The Nobel committee announced Friday the winner of its annual Peace Prize. This year, the honor was shared by three human rights activists: Belarusian activist Ales Belyatsky (currently in pre-trial detention), Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and Russia’s Memorial.
- Memorial is Russia’s oldest NGO. It researches political repression in the Soviet Union and Russia (under the slightly different name of International Memorial) and also campaigns for human rights (as the Memorial Human Rights Center). Among other things, it works closely with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) where, prior to September 2022, many Russians were pursuing cases in the hope of bringing the authorities to justice for abuses including torture and unlawful detention.
- Memorial was founded in 1987 by Soviet activists who wanted to preserve the memory of victims of political repression. Thanks to its efforts, the Solovetsky Stone — a monument to the hundreds of thousands executed or imprisoned during the Soviet Union — was installed in central Moscow in 1990, right in front of the KGB headquarters (today the headquarters of the FSB). The granite block was brought from the Solovetsky prison camp, which writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as a “Polar Auschwitz.” The first head of Memorial was Andrei Sakharov, an eminent physicist and another Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
- Memorial’s members have often faced intimidation in the course of their work. And emploa few have have even been murdered: in 2009, human rights activist and Novaya Gazeta journalist Natalia Estimirova was kidnapped and her body found in neighboring Ingushetia. The murderers were never identified. Twelve years later, the ECHR found that the Russian authorities failed to effectively investigate the murder — although stopped short of saying the authorities were involved in the murder.
- In the 2010s, Memorial fell out of favor. Memorial International and Memorial’s human rights center were among the first organizations in Russia to be listed as “foreign agents” (in 2014 and 2016 respectively). In 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed a Ministry of Justice attempt to liquidate the Memorial. But, in late 2020, the center again came to the attention of Moscow prosecutors. Within a year, Memorial was liquidated under the pretext that not all of its publications stated that the organization was registered as a foreign agent.
- This is the second year running that the Nobel Peace Prize has gone, at least in part, to somebody in Russia. In 2021, the award was shared by journalist Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta. Although this was Russia’s first Nobel Prize for 18 years (if we leave aside the 2010 prize for Physics awarded to Russian-born Konstantin Novoselov after his work in the Netherlands with Andrei Geim), not everybody welcomed the award.
- Aside from some Kremlin propagandists, the loudest complaints came from supporters of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny. They argued that Navalny himself deserved the prize more than Muratov, who they accused of collaborating with the authorities. This year’s award to Memorial was widely criticized in Ukraine. Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to the President of Ukraine, tweeted that during the war in Ukraine, neither Russians nor Belarusians managed to organize effective opposition to the military campaign.
- On the same day that Memorial received its Nobel Prize, a court in Moscow ordered the confiscation of the organization’s property in the city center, including its archives. Until now, people have been able to visit these archives to seek information about the fate of their relatives during the repressions of the Soviet era.
Why the world should care
The award is unlikely to offer any protection to Memorial, or aid it in its ongoing fight to be allowed to continue its work. Despite Muratov’s peace prize last year, Novaya Gazeta was shut down shortly after the beginning of the war and lost its media license last month.