Novaya Gazeta continues publishing news in Russia despite dangers

By Wiktoria Bieliaszyn

Gazeta Wyborcza

Warsaw, Poland


Editor’s note: Dmitry Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, perhaps the last independent newspaper in Russia. Gazeta is known for hard-hitting investigative reporting on the presidency of Vladimir Putin and has seen six of its reporters killed since 2000. 

Last year, Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, together with Maria Ressa of the Philippines, for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Muratov donated his Nobel Prize medal to the Ukrainian Refugee Fund. Last week, Muratov spoke to journalist Wiktoria Bieliaszyn of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, and INMA is republishing this interview with Gazeta’s permission.

Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Photo by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock.
Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta. Photo by ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy Stock.

Wiktoria Bieliaszyn: Novaya Gazeta has covered many wars and conflicts. However, Russian authorities have practically banned independent reports about the war in Ukraine.

Muratov: Even so, we regularly publish excellent reports from Ukraine by Lena Kostyuchenko and other Novaya Gazeta journalists who are based there and whose names I cannot disclose for security reasons. Our war reports are in full accordance with Russian regulations. In the articles, we note that we write “about what the authorities do not allow us to name,” or we emphasise that a certain part of the report, such as the shelling of cities in Ukraine, was left out because of government requirements. In the print edition, we always have a blank page where the news would normally be because we aren’t allowed to publish news. Neither in print nor online. The authorities demand that we cover the war exclusively from the perspective of the Russian Ministry of Defence. On Tuesday, however, our wonderful editorial team returned to work, and we plan to continue publishing news, though only in print for now.

The print edition of Novaya Gazeta leaves a blank page as a reminder that it is not able to freely report the news.
The print edition of Novaya Gazeta leaves a blank page as a reminder that it is not able to freely report the news.

Bieliaszyn: This is now punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Muratov: Our method is rather simple; let’s see if we can use it wisely. We are going to ask the Russian Ministry of Defence to respond to the information that we have uncovered or received and demand that they confirm or deny it, giving specific reasons. See the blisters on my hands? I just signed the first round of requests. We want our readers to have access to both points of view, the Kremlin’s and ours, based on our reporters’ accounts or information from our sources.

Bieliaszyn: You’ve adopted this method nearly two weeks after Russian authorities introduced a law punishing the distribution of what they consider to be “fake news.”

Muratov: The law allows authorities to throw any of our staff members in jail. In a country where free courts do not exist, this law effectively kills independent media. The authorities can label any information they don’t want to be released as false. It doesn’t matter that we have multiple sources to back it up, that we have verified it, or even that we have the records to prove its validity. If the authorities consider something to be “fake news,” for example, Russian casualties of their so-called “special war operation,” it is impossible to prove otherwise.

Bieliaszyn: Which point of view are Russian citizens more likely to side with? The official one or the one presented by independent media?

Muratov: There are state-run polling agencies. One of them is the government-controlled WCIOM Russian Public Opinion Research Center, which claims that almost 70% of Russians support Vladimir Putin’s policy toward Ukraine and, consequently, the so-called special military operation. But please note that even the state-run WCIOM, which is like the state polling itself, says that 30% do not support this war, and this is almost 50 million citizens.

In turn, the Levada Centre, Russia’s most reliable sociological institution (designated by the authorities as a “foreign agent”), says that about 70% of Russians do not support the “special military operation.” This is very important.

According to Russia's Levada Centre, about 70% of Russians do no support the current so-called military operation.
According to Russia's Levada Centre, about 70% of Russians do no support the current so-called military operation.

Bieliaszyn: The dominant view [in the West] has been that most Russians are in favour of Putin’s actions.

Muratov: Perhaps not everyone [in the West] is aware of the fact that in Russia, when phone surveys are conducted and the question is asked: “Do you support Vladimir Putin’s decision to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine?,” not many would dare to answer “no.” Every Russian citizen knows that if the questioner has their number, that person probably also has their address. People are afraid.

