Dmitry Muratov: 'Russia had a future, many think it has no more'

Nobel Prize-winning journalist Dmitry Muratov, at Le Temps and Geneva Solutions’ offices in Geneva, 2 May 2022 (Credit: Davide Wagnières/Le Temps)

The editor-in-chief of the Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta and Nobel Peace Prize winner is in Geneva for International Press Freedom Day. In an exclusive interview with Le Temps, Muratov voices his concerns about a war of which he does not see the end.

Le Temps: Six journalists from Novaya Gazeta have been killed in the last twenty years. Are you sometimes surprised to be alive?

Dmitri Mouratov: My wife is surprised, I am not. There are two questions that shouldn’t be answered: why were you not killed and are you afraid. Because these questions are linked to the guarantee of the safety of my employees.

No comment either on the recent attack on the train?

That we can! You want to see the pictures (he laughs)? All the girls on the editorial staff have asked me not to shave my red beard. [The attack] happened on the Moscow-Samara train, three minutes before departure. Someone came in with a can of red paint that smelt like acetone. He sprayed me and the entire compartment of the second carriage. The worst thing is that my new New York Rangers t-shirt is ruined. I ran after him. There were policemen who took my statement. The most interesting is the testimony of the train carriage controller. She said this individual approached her saying he wanted to accompany the passenger to seat 14. So he had access to Magistral, the closed database of the RJD, Russian Railways. This means that this individual is linked to the special services. Three weeks later, no investigation has been opened. This individual was filmed on police video, I also filmed him on my phone. He was arrested, we let him go without opening a criminal investigation.

In one night, Novaya Gazeta’s investigative team identified this individual, who he is, where he comes from. He is linked to the Special Forces Veterans Organization. He recently changed his first and last name three times. Everyone, the Moscow City Hall, the commanders of the special forces and parliamentarians, told me that there would be an investigation, but so far, nothing. I can only say that I am grateful to the doctors, there are good ophthalmologists in Samara and Moscow. I had an eyelid burn and conjunctivitis. I have to wear dark glasses. I tell myself that with dark glasses and a red beard, I would look good.

You stopped the publication of Novaya Gazeta on 27 March. Was there no alternative? You held on all these years, and there you yielded to the second warning, before the police invaded your editorial office?

After the second warning, your license is removed and the site no longer exists – it’s deleted. However, this site houses all our archives, all the reports that we were able to produce during the first 34 days of the war. We understood that we would be treated like other media, that criminal investigations could be opened against collaborators. We made the only possible decision we could with the editorial staff. Protecting employees is one of my responsibilities. Before that, we had between 10 and 12 large fines, and one of our collaborators had been declared a “foreign agent”.

Is the financial situation of Novaya Gazeta a problem?

On the newspaper's website, there is a "become a co-participant" tab, for donations. In March, before the newspaper was shut down, readers donated 17 million rubles through this channel [approx. 230,000 Swiss francs]. No one has raised so much money through crowdfunding. Readers love us a lot, maybe we don't always deserve it, but we love them a lot too. We talk to them all the time. I read their letters 24 hours a day. The editorial walls are covered with letters from readers, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. We see that in their eyes, we are much better than what we really are. But we're still not that bad (he laughs)!

When it was forbidden to use the word “war”, I proposed that the newspaper be closed. You can't call war a “special operation”. But readers were asked for their opinion. In twenty-four hours, 10,000 voted and 96 per cent of them said: “You take us for idiots, what is this question? Call this war “Special Operation” and keep informing us!” So we continued to publish for 34 days. It was a demand from the readers, a completely justified demand. We trust each other. Today, crowdfunding has decreased, but for a newspaper that does not appear, it still represents nearly 120,000 euros per month. There is no more advertising, we no longer sell the paper newspaper, but people continue to hope that we will come back.

Are you expecting anything for 9 May?

There will be nothing on 9 May. The war will last a long time. Nothing will end on 9 May. Vladimir Putin might announce that the red flag will be reintroduced. Or he could launch a test of some magical nuclear thing.

What is the mood in Moscow?

The war stopped all communication between people. It divides families, friends. We see it on Facebook: people break up forever. They don't see each other anymore. It is a great loneliness coupled with a feeling of powerlessness, while the repression against young people continues. There have already been 17,100 arrests.

You seem angry…

Russia, what a country it was! She had a future, and now many believe she has none. The war has awakened the worst in people. But in Moscow at least, a majority of people are against the war.

How do you know?

