‘We’re At War.’ Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dmitry Muratov on the Fight for the Free Press in Russia

Few institutions are more dedicated to free speech than this institution Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s last independent newspapers. Since President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, six of the paper’s reporters have been killed. One died from a blunt force trauma. A second died due to suspected poisoning. Anna Politkovskaya (a third) was also shot in the apartment she occupied in 2006.

The paper’s editor, Dmitry Muratov, had them all in mind when he learned in October that he had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which he plans to dedicate to their memory during the awards ceremony on Dec. 10. In its announcement, the Nobel Committee said it had awarded the prize jointly to Muratov and his colleague in the Philippines, Maria Ressa, editor of Rappler, “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
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Before traveling to Oslo to accept the award this week, Muratov made a trip to New York City to support another one of his colleagues, Natalia Sindeeva, the founder of Russia’s last independent news network, TV Rain, whose own struggle with censorship is featured in a forthcoming documentary. Muratov and Sindeeva met with TIME after screening the film to discuss the Nobel Prize and its implications for Russia’s journalism.

Below is a transcription of the conversation that took place Nov. 19. This transcript has been edited by TIME to clarify Russian translations.

This is your first trip abroad since you learned about the Nobel Committee’s decision. You are going to New York because of this?

Muratov : This was my first trip abroad to help two of my friends and colleagues. It was the American premiere of their documentary film. It’s about TV Rain, the last independent television channel in Russia. Vera Krichevskaya invited me to join her film and express my gratitude for Natalia Sindeeva, the founder of TV Rain.

That’s a good sign for the solidarity among Russian journalists. Are you seeing one another as rivals?

Sindeeva: I don’t see anyone as a competitor. We’re all in the same boat.

So even with state-run media

Sindeeva: Yes, even state-run media. They’re not all jerks. They’re people, too. We can’t see the world in black and white. It is time to come together. It has been done. Part of it was the state’s move to start designating journalists as “foreign agents.” When that started happening, we held a pledge drive to support the targets of that law, and 50 different media outlets took part, big and small. This solidarity has lasted because of our focus on the issue at hand. We didn’t go into our own little burrows. Instead, all of us began to communicate.

Are independent Russian journalists feeling this way?

Muratov says: We see right now that there is a war being waged against our country. And as long as we’re at war, competition gives way to solidarity. That doesn’t mean we have stopped chasing scoops. Still, we all fight for our scoops. But we don’t see each other as competitors anymore. We’ve banded together.

Natalia, you’ve said that, for you, the sense of physical danger in your profession came in 2015, with the murder of the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. What did this event do for your life, and your newsroom’s?

Sindeeva: It didn’t really change us. However, it brought on a fearful feeling. There had been warning signs before – a car following me after one of our stories came out, things like that. It would soon go away. I would shove it to one side. It became a constant fear after Nemtsov’s death. You start thinking to yourself: ‘Well, how long will they wait before killing someone else?’ So yes, this fear appeared, and I did my best to keep it away from the newsroom. It was clear to me that my fear could cause severe burns. It prevented me from falling asleep. It forced me to keep an eye on my surroundings. I couldn’t live like that. So I gave myself a bit of therapy and said, ‘You have to live with this. This cannot be changed. You just need to let go of the fear.’ That helped me a lot.

Dmitry, this fear must have occurred much sooner. It’s been over two decades since you first experienced the murder of one of your reporters. What did that experience mean for you and your newsroom

Muratov: I can’t be open with you about this. Our newsroom has instituted a rule that forbids us from talking about danger, how we deal with it, and whether or not we’re afraid. The newsroom has no intention of Novaya GazetaThese questions will not be answered. However, you have a right to think about my co-murders, which includes the brutal killing of Anna Politkovskaya.

It was in what sense did it seem particularly cruel?

Muratov: They followed her. They knew every detail about her life and were willing to shoot five bullets into her body. That’s why I call it vicious. They had to be plugged in her life. They kept tabs on her every move, her private life, her grandchildren’s birth, her mother’s health, and how fast she raced to get to the newsroom for an article. They even shot her in between all of that.