But there is also a second group, those who trust the official propaganda. Kremlin propaganda is like radiation. It is impossible to be near power unit No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and not be exposed to radiation. It is impossible to live in Russia and be fully immune to propaganda. Now that the authorities have blocked at least 30 independent editorial offices, it will be even more difficult.

Bieliaszyn: Do Russians even want to know the truth?

Muratov: I just arrived at our editorial office. I thought that maybe McDonald’s had reopened, but it turned out that people were waiting in line for the newspaper. The last time I saw something like that was at the end of the 1980s. People are buying 100 or even 200 copies and distributing them further. I must point out that newsstands are no longer selling Novaya Gazeta. Newsstand owners wanted to have a say in what our covers looked like because they were afraid of persecution. We didn’t agree to that. So today, they refused to accept Novaya Gazeta with a cover showing Marina Ovsyannikova, a journalist of the state-controlled Channel 1 who protested on air against the war in Ukraine.

Bieliaszyn: Is the government afraid?

Muratov: It doesn’t trust its people.

Bieliaszyn: Who is responsible for censoring or shutting down media outlets? After all, it is not Roskomnadzor, the state regulator responsible for monitoring Russian media.

Muratov: It’s President Putin’s administration. His administration distrusts Russians so much that it wants to decide for them what they can and cannot read. What is the role of media in our world? In a country where the parliament does not represent the interests of the people? In Russia, it is independent media that represent the interests of the people, of the readers. That is why the authorities shut them down.

Bieliaszyn: Why are there no mass protests involving not thousands, but hundreds of thousands of people?

Muratov: When people took to the streets to protest Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, they were detained en masse, beaten, arrested, and convicted. The secret police, or the so-called E Center unit, which supposedly fights extremist threats but is actually more like the special services, is still tracking many of these people. If you are detained or even spotted at a protest, it is difficult to get a loan, to get into university, to leave the country. Authorities can easily destroy someone’s life and everyone is aware of this. Parents are afraid that when their children participate in the protests, they might be putting their fate, biography, or their career on the line. I don’t know if mass protests are even possible in today’s Russia. Every autocracy makes use of its heavily armed military and police forces. We saw this in Belarus, where hundreds of thousands of people protested against Lukashenko’s regime. This resulted in extremely brutal detentions, beatings, mutilations, rapes, and torture in Minsk’s Okrestina detention center. I cannot and will not demand that unarmed, non-combatant civilians pick a fight with the Russian National Guard.

Bieliaszyn: What can Russian citizens do to stop the war in Ukraine then?

Muratov: First of all, they should not believe what the authorities tell them. They should write petitions calling for a ceasefire, exchange of war prisoners, exchange of bodies of fallen soldiers, and the creation of humanitarian corridors.

Bieliaszyn: One of Novaya Gazeta’s shareholders is Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR and Nobel Peace Prize laureate ...

Muratov: I am glad that you mentioned him. Gorbachev made the world safer, but he also opened the world to Russia and Russia to the world. Thanks to him, the Russian people regained their freedom of worship, they could learn foreign languages, or actually go to Krakow [in Poland] and not just buy Krakow sausage in their neighbourhood shops. The world became accessible, and this was very important for the young generation, the generation that was brought up differently, that was not belted by their parents. This generation is eager to learn, is interested in literature, theatre, and art exhibitions. It is a generation that follows a completely different code of ethics, which sees its body as a state with boundaries that cannot be crossed without mutual consent. And our authorities have now also violated these private boundaries. They have crossed them with a brutality that can be compared to the 1968 invasion of Prague. Russian authorities have not only invaded Ukraine but also destroyed the lives of young Russians. I sympathise with Ukraine immensely, and I find it difficult to watch what is happening there without being angry.

Bieliaszyn: Young Russians are indeed the most avid critics of the Russian government and its decisions. They have also long been sympathetic to Ukraine.