It's a question of sociology. Young people, students, and trained people, in their great majority, are against the war. Because it takes away their future. Whereas the older ones, when they hear words like fascism or Nazism, they say to themselves: “Ah! It is a continuation of the Second World War. The problem is who is watching TV? Those who took credit to buy a flat screen are there in front of it, 24 hours a day. And on TV, from morning to night, there is only propaganda. It's a giant lab experiment, with over 100 million people.

You knew the Russian army as a war correspondent in Chechnya in 1994 and 1995. Compared to what you observe today in Ukraine, has it changed much?

The army has changed. In Chechnya, it was made up of conscripts who were 18 or 19 years old. They were protected by equipment that weighed more than 20 kilos and had old weapons. They had no urban combat experience. I remember the entry into Grozny of the Mayakovsky brigade of armoured tanks. The city maps they had were the ones they had found in the kiosks. The Chechens, with their experience from Afghanistan, blew up the first and the last tank, then they killed everyone who was in the middle. I saw these soldiers.

Over the past 25 years, with enormous financial support, the army has been rearmed. It is largely made up of professionals, under contract. Many officers and almost the entire Air Force fought in Syria. They have gained experience. It's another army, much stronger. It is necessary to respect the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting against a very strong adversary, not with these battalions devoid of everything like the first war in Chechnya.

And yet the result is not exceptional…

I'm not a military analyst, and we still can't understand what Putin wants with this “special operation”– what his objective is. We could consider that victory is any result, and then we will say that was the plan. However, it is clear that the information that was transmitted to the Kremlin by the military and special forces, namely the fact that half of Ukraine was waiting for the Russian army with great impatience and feverishness... this information was not confirmed. The soldiers were saying “we need two or three weeks”, but it will soon be 70 days. And we do not see the end. There will be no victory for 9 May, we will not even be able to invent it. We thought that the tanks could stay a little longer in front of Kyiv, that the roses would have time to grow between their caterpillars. While there, the war is taking its course. We have not even reached the peak of the war and we still do not know whether in this war tactical nuclear weapons will be used.

To whom do you attribute the responsibilities of this war?

Russia attacked Ukraine. The responsibility is borne by the commander of the armed forces, that is to say President Putin. It is direct. Of course, a lot of things have happened before. For example, the Minsk agreements which were not respected, the fact that the two sides found themselves at an impasse. Whether it's the Normandy format, the Minsk protocol, the Steinmeier formula, all these grand plans have led to a dead end. But the fact that these talks have stopped is not a sufficient reason to attack a neighbouring country.

(Credit: David Wagnières/ Le Temps)
There is a risk, in all wars, of looking at events in a biased way… Are there elements of this war that escape us, here in Europe?

That's a very good question. What I would like to point out is that this is probably the first war on Earth in a digital format. In Chechnya, the cameras had film, the television Betacams weighed very heavy. Today, everyone has their smartphone. We see everything. We see the fighting, we see the victims, we see the exhumations. We see Boucha, Mariupol, Donetsk. We see the shots, on one side as on the other. We see how a missile falls on a house and kills a three-month-old child, in Odesa, for Easter. And if we add the images from the satellites, it gives us the possibility of comparing the real war with any propaganda. These tools are very valuable. This does not diminish the tragedy, but it makes it visible.

We don't always know who launches the missile..

The specialists who study the data, at Novaya Gazeta too, use algorithms. For each given event, they can geolocate it and date it to the nearest second, find five or seven sources that will confirm it – or not. We also know who controlled which region, at what time. This is the work of this new generation of journalists, who use algorithms. Today, we can no longer content ourselves with receiving the opinion of such and such. Before we closed the newspaper, we refused to publish certain news, because we couldn't verify them 100 per cent, to avoid finding ourselves under the influence of any kind of propaganda. There is no information warfare. It is a war in which soldiers of information take part.

When Russian propaganda says Ukrainians are destroying their own homes, killing their own civilians, don't you believe it?

It is not a matter of believing or not believing. When we have the precise point of departure of the missile, and the precise point of its arrival, and we know who controls which territory, it is a question of verifying the information. As for the rules of propaganda, in the last century, a British service [Editor’s note: the psychological warfare division, a secret body that operated during the Second World War] set out the following principles: enemies use prohibited weapons, and we never do; you can make mistakes when you shoot, whereas they will always do it voluntarily; we wage war by following the rules, while they use the civilian population as human shields. Nothing has changed, except that today we can check.

What can Westerners do to help bring peace?

More than 13 million Ukrainians have left their homes, half of those have stayed inside the country, while the others are seeking refuge in Europe. I understand the destabilisation that this causes, in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Geneva, it is starting to weigh. We lived quietly, and suddenly masses of people arrived. The Europeans, especially in the east, have shown immense human solidarity. This solidarity is what we must continue, it is the most important. You always have to understand that there will be someone in a worse position than yourself.