How did it affect your newsroom’s image?

Muratov This is our desire for revenge. This is why we seek revenge every day in our daily efforts to uncover the truth.

The 15Th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder was on Oct. 7. Next day, your Nobel committee award was made. How do you interpret that coincidence?

Muratov: It’s a coincidence, and nothing more.

Sindeeva: Of course it’s a coincidence. However, I believe that every thing happens for a reason. Dmitry does not deserve this award. It’s a prize for all free and independent journalists. It was a prize for all independent journalists. It was very emotional. So I don’t think it was just a coincidence. It was a cosmic act of justice.

Muratov is correct. It isn’t personal. The fact it was awarded in this year’s 15th anniversary is a sign that something personal has happened.Th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder. It’s a date that persists in our memory. The war against independent and free journalism in Russia played an important role.

Still, you’ve said that, if it had been your decision, you would give the prize to Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned leader of the Russian opposition movement. Is that right?

Muratov: I can’t stand bullying and torture. The case against him is known to me. It’s a complete fabrication. It represents the return of Stalin’s practices – the forced confessions, the ruined fates, the isolation, the absolutely trumped-up charges. To me, the political views of Alexei Navalny are irrelevant. Our disagreements have been discussed. However, he has stood firm and bravely faced his prison sentence. His example has taught us how to maintain a strong backbone and how to laugh with humor. He also showed us how to be courageous. These are the qualities that I admire most.

How do you assess Navalny’s prospects as a politician?

Sindeeva, I was recently in Warsaw to meet Adam Michnik. [the Polish journalist and lifelong dissident.] He said, ‘Why do you think this is so bad for Navalny? Maybe this is him building his future presidency.’ It’s not that Navalny went to prison on purpose so he could become president. It’s that others have gone through this experience. Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. All of them went through it. All of them became presidents afterwards. How can we predict what the future holds?

Muratov, I’m in agreement. We can’t know. But I do see a tendency that’s pretty frightening. Vaclav Havel was able to look out from his balcony at 300,000. We were all infatuated with democracy thirty years ago. Gorbachev had united Europe. Berlin had fallen. The Berlin wall was broken. We discovered that joy does not have to come with bloodshed. It seems that dictatorship is a popular obsession today. The context has changed tremendously in this sense. Now people say, ‘Democracy is all well and good, but leave me alone about it. It doesn’t concern me.’

What does this mean for Russia’s opposition?

Muratov: In 1989, millions of people marched through Moscow to end the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. There was no fear. How did all that happen? Now Navalny gets 120 million people to watch his film about Putin’s Palace. How many people came out to help him when he was detained in January? It was probably around 20,000, according to some optimistic estimates. But what was the point? What is the reason people stopped becoming supporters instead of just being onlookers? Fear is the reason. Fear has returned.

Sindeeva: Everybody has something to lose. It’s not just your personal wealth. No. Everybody has their responsibilities. Even though you might have 200 workers, you know exactly what happens to them if they speak out. I’m not justifying anyone’s silence. I’m just saying I understand the fear. It’s a fact that if you have a company and you speak out, you might lose that company the next day, and all your workers will be out in the street. We didn’t have that before. So it’s not just a cowardly fear. It’s the fear that comes with having responsibility for others.

Nov 18, 2021 - ICP Center. Natasha Sindeeva after the premier.
TIME: Dina LitovskyNatalia Sindeeva, after F@CK IT JOB premiered at IFC Film Center New York City on Nov. 18, 2021.

You stated that media freedom was the antidote for dictatorship at the screening. Does it not also serve to counter fear?

Muratov: It’s a very strange paradox. People are encouraged to show courage. We publish facts that are terrifying to them. They see the machinery of state and are obliged to explain how it works. However, people will be afraid of us if our investigations are honest and more thorough.

