Russian Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov: ‘Repression occurs when no one knows who might be targeted tonight’

Muratov visited the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow to honor Boris Nemtsov‘s memory on February 21, 2021. Image by Michał Siergiejevicz, on Flickr, (CC BY 2.0 ).

The editor of Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Nobel Prize winner Dmitry Muratov spoke at Deutsche Welle's Global Media Forum in Bonn, Germany, on June 20. As DW writes, he called for the release of political prisoners in Russia, ranging from Alexei Navalny to U.S. journalist Evan GershkovicA writer and popular Facebook user Tatiana May transcribed Muratov's speech from the video recording. Global Voices has translated it from Russian

Living and working in Moscow, I lack the means to deliver information to you. Due to the prohibition of the word “war” in Russia, I will employ the term “hell” instead. Just yesterday, the Russian prosecutor general's office declared the Agora Human Rights Group an undesirable organization, essentially labeling them enemies of the people for their work with political prisoners. Consequently, countless people who had received legal aid from Agora may now find themselves without legal assistance.

Meanwhile, as I traveled here, the trial of opposition figure and politician Navalny commenced, taking place within the confines of his prison cell. He faces multiple decades in prison for his political activities, with the court proceedings shrouded in secrecy from the press. Alarming trends have emerged within the Russian judicial system over the past 10 years, particularly the significant rise in closed-door trials where the media is barred from entry. The annual count of such cases has escalated from 1,000 to 25,000, while the rate of acquittals in Russian courts hovers around a mere 0.01 percent. Should you have any further inquiries about the judicial system, please let me know. These developments stem from what is referred to as a special military operation [GV: Following antiwar demonstrations in Russia and scrutiny from the few remaining independent media sources, the Russian government responded by suppressing dissent and imposing repressive legislation effectively prohibiting the use of the word “war” when describing the Russian invasion of Ukraine], leading to the dismantling of the judiciary.

“Ukraine and Russia will never reunite …”

Although the special military operation remains ongoing, several of its outcomes have already become discernible. First and foremost, Ukraine and Russia will never reunite; their people will never be considered fraternal, especially when one side constantly assumes a position of superiority. Another consequence is a geographical revelation within Russia. In case you are unaware, Russia no longer aligns with Europe, as the window connecting them has been sealed shut, metaphorically speaking. The Russian Orthodox Church has also undergone a transformation. It has thrown its support behind the special military operation and begun propagating the acceptance of death. It appears that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” will soon be deemed deeply flawed. The new religious sentiment entails embracing death for one's country rather than valuing life for it. Permit me to share one quote — an earnest plea for comprehension — from a prominent church leader. The late Archpriest Vasiliev rationalized why mothers shed tears upon receiving the lifeless bodies of their slain sons, insinuating that if these mothers had refrained from using contraceptives, they would have birthed more children, thereby diminishing the impact of such heartbreaking farewells. This disturbing sentiment was expressed openly on television.

On a contrasting note, priest Ioann Koval faces defrocking because of his substitution of the word “victory” with “peace” in his prayer. My assumption is that Father Ioann has distanced himself from the institution of the church but has grown closer to God. 

A new generation

Furthermore, we must address the loss of an entire generation. The new generation, born during Gorbachev's era and thereafter, is not prepared to make sacrifices. While this generation endeavors to shape the future, Russian authorities persist in their attempts to mend the past. It is an extraordinary and exceptional generation — composed of skilled professionals and people with profound empathy. Many have left their homeland, often permanently. Colleagues, you may find it interesting to know who among them departed for good. These people even take their pets with them, leading to a 26-fold increase in pet microchip registrations as people emigrate. The number of young people leaving Russia has surged from 700,000 to one million. They refuse to engage in killing, nor do they wish to be killed. Preserving this generation is of paramount importance, not only for Russia but for all of us. They require assistance and should be regarded as a precious asset. Let us ensure their bank cards remain active, and not allow them to fade into obscurity.

