Dmitry Muratov: the True Superhero of Free Speech

Dmitry Muratov has spent several decades striving to report facts in a country that doesn’t just actively censor its press, but is accused of assassinating journalists who get too close to the truth. Several of Dmitry’s reporters have paid the ultimate price for their investigations, and Muratov himself is now threatened as he seeks to cover Russia’s military aggression abroad and corruption at home. His defiant reporting in the face of censorship and repression is a vital demonstration of the importance and power of journalism in the modern world, and one for which he has been justly recognised by the Nobel Committee. 

Dmitry Muratov: the True Superhero of Free Speech
Dmitry showing his Nobel Peace Prize medal in 2021

Building a new journalism

Dmitry was born in 1961 and spent his childhood in the Russian city of Samara on the banks of the Volga river. Aged 17, he headed to Moscow to study philology at Lomonosov State University, and it was here that he first discovered his enthusiasm for reporting, working part-time as a journalist while he completed his studies. After graduating in 1983, he joined the Soviet Army as a communications security specialist, but left military service in 1987 to pursue his journalistic ambitions, returning to the Volga to become a correspondent for Volzhsky Komsomolets, a local newspaper serving the town of Volzhsky, just north of Volgograd. He was immediately successful and within a year he was back in Moscow, having been promoted to work as news editor on the national tabloid paper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Dmitry Muratov: the True Superhero of Free Speech

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Dmitry Muratov has spent several decades striving to report facts in a country that doesn’t just actively censor its press, but is accused of assassinating journalists who get too close to the truth. Several of Dmitry’s reporters have paid the ultimate price for their investigations, and Muratov himself is now threatened as he seeks to cover Russia’s military aggression abroad and corruption at home. His defiant reporting in the face of censorship and repression is a vital demonstration of the importance and power of journalism in the modern world, and one for which he has been justly recognised by the Nobel Committee. 

Dmitry Muratov: the True Superhero of Free Speech
Dmitry showing his Nobel Peace Prize medal in 2021

Building a new journalism

Dmitry was born in 1961 and spent his childhood in the Russian city of Samara on the banks of the Volga river. Aged 17, he headed to Moscow to study philology at Lomonosov State University, and it was here that he first discovered his enthusiasm for reporting, working part-time as a journalist while he completed his studies. After graduating in 1983, he joined the Soviet Army as a communications security specialist, but left military service in 1987 to pursue his journalistic ambitions, returning to the Volga to become a correspondent for Volzhsky Komsomolets, a local newspaper serving the town of Volzhsky, just north of Volgograd. He was immediately successful and within a year he was back in Moscow, having been promoted to work as news editor on the national tabloid paper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

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This period coincided with enormous change throughout the Soviet Union, with unrest and rebellion spreading through the republics from 1988 onward, and the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev causing similar upheaval within Russia itself, and ultimately the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Muratov remained at Komsomolskaya Pravda for another two years, but in 1993 he and a group of other young journalists left to form a new newspaper, Novaya Gazeta. This undertaking was funded in part by Mikhail Gorbachev himself, using a large chunk of the proceeds from his own 1990 Nobel Peace Prize award to purchase computers and offices for the new paper. Muratov was initially appointed deputy editor, but Novaya Gazeta had an unusual management structure with editors elected by the staff rather than appointed by owners, and in 1995 Dmitry was elected as the paper’s new editor. 

Muratov alongside Mikhail Gorbachev in 2007, holding a copy of slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya's book

The ultimate price

By this stage, Muratov was getting his first taste of life as a war correspondent, covering the First Chechen War which broke out in 1994 as rebels fought for independence in Chechnya. He would later speak movingly of the horrors he saw first-hand at this time, and these experiences shaped his editorial position as a fierce critic of war. Muratov also gained a reputation for fearless reporting of state corruption, human rights abuses, and abuse of power, which frequently brought him and his newspaper into conflict with authorities on both the state and national levels. 

Tragically, this fearless approach to investigative journalism has had fatal consequences for several of Novaya Gazeta’s reporters. Six journalists have been murdered while reporting for the paper. Igor Domnikov, the paper’s corruption editor, was murdered in his apartment in 2000. The following year Victor Popkov was assassinated while reporting in Chechnya. Yuri Shchekochikhin was poisoned in 2003 during an investigation into allegations against Russian secret service members. Anna Politkovskaya, who covered the Second Chechen War, was assassinated in 2006. Anastasia Baburova, who investigated the activities of neo-Nazi groups, was killed in 2009, and Natalya Estemirova was abducted and murdered in the same year while investigating human rights abuses in Checnhya. Russian secret services have been implicated in several of these assassinations and although Muratov strived to protect his journalists from danger it was often impossible to prevent them from continuing their investigations. Dmitry has spoken of how he implored Anna Politkovskaya to leave Chechnya, and also how he wanted to close Novaya Gazeta down following several of these murders. Ultimately, it is his staff who have kept him in his role, insisting that he continue. In 2017 he stepped down as editor, citing the pressures of the job, only to be re-elected by his staff in 2019. 

Dmitry Muratov: the True Superhero of Free Speech
Muratov's photograph from the train bathroom after the paint attack

Making the most of the Nobel prize 

For more than two decades, Novaya Gazeta was the only publication in Russia investigating these subjects, and while this must have seemed a thankless task at times, recognition did finally come for Muratov and the paper he runs. In 2021, Muratov - alongside the similarly fearless Filipino journalist Maria Ressa - became the first journalists since 1935 to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of what the Nobel Committee described as “critical articles on subjects ranging from corruption, police violence, unlawful arrests, electoral fraud and ‘troll factories’ to the use of Russian military forces both within and outside Russia”. 

Muratov gave his acceptance speech to the Nobel Committee on December 10, 2021. At the same time, Russian troops had been massing on the border of Ukraine for several weeks, with estimates that almost 100,000 troops had already gathered. Muratov’s Nobel acceptance speech was moving; he spoke at length about the atrocities he had seen in Chechnya in the 1990s, the need to be vigilant against the horrors of war, and he condemned the military buildup on the Ukrainian border. He also celebrated the work and sacrifice of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had been jailed earlier that year; some critics had accused the Nobel Committee of awarding the prize to Muratov instead of Navalny in order to avoid angering Vladimir Putin. Although Muratov did not name Putin directly in his acceptance speech, his scathing condemnation of the military buildup and support for Navalny’s cause left little doubt of where his allegiances lay.

A copy of Novaya Gazeta Europe on Russian newsstands

Following the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Muratov was attacked on a train traveling from Moscow to Samara, as an unknown assailant daubed him with red paint laced with acetone while shouting, “Here’s one for our boys.” US officials have alleged that the attack was carried out by the Russian intelligence services and, given the long history of assassinations carried out against Novaya Gazeta’s journalists, many fear for Muratov’s safety. Undeterred, the following month he decided to auction his Nobel Prize medal, with the proceeds being donated to UNICEF’s humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine. The medal fetched a record-breaking $103.5m. Meanwhile, state censorship of Novaya Gazeta increased before ultimately Roskomnadzor, the Russian state’s agency with responsibility for censoring media, revoked the paper’s license. Novaya Gazeta lives on in the form of Novaya Gazeta Europe, which is now published in Latvia and carries news of the invasion in Russian and Ukrainian, as well as an English-language Twitter feed, continuing the paper’s Superheroic tradition of reporting the truth in the most adverse conditions. 

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