evening Standard in the UK.

Over the years, brave investigations by its journalists have helped reveal state involvement in the murder of former Russian deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov, and how LGBT people and political opponents have been killed in Chechnya.

Forced to stop operations in their homeland in March, some members of the team have established Novaya Gazeta Europe in Latvia, publishing in print and online.

But back in a Russia where the Kremlin controls the news, 'propaganda is like radiation,' says Muratov. 'It affects – ‘irradiates' – everyone.'

'There is little hope of peace coming anytime soon'

He says the older generations, those aged 65 and over, are most exposed. 'They are the backbone of Kremlin's support, they sincerely believe the television. Propaganda has become a new religion and does not need facts.'

'However, the younger generation under 35 is not affected by propaganda.' Thanks to VPN technology, which can outflank state censorship online, they can access news from abroad. 'Generally speaking, the availability of verified information created according to professional standards is an antidote to brainwashing.'

Although he is confident that most younger Russians do not support Putin, he fears even they do not necessarily side with Ukraine and its supporters, because 'they have been alienated by the West when it stopped issuing visas'.

Dmitry Muratov answered i‘s questions in writing while attending the 2022 Press Freedom Awards ceremony in Paris, held by Reporters Without Borders (known in French as Reporters Sans Frontières or RSF) earlier this month.

In his keynote address at the awards, he urged Western governments to continue supporting Ukraine through the winter because Putin's attacks on civilian infrastructure are sending millions of refugees across borders, using people seeking sanctuary as 'a weapon to destabilise Europe'.

Muratov – who auctioned his Nobel medal for $103.5m (£84.5m) in June to raise money for Unicef to help Ukrainian child refugees – pointed out that overnight temperatures have been –6°C in Kyiv recently and –8°C in Lviv, where the populations are now often having to go without power supplies.

Despite Russian retreats in the final months of 2022, Muratov is pessimistic about the chances of Putin losing the war or being overthrown any time soon.

'Putin makes fun of Western leaders – with one hand they sign demands for human rights and with the other hand they sign agreements with the Kremlin to buy oil and gas,' he says.

The UK imports 1.1 per cent of its oil from Russia, according to September figures from the International Energy Agency. But other European countries rely far more heavily on the country, including Slovakia (83.6 per cent of its imports are Russian), Poland (32.5 per cent), Italy (25.3 per cent) and Germany (19.3 per cent).

With gas, the EU has been reducing its reliance but still imported 17.2 per cent of its supplies from Russia in August.

Muratov says that Putin also 'has a major resource: time'. 'Western leaders are rapidly changing as a result of elections, while Russia's president can drive a long-term strategy. He believes in his world, in the people's willingness to sacrifice.

'His elite is more united than ever – the West will not accept them, while in Russia, Putin's power is everything. There is no split at all. Whether Putin remains president depends solely on his will. He may also become an uncrowned emperor – an eternal leader'.

The Russian president can achieve that thanks to loyal support from the military, mercenaries and the special services, plus continued oil and gas income, says Muratov.

'Russia has enough money for the army and military operations – it receives about $600m to $700m daily for hydrocarbons. So there is little hope of peace coming anytime soon.'

Twitter: URL

'Western leaders are rapidly changing as a result of elections, while Russia's president can drive a long-term strategy'