How the Nobel Peace Prize Laid Bare the Schism in Russia’s Opposition

MOSCOW — If you lived in Putin’s Russia, what compromises would you make?

Dmitri A. 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 V. Putin to help children in need of expensive drugs.

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

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

Mr. Muratov outside his office last week after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He shared the prize with the journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.”Credit…Natalia Kolesnikova/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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,” Mr. Muratov said in an interview this week, defending the latter approach against the wave of furor 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 on its back foot — all the more so as the 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 Mr. Muratov’s award must have touched off “euphoria,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of R.Politik, a political analysis firm.

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

Indeed, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, congratulated Mr. Muratov, calling him talented and brave.

Mr. Muratov’s colleagues at the Novaya Gazeta newspaper celebrating his Nobel win with him.Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Mr. 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, Mr. Navalny congratulated Mr. Muratov. He noted that the past murders of journalists for Mr. Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper served as a reminder of “what a high price those who refuse to serve the authorities have to pay.”

Mr. Muratov co-founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993, with funding from Mikhail S. 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 Mr. 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 the mining giant Norilsk Nickel — run by one of the country’s richest men — to pay a $2 billion fine.

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

“When it comes to children and women — I stop,” Mr. Muratov 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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Muratov in 2009 interviewing Dmitri A. Medvedev, then the Russian president, at Mr. Medvedev’s Gorki residence outside Moscow.Credit…Pool photo by RIA Novosti

Mr. Muratov has used his influence and his connections for causes beyond press freedom — in particular to help children with spinal muscular atrophy, or S.M.A., a rare muscle-wasting disorder for which the most effective treatments are extraordinarily expensive. He says 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 L. Kostin, chairman 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, Mr. Muratov took a list of names of young people in need of expensive treatments to an off-the-record meeting between Mr. Putin and Russian editors in chief. Two weeks later, Mr. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, called and told Mr. 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 S.M.A.,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Muratov with Mr. Gorbachev in 2007. The book Mr. Muratov is holding, “For What,” is a posthumous collection of work by Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter who was killed in 2006. He plans to use $20,000 of his Nobel winnings to endow a journalism award named in her honor.Credit…Sergei Chirikov/EPA, via Shutterstock

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

Still, after a year in which Russia’s crackdown on dissent has reached new intensity, there is no guarantee that Novaya will survive. Mr. Putin said as much himself on Wednesday when a CNBC host, Hadley Gamble, asked him about Mr. 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,” Mr. Putin said, eschewing the congratulations. “No matter his achievements, every person must understand plainly and clearly: Russian laws must be followed.”

Mr. 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 honor of Anna Politkovskaya, a Novaya reporter slain in 2006.

Mr. Muratov in his newspaper’s offices this week. Six reporters working for Novaya have been murdered; their portraits hang in a corner of a conference room at the newspaper’s Moscow headquarters.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

The rest will go to charity, he said, including to a foundation called Circle of Good that helps children with rare diseases. Mr. Putin signed an order creating it last 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 Mr. 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 ahead of last month’s Russian parliamentary election, when some liberals — including Mr. Muratov — bristled at the Navalny camp’s calls to unite around Communist candidates as a coordinated rebuke to Mr. Putin.

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

Mr. Muratov has used his influence and his connections for causes beyond press freedom. Indeed, much of his Nobel winnings will go to charity, he said, including to a foundation called Circle of Good that helps children with rare diseases.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

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