The question that proves most challenging, one that I am frequently asked, pertains to the silence of the Russian people. Why do they not rise in protest? Does this imply that all Russians are slaves in their nature? I refuse to evade this question and, in turn, pose my own. Where can one speak up? Where can one protest? Gatherings are prohibited. There are 600 political prisoners languishing in prisons, with 20,000 cases brought against advocates of peace. Three hundred independent media outlets have been shuttered. Not a single member of parliament stands in support of peace. Those people confined within prison walls deserve our utmost respect, compassion, and a fervent desire to aid them.

Sharing ‘a few brief stories’

I have arrived here to share a few brief stories, for there is still time. Officially, taking advantage of the newspaper's association with the Nobel Prize and the Red Cross, I made a request. I implored the esteemed Red Cross to put an end to the torment inflicted upon Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned leader of the extraparliamentary opposition. Out of the past two and a half years, he has spent 165 days not merely in prison, but in a prison within a prison — a place where individuals are reduced to living dead. The Red Cross responded that they could not intervene, as their leader was currently in Syria. However, at that very moment, their leader was in the office of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Aleksey Gorinov, a local deputy, received a seven-year sentence for uttering a five-letter word that cannot be spoken in Russia. This word is the first from Leo Tolstoy's novel, with the second word being “peace.” He is 61 years old, a scientist burdened with severe health issues. He believed it appropriate to express that during a bloody battle, it is not the time for children's drawing competitions. For this, he was sentenced to seven years behind bars.

Shortly before this verdict, Gorinov had taken in a stray dog from the streets. Following his sentencing, the dog would not allow anyone near, and it perished due to anguish and starvation. You may question whether it is fitting for me to discuss the plight of a single dog amid this dreadful tragedy. I want to assure you that it is, because, in this tale, the animals prove themselves nobler than the judges and nobler than the executioners.

Our colleague Evan Gershkovich, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is widely known to everyone in Moscow. He loves the country where he works and is an exceptional journalist. He has never once acted as a spy. Yet, he was imprisoned on charges of espionage. Previously, journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 25 years for the same offense. I implore you, politicians, let us raise our voices loudly. Are you prepared to exchange political prisoners in your countries for those incarcerated in Russian prisons?

Politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, one of the architects of the Magnitsky Act, was sentenced to 25 years in labor camps. You may recall when sanctions were imposed on Russian officials for their involvement in corruption. It was Vladimir Kara-Murza who prepared this act. Judge Sergei Podoprigorov, who was sanctioned at the time, condemned Magnitsky to his demise. As I step into the courtroom, though the proceedings are closed, I bear witness to a chilling sight. Guess whom I see presiding over Kara-Murza's trial? Judge Podoprigorov himself. And he hands down a 25-year sentence to Kara-Murza. Is this not an act of revenge?

Kara-Murza's physical condition is deteriorating, and he has shed 20 kilograms. He has only been in prison for one year so far is … So … Can someone assist us in making our voices heard? … For a year, Kara-Murza has been denied the opportunity to even speak to his three children, not even once.

Lilia Chanysheva, a beautiful 40-year-old woman, finds herself entangled in this ordeal. Her crime is her involvement in politics at Navalny's opposition headquarters. She has not harmed or stolen from anyone; she is not a rapist. She is a civic activist. Have you ever witnessed people driven to madness by love and injustice? I have seen it here. Her husband is losing his sanity. Each day, he awaits her at the prison gates with flowers. In her final words, Lilia did not speak of herself. She only uttered a single word for herself. She said, “If they sentence me, imprison me, I won't have the chance to give birth to a child. Give me the opportunity to be a mother.”

Judge Bekchurin did not grant Chanysheva these chances. She received a sentence of seven and a half years. Cruelty has now become state patriotism, and evil has been glorified as heroism.

Zhenya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk were thrown into prison on charges of terrorism. Their play, which received Russia's highest theater award, the theatrical Oscar “Golden Mask,” was criticized by an expert who claimed they were “against the male-centric nature of the Russian state.” What does it mean to be against a male-centric state? It means opposing the construction of a male-dominated state in Russia. Feminism and pacifism have been deemed criminal acts. They face a daunting sentence as they remain imprisoned.