You might find some inspiration from the Nobel Prize. Is there anything that has changed about your life since you heard of the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Muratov: It’s strange. If you are a hockey player, it is possible to win the championship. You then go home, collect your prize and start the next season. Here it’s the exact opposite. It’s not a prize in the sense of a celebration for the journalistic community. It feels like getting a magic wand that you don’t quite know how to use. We received a lot of requests for assistance within the first days following the Nobel committee’s announcement. People with disabilities need help. Support for the unjustly jailed. We are viewed as a safe haven in this country by many.

They turn instead to the newspaper, rather than to the government.

Muratov: It’s another paradox. They vote for Putin but turn to us for assistance. I remember once, in 2003 or 2004, Anna Politkovskaya was taken hostage, and one of her captors, a Russian officer, told her, ‘We’ll shoot you right here, and nobody will ever know what happened to you.’ This was in Chechnya. After that, they released her. Some years passed, and when those same officers retired, they didn’t get the apartments they had been promised as their pensions. They went where? They came to our newsroom, standing there outside Politkovskaya’s office, talking about, ‘Oh, Anna, please help us! It’s not fair!’ You know what she told them? She said, ‘Well, it’s lucky for you that you didn’t shoot me dead.’ It’s incredible, but that’s the way we live.

Keep your newspaper alive and you will often have to deal with the state. The Nobel will change all of that.

Muratov : I am pessimistic about that question. My country likes to show that it couldn’t care less about the world’s judgements. They don’t care when they shoot down an old satellite and spray debris through space. They don’t care when migrants gather on the border between Belarus and the European Union. The state’s position is, ‘We’ve got oil and gas. We’ve got rockets. We’ve got money and a huge budget surplus. Europe and the world can’t live without our gas. So here’s the deal. Let us live how we like, while you take care of our business. Or else we’ll hit back.’ Given that lack of respect for the world’s institutions, why would they respect an institution like the Nobel Prize? I don’t see why. It could be a problem for us.

Which are the Russian Kremlin’s red lines for journalists working in Russia? They are even possible?

Muratov – Each one of us knows which pressure points can be the most irritating and most difficult for the state. Right now, in my view, the most sensitive is hybrid warfare – the presence of Russia’s hybrid forces in eastern Ukraine, and the private military companies, which are expanding on different continents, South America and, in particular, central Africa.

These topics are covered by both your outlets. Many of Novaya Gazeta’s publications have reported on these topics.’s reporters have been killed for their work. How can you and your newsroom handle such high levels of danger?

Muratov: Some dangers become invisible as you work hard enough. It’s like we’re used to living with a certain level of radiation in the air. It is pushed to the side. It’s part of everyday life. However, these unfortunate incidents can happen. We’ve had Russian neo-Nazis send us pig heads pierced with enormous daggers, accompanied by notes that say, ‘This will happen to each of you, from the janitor to the editor in chief.’ We’ve had powder arrive in the mail, forcing our staff to work in hazmat suits while specialists come to disinfect the newsroom. We’ve had a bicycle roll up at night with some sophisticated contraption that sprayed the entrance to our newsroom with some kind of poison. After that incident, all five floors in our building were evacuated. Funny things can happen. We once had 10 to 12 live rams placed in huge cages and delivered to our newsroom. It was intended as insult. We did what? The rams were taken by us and we found a farmer who would take good care of them. The rams can now go out and graze somewhere enjoying their lives. All these events are true. That’s life.

Which future do you see for journalism?

Muratov: The Washington PostDeep Throat was once a source who revealed the Watergate scandal. It is over. No more [government] insiders. Too afraid of the government, security services. We now have computer programmers, coders, and journalists that can use Big Data to extract the information we require. It is possible to work remotely with large groups of journalists. We can use our network to track down the beneficiaries of offshore accounts when investigating corruption. That’s a very important thing, even if that costs us some element of personal fame and glory.

Sindeeva: We’ll get by without that.

Muratov: Right. We’ll get by. And it’ll help us focus on our sense of mission, on the good we can do for society. There’s personal satisfaction in that. This is the future. It is my hope that journalists in the future will not die from old age.


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