OpinionsThe controversy around the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize

The controversy around the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize


Earlier this month, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced the recipients of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize: Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. The two journalists, the first from the Philippines and the second from the Russian Federation, were acknowledged for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” and awarded the prestigious prize “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia”.  The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for the last 120 years, almost annually, to individuals or organizations that “shall have done most or the best work for the fraternity between nations and the abolition or reduction of standing armies and the formation and spreading of peace congresses”, as Alfred Nobel instructed in his will. The choices made by the Committee throughout time have brought both praises and critiques. The current choice does not make an exception, at least in the Russian public space.

Who is Dmitry Muratov and what was his reaction?

Dmitry Andreyevich Muratov is the third Russian to have received the award, after Andrei Sakharov (1975) and Mikhail Gorbachev (1990), but the first to do so in the post-Soviet period. Muratov is a Russian journalist who has spent 24 years at the helm of Novaya Gazeta, one of the first independent media outlets of the Russian Federation (more biographical details here and here). As argued by the Nobel Committee, Novaya Gazeta’s editor-in-chief “has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions”. Plus, the Committee launched their appraisal as to how the publication Muratov leads “is the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude towards power” and how the editor-in-chief “has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism”.

Upon the announcement, Dmitry Muratov was unsurprisingly approached by the Russian media outlets who were eager to catch his reaction. The journalist was consistent in the message he sent out in the public. It could be noticed how his reaction was not an enthusiastic one, as he himself reported, for example, to RIA Novosti: “I have not experienced any sensations”. The central aspect of his reaction, though, which could be identified in all reports on his award (see here, or here) was how he detracted himself from the merits of receiving the award to dedicate it, on the one hand, to the Novaya Gazeta journalists who have died – naming them all individually – Yuri Shchekochikhin, Igor Domnikov, Anna Politkovskaya, Nastya Baburova, Stas Markelov and Natasha Estemirova, and on the other hand to the entire staff of the publication.

A more thorough image on Muratov’s take was offered by Meduza (publication recognized by the Russian Ministry of Justice as “foreign agent”) in an interview published in the afternoon of the 8th of October. Even the title of the interview revolves around the idea exposed above: “This prize belongs to my lost colleagues”. There, the journalist evoked how the prize came as a surprise for him, as he didn’t even know that he had been nominated, and how he missed the call from the Committee, being engaged in a conversation with Elena Milashina, a Novaya Gazeta correspondent, which was far more “important” for him “than answering international calls”. Nonetheless, he declared that he “felt nothing in particular” when he found out about the award. The idea of the award not being his is central to this interview as well: “It’s not mine. I’m not the right beneficiary, they are the real ones. It’s just that the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t awarded posthumously, it’s awarded to living people”, continuing with naming the journalists that had lost their lives. Furthermore, the editor-in-chief sustained in the same decisive manner, in his conversations with journalists from different media outlets, that the money the prize comes with would be donated, clarifying that at least part of it would go to the Circle of Kindness Foundation, an organization established through presidential executive order in the beginning of 2021, which aims at supporting children with “severe life-threatening and chronic diseases, including rare diseases”.

Well-deserved or a politicized decision?

Even though the announcement did not cause an effervescent reaction for the laureate, the news did catch significant attention and determined some very vocal reactions in the Russian arena. Every major media outlet wrote or broadcasted on the matter in the hours following the announcement, but there have also been echoes ever since. For example, RIA Novosti published only in the day of the announcement over 20 articles mentioning the award and Muratov. A dichotomous reaction could be easily identified in this matter as well. On the one hand, Muratov was praised for his merits and for receiving the award; on the other hand, the choice was written off as politicized, hence lacking any value.

When it comes to the positive reactions towards Muratov receiving the award, the stress was put mainly on the journalist himself and his merits, together with the meaning of the award for Russia herself. It is interesting to notice that both members of the civil society and of the Russian authorities subscribed to this pattern. One of the first reactions of the Russian authorities came from Dmitry Peskov, the President’s spokesperson, who congratulated the journalist as “he consistently works according to his ideals, he is committed to his ideals, he is talented, he is brave, and, of course, this is a high mark, we congratulate him”. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson, Boris Belyakov, joined the presidential administration into offering the congratulations of the head of the government, on the day of the announcement, appraising how the award is “a worthy assessment of his talent, high professionalism, loyalty to beliefs and human qualities”.