Furthermore, numerous far-right Nazis openly discuss Berkovich's Jewish heritage. For over 30 years, there has been no official state anti-Semitism in Russia. Putin, of course, is not an anti-Semite, and no one can accuse him of being one. However, neo-Nazis have emerged and now influence the political landscape in Russia, emerging from the shadows.

Today, someone asked me if the scale of repression is on par with that of Stalin's era. Certainly not in terms of the number of arrests, let alone executions. But repression possesses a particular characteristic. Repression occurs when no one knows who might be targeted tonight.

Battle for the future

It is time for me to conclude. Currently, a battle is underway for the future, a struggle for what lies ahead … a fight for the kind of society we wish to have. The contest is between the junta and free citizens. Perhaps the most influential private military company's head, billionaire supermanager Yevgeny Prigozhin, outlined the junta's program. Let me remind you of its content.

“Cease the construction of bridges and theaters. The entire nation must focus on defense plants. Russia should temporarily emulate North Korea. Bring back the children of the elite from abroad to Russia. Implement a general mobilization. Close the borders.”

Yes, this is a military junta's program. However, this will be a new type of junta, one achieved without overthrowing the current president. It will be a coup d'état without a transfer of power. Let me clarify that when claims are made about the level of support for Putin, stating that nobody supports him; it is untrue. The older generation supports Vladimir Putin. They form his backbone. He has someone to rely on — the generation of abandoned elderly individuals who yearn to experience life once again and contribute to the greatness of their homeland. Putin understands this very well.

So who is opposing this potential junta, these armed people? Paradoxically, only the ability to speak the truth can stand up to armed men vying for power. I urge you to let us not allow YouTube or Wikipedia to be shut down! This represents our final chance to access the content created by journalists. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, carrier pigeons were poisoned to prevent the army from receiving reports. Now, there are attempts to dismantle YouTube, Wikipedia, and VPN services that bypass censorship. Strangely enough, engineers are now the vanguard of the struggle for freedom of speech, engineers standing against dictators. This is the key element of the anti-war movement.

Lastly, I request one minute of your time. May I have a minute? Thank you. UNICEF, the United Nations’ child protection organization, is ready to address and facilitate the return of Ukrainian children to their families and homeland. I know that both Russia and Ukraine view this favorably. Let us support UNICEF's efforts to ensure Ukrainian children can reunite with their parents.

Another point to address is the communication between Ukraine and Russia. Only two officials can engage in direct dialogue: Ukraine's Commissioner for Human Rights Dmitry Lubinets and Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights Tatyana Moskalkova. Someday, a movie will be made about them, depicting how these two individuals, despite being on opposing sides of a fierce conflict and serving different presidents, have managed to facilitate the exchange of hundreds of prisoners. They don't like each other, but they are performing an immensely important task. Let us support these ombudsmen. Even in the midst of this hellish situation, we must strive to reduce the number of widows and orphans.

Will we have a chance to meet …?

In the past two weeks, Russian television has mentioned, on 200 occasions, the possibility and potential use of nuclear weapons. Two hundred times. In two weeks. It feels akin to an advertisement for dog food. Whether or not Vladimir Putin will press the button remains unknown to any of us. Will we have the chance, as soldier Schweik said, to meet at six o'clock in the evening after the war? When is “after?” And will such an opportunity arise? Nonetheless, let us live out this remaining time with dignity. I implore you, Deutsche Welle, to support the brilliant Ukrainian journalists Mstislav Chernov and Evgeny Maloletka and their film crew. They have produced a remarkable film entitled “Twenty Days in Mariupol.” They were the last journalists remaining in that dying city. The fate of these reporters and the fate of the people they documented were intertwined. They were not mere observers; they were part of the tragedy. Ukrainian journalists aim to establish an award for Ukrainian documentary filmmakers who are currently documenting the tragedy at the frontlines. Let us support them. And perhaps, one day, we will indeed have a “six o'clock in the evening after the war.”

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