Dmitry Muratov, a Russian free speech activist and 2021 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, told a select group of Montana State University students on Wednesday that his hope for a better world lies with their generation.
“I have no hope in anyone with the exception of 20, 25, 30-year-olds,” Muratov said through an interpreter during a mid-day question-and-answer session in the Strand Union Building. “Your generation is connecting to the future.”
Muratov is founder and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper that has reported on government corruption and human rights since 1993. Since 2000, six journalists working for the paper have been killed, believed to have been targeted for their investigative work.
When asked by a student if, looking back on his career, he would do anything differently, Muratov spoke about wanting to shut the paper down after the reporters were killed.
“If we had been a little smarter or more cautious, some of the journalists could have been saved,” Muratov said. “Even the best reporting, the most important investigations, are not worth their lives.”
Novaya Gazeta has continued to publish, despite having its print and online media licenses in Russia rescinded. The paper’s reporting is disseminated via email and on YouTube, which “somehow has not yet been blocked in Russia, but it’s going to be – it’s just a matter of time,” Muratov said.
According to Muratov, since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine a year ago, the Russian government has shut down all independent media outlets. Thousands of journalists, he said, have been forced to leave the country, many labeled “enemies of the state, foreign agents or undesirables.”
Merely uttering the word “war” in Russia is a criminal offense, he added, and nobody seems to be immune to prosecution.
“That’s why, my friends, free speech is mutually exclusive with war – war is impossible when there is free speech,” he said. “In order to start a war, you have to shut down free speech and silence alternate forms of information.”
Muratov called the remaining newspapers, along with all 12 federally owned Russian broadcast channels, government propaganda outlets, and he said their influence is undeniable. After Russia invaded Ukraine, “a split took place within the nation,” he said, adding that Russians 18-40 tend to be radically against the war while the older generations – “products of the propaganda”— support Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Propaganda is the new religion,” he said.
Though Muratov said he no longer believes that “hope” will effect change, he does believe members of civil society can do so by the assisting the 14 million Ukrainian refugees who need housing and medical services.
He also reminded the students that they have tremendous power to influence public opinion.
“We are standing on the verge of the third world war – where is the young generation of students?” he asked. “Without strong emotion, the public will grow weary and come to accept dictatorship.”
He ended the session by telling the story of a 10-year-old girl in war-torn Ukraine who prayed amid bombed-out ruins for life for herself and her country. He said he would like to see the world’s media outlets, social media platforms and influencers display and broadcast the prayers of that girl and countless other Ukrainian children.
“What’s important to get across to every person is that the life of this child is in your hands,” he told the students. “In that sense, each one of us is media.”
Students who attended the class said Muratov’s remarks about propaganda and the power of free speech to deter war were particularly impactful.
Freshman Gavin Thorson, a chemistry and economics major who speaks Russian and was able to ask a question of Muratov in his own language, said the hour with the Nobel Prize winner was “fantastic,” because he so easily engaged with the students and thoughtfully answered their questions.
“I come from a town of 700 people, and here I was speaking Russian to a 2021 Nobel Prize winner,” said the Mabel, Minnesota native. “I never imagined having an experience like this when I came to MSU.”
Thorson was one of 35 students from a variety of disciplines who were invited to participate in the master class, said Carmen McSpadden, director of the MSU Leadership Institute, which organized Muratov’s visit to campus. The master class was arranged, coordinated and executed by the institute’s student staff, she said.