Muratov: The Russian society is divided. The older generation no longer enjoys the kind of authority it once did. How can the young respect their elders who, echoing official state propaganda, tell them that the Russian army is fighting Nazis in Ukraine? Young people simply do not believe this; they have not allowed themselves to be manipulated by state television. We are in a state of an intergenerational civil war.

What has happened has made it impossible for my generation to talk to Ukrainians without feeling a sense of guilt. Without being constantly aware of their hatred for us. Only the young have a chance to overcome this; today’s 20-year-olds have a different kind of empathy and are categorically opposed to war.

Bieliaszyn: Many of my relatives and friends who live in Russia or who recently left the country told me that the Russian government robbed them of their future.

Muratov: And that has indeed happened, on February 24. Young Russians wanted the world to be open to them. They dreamed of a hopeful future, of visiting countries they had not yet seen. They wanted the world to treat them as equals, and their country to be friendly and attractive for tourists from all over the world. This is no longer the case. Young people understand this, and even if not all of them, this pain will soon reach them.

Bieliaszyn: Can this inter-generational conflict lead to any changes in how Russia is governed?

Muratov: No, because there is no conflict within the ruling camp. There are many theories circulating on Facebook that suggest we should soon expect a coup d’état and change of power. I don’t believe that. Because there is no division among the Russian elites. Today, these people are united as never before. There has never been a more unanimous government in Russia.

These people are so afraid for their lives, their families and children, that they have all rallied around the Russian president and are lining up behind him.

Bieliaszyn: What is Putin’s view of the world?

Muratov: It reminds me of the Egyptian pyramids. It is impossible to stick even a razor blade between the cracks in his worldview — there are none. He is completely convinced that he is right and infallible. In his view, Russia is a great, self-sufficient fortress surrounded by enemies, the main one being the West.

Bieliaszyn: In one interview, you said that Putin “still participates in World War II.” Could you elaborate on that?

Muratov: I have the impression that Vladimir Putin lives in the past. He did not fight in World War II because he was not even born yet. Nevertheless, it seems to me that he is trying to claim a personal victory in this war today. Let’s look at how he militarised the society, telling Russians that patriotism means marching in military parades and uniforms. Putin today wants to defend the victory in the Great Patriotic War and make sure that everyone is aware of it.

Bieliaszyn: I know that in your opinion political elites in Russia really believe the state propaganda.

Muratov: Because it is true. It is up to the authorities to commission the creation of propaganda for the masses. The same authorities then watch and evaluate how well the propagandists have managed the task entrusted to them. The problem is that the authorities themselves are gradually beginning to believe in all the lies they fabricated to deceive Russians. In psychiatry,  there exists a phenomenon of self-induction; you begin to believe your own made-up stories, claiming that it is objective reality. This is one of the fundamental reasons behind the almost unbelievable unity among political elites in Russia.

And the elites, believing the propagandists, were convinced that the people of Ukraine would welcome the Russian army with flowers and that Vladimir Putin would liberate Ukraine. They have become so overfed with propaganda that they are now puking it all over Russia.

Bieliaszyn: Now it is the propagandists who already seem to be losing faith in the propaganda they are spreading.

Muratov: Ovsyannikova will not change this world single-handedly. She was neither the host nor even the face of federal television, just one of the editors somewhere outside the picture frame. Those defections are not a wide trend.

Propagandists and representatives of the political elite are rarely shown standing upright on Russian television. They mostly sit down and in the presence of the president — on top of that they are also trembling with fear. Do you know why? Because they are wearing diapers.

First published in Gazeta Wyborcza on March 17. Click here for more news from Poland and Eastern Europe in English.

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INMA is covering an international effort of its members to support the media in Ukraine amid the war. Read about the Emergency Ukrainian Media Fund and the needs of Ukrainian local press.

About Wiktoria Bieliaszyn

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