Vladimir Putin’s congratulations followed after two weeks. During the Valdai Forum in Sochi the president reminded the audience and Muratov how the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev was never awarded the Nobel Prize, despite the fact that his candidacy was repeatedly presented to the Committee and how both Gorbachev and Obama had received the award, “so you have good company, I congratulate you.” The President’s focus, though, was mainly on Muratov’s commitment to donate his prize for charitable purposes, which should be highly appreciated, in Putin’s words: “I would give you [an award] for that, that you are doing such a noble job, it’s true”.

Novaya Gazeta, in an article named “The whole Novaya Gazeta and everyone who works there. Alive and dead. This is their prize”, collected mainly, but not exclusively, appreciative reactions coming from both journalists and politicians. Starting off the series of comments with those of Dmitry Peskov, it continued with the veiled congratulations from Margarita Simonyan, RT’s editor-in-chief, who stated that “I know for sure that Muratov personally, actively and passionately helps sick children, and I would be pleased to think that the Nobel Prize was given to him for this, and not as usual. Congratulations”. Alexey Venediktov, Echo Moskvy’s editor-in-chief, was quoted as well with his interpretation of the award as representing “freedom of information, freedom of opinion, freedom of the press”. The series is rounded by the appreciations of other journalists both from Novaya Gazeta and other publications, such as Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, but also from politicians, such as Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the Yabloko Party and Vladimir Ryzhkov, Moscow City Duma deputy.

A special attention was also granted by the Russian media to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reaction, who described the announcement of the award as being “very good news, not just news, but an event. This is an excellent addition to our ranks, among the Nobel laureates. This award raises the importance of the press in the modern world to a great height”, and characterized Muratov as being “a wonderful, courageous, honest man, journalist, my friend Dmitry Muratov.”

Unsurprisingly, the negative reactions did not fail to emerge in the Russian arena. They came from various sources; as for the positive ones, the critiques originated both from officials and from members of the civil society. Some of the harshest one were determined by the alleged political dimension of the choice. Two of the officials that joined this assessment were Alexander Bashkin, who concluded how “the Nobel Peace Prize is one of the most controversial nominations on the Nobel Committee. Such decisions devalue the prize itself”, and Sergei Tsekov, who expressed his view as to how “this decision is exclusively political” since awarding this prize to a “newspaper that is opposed to the Russian leadership includes an anti-Russian motive”, both members of the Federation Council, quoted by RT. Senator Tsekov went on to comment that “it’s time to establish our own prize, which will be non-politicized”, as he considered all Nobel prizes “politically motivated”. Vyacheslav Volodin, Chairman of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, followed the same path in questioning the reasoning behind the choice. The deputy expressed how, while he was “glad” for Muratov to receive the award, he still noted that the prize itself “raises many questions about the choice of laureates, given that there are no clear criteria for assessing their contribution and merits”; he went on to name some of the former decisions “inexplicable”, such as the decision to give the award to Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev, “because both, by their actions, intentionally or unintentionally, brought suffering to a huge number of people”.

The officials were joined in their critiques by members of the media, mostly following the same path in stressing a political motivation behind the choice to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Dmitry Muratov. One vehement stance stood out. TV presenter, journalist and general director of the Russia Today media group, Dmitry Kiselev criticized on Radio Sputnik the decision, evaluating the Peace Prize as being “one of the most controversial nominations in the Nobel Committee” in general and how “such decisions devalue the prize itself, it is difficult to focus on it” .

“It should have been Navalny”

A special type of critique regarding the Nobel Committee’s decision did not target an alleged political motivation behind the decision, but a failure in identifying a presumably more suitable recipient for the award. There were multiple voices, including that of Muratov, which expressed their regret for the award not going to Alexei Navalny. The journalist declared that, if he had been on the Nobel Committee, “I know who I would’ve voted for. I believe Alexey Navalny deserved it for his courage. But he’s got everything ahead of him”. Muratov’s stance seemed to coincide not only with those that make part of Navalny’s organization, declared by the Russian Ministry of Justice an “extremist organization” whose activity is forbidden on the territory of the Russian Federation, but other members of the civil society as well. For example, Stanislav Belkovsky, political analyst and publicist, quoted by Novaya Gazeta, declared how Muratov would not have received the award “without the efforts of the Russian political prisoner no.1”. Belkovsky was joined by others in expressing similar views, such as Alexander Baunov and Serghey Parkhomenko (cited by the same source).