I too want to participate, as well as Novaya Gazeta . Before International Refugee Day, on 20 June, we will organize a sale during which we will auction the medal of my Nobel Prize for a large amount. This will be the start. The most important thing is the buzz, so that other people come to sell objects that are dear to them.

Is the West right to arm the Ukrainians?

I am not a strategist. I know Mr. Zelensky has spoken with Western leaders and secured their support. It is up to the parliaments and peoples of these countries not to leave Ukraine alone against an enemy greater and more powerful than itself. But there is a consequence. It can be fatal, if we are to believe Putin or Lavrov, since it is not impossible for nuclear weapons to be used.

Do you see another way for Westerners to foster peace?

I notice that some Western politicians tried to influence Putin. There was Emmanuel Macron, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Antonio Guterres or the Pope. Putin's close friends turned to him, Gerhard Schröder, Silvio Berlusconi, those he called his close friends, his partners. The operation did not stop, however. The fighting in Ukraine continues. All this had no result. What else can we do? You have to tell me! We can talk or we can fight. What is the third option? Me, I've always been there to talk. I will do it here in Geneva. This city is synonymous with talks. Remember the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting. The end of the cold war was played out in Geneva. People were able to agree and the world was able to breathe. People literally came out of their atomic shelters. But so far it has come to nothing. Vladimir Putin, in his head, has his own map of the world. And he is absolutely convinced that he is right.

Is there a way for the West not to completely isolate Russia?

(Sighs.) Let's talk about penalties. There are a lot of things I don't understand. Why can't Russians use their credit cards anymore? Hundreds of thousands of them are abroad, without means of subsistence. They did not decide on the war. Is there a collective responsibility? Can a people be guilty as a whole? Do the American people bear responsibility for Trump's actions? Were all Iraqis guilty of Saddam Hussein's actions? Maduro's Venezuelans? Bashar al-Assad's Syrians? At home, even the Kremlin admits that 25 per cent of Russians are against the war, that's nearly 30 million people.

I'm not going to talk about all the drugs for the spinal cord alone, which can only be used for twelve hours for a child with cancer. However, no plane can connect Germany to an operating room in Russia in less than twelve hours. I would like to read an in-depth study on the impact of sanctions on power and on ordinary people. This war is a decision that was taken by a single person, not by a people. And this person, Vladimir Putin, was supported by this same West, which provided him with weapons and money by buying gas. After 2014, European countries delivered 346 million euros worth of weapons to Russia, bypassing sanctions. So the West is also guilty, as a whole.

But the Russians have elected Putin several times…

Yes, of course. Unlike [Belarusian leader] Alexander Lukashenko, Putin is supported. It’s true. The Russians elected Putin, they re-elected him. And 77 per cent voted for the change of the Constitution, which makes Russia a monarchy in a Soviet system. Unfortunately, that's how it is. At the same time, in Europe and the United States, there are many people for whom Putin was very favourable. He delivered gas without delay, oil always on time, he paid his debts ​​up front. He allowed the United States to use Russian airports to intervene in Afghanistan, he exported titanium and rare earths, everyone was quite happy! How many times have Western leaders gone to the newsroom to talk about human rights and then gone [to the Kremlin] to sign contracts? You know, when you talk to Putin about the values ​​of the West, it makes him die of laughter. He believes in commerce, he does not believe in values.

Look carefully! Sixteen of Europe's most prominent political figures have been bought off by Putin. They joined the boards of state companies or those close to the state. Ministers, prime ministers, deputies. Why does he buy them? He said to them all: screw yourselves. You have values, as long as I haven't paid you one million. I can give you all the names, in Finland, in Austria, in Germany. And do you want to remember the Swiss prosecutor Michael Lauber: who took him hunting in Kamchatka? And yet, I am not talking about the collective fault of the Swiss people. It's this cynicism, it's this realpolitik, this complete lack of confidence in the West that was at the heart of Putin’s personal decision to wage war.

Is the only way to stop Putin, then, by major military failures in Ukraine? Do you wish to see a Russian defeat in Ukraine?

I don't understand defeat and victory in this war. Will this be when Russia will take Donbas and leave everything else? Or when the south to Odesa is also taken? Would victory for Ukraine mean losing Donbas and keeping Kyiv and Lviv? I doubt that the Ukrainian people consider this a victory. In Russia, the people who have been brainwashed by power will not consider adding two completely destroyed regions to Russia as a victory. Where is the victory?

But then, what are the conditions for the war to end?

