How the Nobel Peace Prize laid bare the schism in Russia’s opposition

Dmitri A Muratov in the office of his newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, which he co-founded in 1993 with funding from Mikhail S Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, in Moscow, Oct 12, 2021. Muratov, a new Nobel laureate, engages with the Kremlin, while Aleksei A Navalny, the most high-profile Putin critic, resists all compromise. The Kremlin capitalizes on the fault line. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
If you lived in Putin’s Russia, what compromises would you make?

Dmitry Muratov, a Moscow newspaper editor, has made his choice. He accepts donations from a business tycoon with Kremlin connections, refuses to publish articles about the personal lives of the Russian elite and has petitioned President Vladimir Putin to help children in need of expensive drugs.

By contrast, Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, wrote a letter to his supporters published Wednesday urging them to resist any form of compromise: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists who take hostages.”

Navalny is in the ninth month of a yearslong prison sentence, while Muratov shared the Nobel Peace Prize last week with journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.” Many of Navalny’s fans, who had been hoping that the jailed politician would get the prize, reacted with outrage, deriding Muratov for a willingness to engage with authorities that they said only strengthened Putin’s power.

It was a moment that crystallized one of the many fault lines dividing the Kremlin’s diverse critics: Is the best approach for those wishing for change one of principled and unyielding resistance, or of working for improvements within the existing system?

“Look, you live one life on Earth,” Muratov said in an interview this week, defending the latter approach against the wave of furore that came his way from fellow Russians on Facebook and Twitter. “Will you scribble away at these online comments, or will you try to make people’s lives better?”

The anger showed how Russia’s opposition is atomized and weakened — all the more so as authorities escalate their crackdown on dissent, forcing activist groups and news outlets to shut down and ever more dissidents and journalists into exile. In the Kremlin, seeing the internecine war of words in the opposition over Muratov’s award must have touched off “euphoria,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm.

“When you live under the barrel of a gun, such times lead to divisions,” Stanovaya said. “The authorities do a wonderful job capitalizing on this.”

Indeed, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, congratulated Muratov, calling him talented and brave.

Navalny, in prison, was unable to offer an instant reaction, even as one of his exiled colleagues slammed the Nobel committee for delivering “pretentious and hypocritical speeches.” On Monday, Navalny congratulated Muratov. He noted that the past murders of journalists for Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper are a reminder of “what a high price those who refuse to serve the authorities have to pay.”

Muratov co-founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993, with funding from Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Six journalists working for Novaya have been murdered; their black-and-white portraits in black frames hang in a row in a corner of a conference room at the newspaper’s Moscow headquarters.

As other media outlets either shut down under pressure or were co-opted by the authorities, Novaya maintained its independence and often criticized Putin. Its 2017 reporting on the torture and killings of gay men in the Caucasus republic of Chechnya prompted a global wave of outrage. After a Novaya exposé last year about an oil spill in the Arctic, a Russian court ordered mining giant Norilsk Nickel — run by one of the country’s richest men — to pay a $2 billion fine.

But Muratov acknowledged that he holds back on what has become a particularly explosive sort of investigative journalism in today’s Russia: exploring the hidden wealth of Putin and his inner circle. Much of that wealth, reporters at other publications have found, is held by family members or suspected extramarital partners and their children. Muratov said that although his reporters also pursue corruption investigations, “we don’t get into people’s private lives.”

“When it comes to children and women — I stop,” he said.

The online news outlets that published those more aggressive investigations have been outlawed or declared “foreign agents” in recent months, with many of their editors and reporters forced into exile. Novaya has managed to continue operating, despite widespread speculation that it also faced a crackdown.

“We are an influential newspaper, which means we have to be able to have a dialogue,” Muratov said. “As soon as you start to offend people — whether or not they are in power — you lose influence. People don’t talk to you anymore.”

Muratov has used his influence and his connections for causes beyond press freedom — in particular to help children with spinal muscular atrophy, or SMA, a rare muscle-wasting disorder for which the most effective treatments are extraordinarily expensive. He said he became involved — and started raising money for patients — after one of his reporters told him early last year about the plights of families struggling with the disease.

Andrey Kostin, chair of VTB, Russia’s second-largest bank, donated $1 million to the cause. He was among the individuals the United States placed sanctions on in 2018 for playing “a key role in advancing Russia’s malign activities.”

And this past February, in looking for more aid, Muratov took a list of names of young people in need of expensive treatments to an off-the-record meeting between Putin and Russian editors-in-chief. Two weeks later, Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, called and told Muratov that “a directive has been given” to help.

“You can say, ‘He’s an accomplice of the regime,’ but tell that to the parents of children ill with SMA,” Muratov said. “Tell them that bankers who work for the state gave money and you can’t take the money, and the child will die.”

Another well-connected financier, Sergey Adonev, came to Muratov’s rescue in 2014 for a different reason. Muratov’s newspaper was teetering financially, and Adonev, a telecommunications entrepreneur who had long partnered with a Russian state-owned company, started making donations, according to Muratov.

Still, after a year in which Russia’s crackdown on dissent has reached new intensity, there is no guarantee that Novaya will survive. Putin said as much himself Wednesday when a CNBC host, Hadley Gamble, asked him about Muratov onstage at a Moscow energy conference.

“If he starts using the Nobel Prize as a shield to violate Russian law, that will mean that he is consciously doing this to get attention, or for other reasons,” Putin said, eschewing the congratulations. “No matter his achievements, every person must understand plainly and clearly: Russian laws must be followed.”

Muratov said he would not keep any of the roughly $500,000 in prize money he will earn from the Nobel. He will contribute about half to a medical fund for Novaya employees, and about $20,000 to endow a journalism award named in honour of Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya reporter slain in 2006.

The rest will go to charity, he said, including to a foundation called Circle of Good that helps children with rare diseases. Putin signed an order creating it in January.

Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank who previously worked as Novaya’s managing editor, said that last week’s uproar highlighted a weakness of Navalny’s movement: that its focus on him as leader, and a disinclination to consider other people’s views, was preventing it from cementing a broader coalition.

The vitriol was also on display before last month’s Russian parliamentary election, when some liberals — including Muratov — bristled at the Navalny camp’s calls to unite around communist candidates as a coordinated rebuke to Putin.

“Unfortunately, this intolerance and aggressiveness,” Kolesnikov said, “is dividing democratically oriented people.”

 

 

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