Unsurprisingly, the most vehement critiques on this line were generated by members and collaborators of Navalny’s organization. For example, Lyubov Sobol congratulated Muratov, but insisted that Navalny was “the leading fighter for peace in our country and beyond”. Similarly, the IT specialist of Navalnyi’s team, Artem Ionov expressed his regret for the jailed politician not having been granted the award.

An interesting explanation, though, as to why the award was not given to Alexey Navalny came from Elena Panina, member of the State Duma’s international affairs committee. While praising the choice to award the prize to Dmitri Muratov as “a big plus for Russian journalism”, the deputy evaluated the decision not to offer this recognition to Alexei Navalny, despite the “active campaign” that had been developed throughout the year, as a proof the West “is disappointed with the activities of extremists and is ready to write them off”.  

On the topic, it should be also noted that the European Parliament’s 2021 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded to Alexei Navalny on the 20th of October, hence less than two weeks after the announcement of the laureates of the Noble Peace Prize.

Russian politician or foreign agent?

There were two other interesting reactions that followed the announcement of the recipients of the prize. One was concerned with questioning Muratov whether he would get into politics following the announcement of the award and the momentum this would bring. When asked by the reporters about this potential path that his carrier might take, Muratov emphatically replied that he had “the finest job in the world” and that he was not going to go into politics.

The second reaction, that incited the interest and curiosity of even more members of the Russian media and politics, was connected to the “foreign agent” status that a foreign funding and support could bring to a Russian national, according to the Russian law. The laureate himself was amongst the firsts to tackle the subject, seemingly in a ludic manner. Speaking with the journalists, Muratov confessed how he had asked the “people in the government” that had congratulated him if he would be declared “foreign agent” after receiving the award, but “they didn’t really answer me”. Continuing on this jesting tone, he noted how if such a thing would happen, Novaya Gazeta would have to mark its publications with “This message was created by a foreign agent – a Nobel Prize laureate”, hinting at, but adapting in a personal fashion, the text the publications labelled as such by the Russian Ministry of Justice have to mark the beginning of each piece of writing they post. On a more serious note, in the interview granted to Meduza, publication that already has the label of “foreign agent”, the journalist said that he is not afraid of being given this status as the prize will be “distributed by the editorial board of Novaya Gazeta, not by me”, indicating that the money would be donated to different structures, one of them being the Circle of Kindness Foundation.

Senator Bashkin was among the first Russian officials to have commented on the topic. When asked by RIA Novosti reporters about his stance on Muratov’s award, the politician, despite his disapproval of the Nobel Committee using the prize as a “political toolkit”, remarked how the prize itself “does not fall under the provisions of the law on the foreign agents, it is a remuneration, and not financing of certain activities from abroad”, boxing the prize in the same category with a medal received at international sporting events. A few days after the announcement, President Putin answered the journalists’ questions on the matter, stating that Dmitry Muratov would not be recognized as a “foreign agent” if he respected the Russian laws, naming if he will not “hide behind the Nobel Prize, as a shield, in order to attract attention to himself, or for some other reason”. The president used the chance to conclude: “We must clearly and plainly understand: we need to comply with the Russian laws”.


The debate on the significance and the decision itself to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov undoubtedly animated the different interested parties in the Russian public space. The immediate and sustained attention of the mainstream media, together with the wave of reactions in the social media speak volumes about the different stances and perceptions that exist on the matter. From praising Muratov and Novaya Gazeta for being flagships of the free press in Russia, hence defending the choice of the Nobel Committee, to appraising that the reasoning behind the decision was purely political, hence anti-Russian, the reactions provide a rich and comprehensive radiography of the contemporary Russian public space. If we were to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, what you see depends on where you stand.

Photo source: UN News

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