I do not see. Talks with Putin led nowhere. Any politician who comes to power in Europe is convinced that his predecessor was an idiot because he failed to find a common language with Putin and that he will. Except that the tables keep getting longer between Putin and European leaders. The talks have led nowhere and the war will lead nowhere. The minimum decision would be an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian corridors, prisoner exchanges and mortal remains exchange. We could freeze the conflict, that's all. But do the parties want it? What victory can we talk about?

In your Nobel speech in Oslo last year, you talked about journalists leaving Russia. It was December 10. Since then, they have left by the hundreds. Do you fear a Russia without journalists?

I am convinced that the destruction of the independent media was the necessary basis for this war. Because there is only propaganda left to tell what is going on. On 10 December, there was still Dojd, Radio Echo of Moscow, Novaya Gazeta and its 27 million readers, there was Tayga Info in Novosibirsk, there was Snak in the Urals, the 7/7 agency in Komi in the North, there was TV2 in Tomsk, there was Holod, Proekt, etc. I can't give you all the names of all these media, but there are hundreds of them. The absence of media with a different point of view from the authorities leads to the situation that makes it possible to declare war. I agree with this guy Muratov, who said on 10 December that the media is the antidote to tyranny. I have to agree with him (laughs)!

You are known to be modest. For the Nobel Prize, you said that it was the journalists of “Novaya Gazeta” that had been killed who deserved it, or Alexei Navalny. Navalny, really? You think he is the future of Russia?

You want to force me to say that the future of Russia is in prison? How do you take it (laughs)? Navalny has huge support among the younger generation, he is characterised by his very courageous behaviour. However, if we talk about him for the future, does that mean that there will be elections in Russia? If so, then yes, it is possible that a Democratic coalition will come forward with the likes of Navalny. But who said there will be free elections? Political scientists think they are very intelligent. They say if the ruling elite splits, anything is possible… but the elite is still there! And all this elite unites around Putin, what else can it do? There was a Soviet anecdote. In a submarine, under water, the commander makes the call. “– Petrov? - Here. – Siderov? - Here. – Ivanov? Silence. – Ivanov? Silence. – Ivanov, I know you're there, you're in a submarine, you can't go anywhere! This is how the behaviour of the Russian elite can be described. It has nowhere to go. We are heading towards monarchy, with the interminable reign of one and the same person. What elections are we talking about?

How do you best use the leverage that the Nobel Prize gives you?

I will not play politics and I will not dance on the Bolshoi stage. What I can do is this auction. We are going to sell this medal and work with Unicef ​​so that it benefits all those refugees, in Europe, in Ukraine and those who are on Russian territory. We must also create a support fund for the media in exile, so that people can continue to work. I want to invest myself in this.

But you're going back to Russia?

The question is not where I would like to be, it's where I have to be. In Moscow, there is still a large part of the editorial staff. I was elected by this editorial staff. What would that mean? The people who voted for me stay there and I take selfies with the 147-meter Geneva Jet d'eau behind me? Sorry, 140, you always have to be precise, as a journalist.

(Credit: Davide Wagnières/Le Temps)

Two Nobel Peace Prize winners in Geneva

With his co-recipient Maria Ressa, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner is in Geneva to celebrate press freedom this Tuesday

He dreamt of it, worked for hours and surrounded himself with the right people to make it happen, but also several times believed that they wouldn’t come... Patrick Chappatte , cartoonist at Le Temps, had this crazy idea last October: inviting the two 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners to Geneva to present the 2022 International Press Cartoon Prize from the foundation he chairs, the Freedom Cartoonists Foundation. The idea took shape and Maria Ressa and Dmitri Mouratov, two exceptional personalities, two particularly exposed journalists, who strongly embody Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights , did, despite many challenges, arrive in Switzerland.

At the ‘House of Peace’

The Maison de la Paix, also home to the Graduate Institute, has rarely lived up to its name so well. On May 3, it is hosting this ceremony which will mark World Press Freedom Day. Maria Ressa is the founder of the news site in the Philippines. A journalist for more than 35 years, she was arrested and charged with ten counts of exposing the practices of the Duterte government and corruption. Sentenced for cybercrime in June, Maria Ressa is free on bail, pending her appeal. Dmitry Muratov is editor of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Moscow. They will give a conference on the theme of freedom of expression.

Swiss presence

Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga, in charge of the Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communication, Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Sami Kanaan, Administrative Advisor to the City of Geneva, in charge of the Department of Culture and Digital Transition, will also be present. For more information, visit the Graduate Institute website.

This article was published first in French in Le Temps. Articles from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the editor's consent.