Ukrainian activists deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. The memorial of the Russian human rights group needs it.

No one has ever accused the Norwegian Nobel Committee of being too sensitive. Fortunately, this trait was much more visible in Kyiv.

The decision to award the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize simultaneously to Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian activists – even as Russia wages a genocidal, imperialist war in Ukraine and helps Minsk suppress Belarusian democracy – was, in all respects view, an affront. Writing with great magnanimity after learning that she and her colleagues had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Oleksandra Matviichuk – director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties – recalled the Soviet-era slogan, “For our freedom and yours”. “This story is about resisting common evil, that freedom has no borders and that human rights values ​​are universal,” she said.

But Matviichuk also acquiesced to the comments of the prominent Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk, furious that the Center for Civil Liberties was forced to share the award with Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and Russian human rights group Memorial. “I am happy that Ukraine received its first Nobel Prize and that one of its best human rights organizations received this prestigious award,” Kulyk wrote on Twitter. “I also respect the other two recipients. But I hate that the Nobel Prize committee, like many other Western structures and personalities, still sees Ukraine as part of the Eastern Slavic trio that must be brought into “peaceful coexistence”…by the wise and caring”.

No one has ever accused the Norwegian Nobel Committee of being too sensitive. Fortunately, this trait was much more visible in Kyiv.

The decision to award the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize simultaneously to Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian activists – even as Russia wages a genocidal, imperialist war in Ukraine and helps Minsk suppress Belarusian democracy – was, in all respects view, an affront. Writing with great magnanimity after learning that she and her colleagues had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Oleksandra Matviichuk – director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties – recalled the Soviet-era slogan, “For our freedom and yours”. “This story is about resisting common evil, that freedom has no borders and that human rights values ​​are universal,” she said.

But Matviichuk also acquiesced to the comments of the prominent Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Kulyk, furious that the Center for Civil Liberties was forced to share the award with Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski and Russian human rights group Memorial. “I am happy that Ukraine received its first Nobel Prize and that one of its best human rights organizations received this prestigious award,” Kulyk wrote on Twitter. “I also respect the other two recipients. But I hate that the Nobel Prize committee, like many other Western structures and personalities, still sees Ukraine as part of the Eastern Slavic trio that must be brought into “peaceful coexistence”…by the wise and caring”.

Kulyk, of course, is right. The committee’s decision carefully sidesteps the fact that the Center for Civil Liberties – which has perhaps done more than any other Ukrainian civil society organization to hold governments on all sides accountable for the lives and livelihoods of Ukrainians ordinary – must now pay attention to Russian war crimes. And it eludes the fact that Bialiatski, whose Viasna Human Rights Center helped Belarusians believe they could overthrow their own brutal dictator, is in prison because of Russia’s support for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. .

The committee’s decision documents that Memorial has also been running for years and that equally dedicated activists in Ukraine and Belarus have, for decades, never really been taken seriously by the committee or the West in general. The Center for Civil Liberty’s English Wikipedia page was created the day after the Nobel Peace Prize was announced. With a few admirable exceptions, Western observers have spent much of the last 30 years ignoring Ukrainian and Belarusian civil society, but it is this civil society that has enabled Ukraine and Belarus to resist war. and despotism. Indeed, it was a resilience that Russian activists could only envy – and often did.

If the price was penance, it was badly paid. As Ukraine fights Russia with one hand and knocks on Europe’s door with the other, sharing the prize with Russia and Belarus has left many feeling like they’ve been handed a ticket home to the east. Ukrainians, as Kulyk noted, have earned the right to choose their friends, and they are not bound by history or geography to find common cause with anyone.

Yet there is wisdom in the committee’s decision, intended or not: the only way to emerge a lasting peace in what was once the Soviet Union is if groups like Memorial – not just human rights groups rights, but militants determined to accept the crimes of the past – are succeeding. As much as Ukraine is rooted in Europe, a Russia that does not recognize the crimes of its distant and recent past is a Russia that will always represent a threat to its neighbours.

It is no coincidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine and his attack on Memorial began at the same time. In July 2014, while the Russian independent news site Mediazone recently reminded readers that Memorial has been declared a “foreign agent”, exposing it and its activists to harassment and prosecution, just four months after Russia’s first interventions in Crimea and Donbass. Two years later, authorities arrested Yury Dmitriev, a Memorial activist who literally unearths communist-era crimes in the Karelia region, ultimately sentencing him to 15 years in prison on trumped-up pornography charges. Two years later, Memorial’s offices in Chechnya were set on fire while authorities arrested local Memorial chief Oyub Titiev on similarly trumped up narcotics charges. By 2019, the fines accumulated against Memorial and its activists had reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. And on February 28, four days after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a Russian court ordered Memorial to be completely shut down and its websites blocked.

Since coming to power as prime minister in 1999, Putin has sought to pave Russia’s political landscape with an even layer of asphalt – an effort that spans tangible things like the media and political parties, all closely controlled by the president, to intangible things, such as ideas, ideologies and memories. To secure his reign, it was never enough for Putin to face no real opposition: he needed a stage entirely devoid of scenery, a shot of continuous, unadorned similarity, in which nothing would separate the past of the present or the future.

Putin, of course, was not the only autocrat to emerge after the end of the Soviet Union, but he was by far the most enduring and, at least in this respect, the most successful, precisely in because of this homogenizing impulse. Former Ukrainian Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych failed to impose authoritarian rule in Ukraine largely because they performed their roles on a stage crowded not only with other actors but also with meaning. Even before gaining independence, Ukrainian society was engaged in a conversation about what it meant to be Ukrainian and therefore what the Ukrainian state meant. This conversation continues today. As a result, each time Ukrainian presidents began to claim irresponsibility, they did not weigh heavily in a monotonous context, like Putin, but shrunk amid the spectacular ambitions Ukrainians had for themselves and for their state. On the Ukrainian political scene, groups like the Center for Civil Liberties were the unchanging chorus while would-be dictators were little more than passing actors.

Russians, on the other hand, never had that conversation about what it meant to be Russian and the purpose of their state. With few exceptions on the fringes of political and intellectual society, most Russians were handed their post-Soviet state without ever asking. Liberal reformers in the 1990s insisted that Russia needed no national ideas beyond democracy and the free market. Most ordinary Russians, of course, found little of either, but Russian politics never developed a language to speak for itself. In many ways, Memorial was as close as ever.

Founded in the Soviet Union in 1987 by a group of democratic activists and academics, Memorial was based on a simple principle: a country that fails to come to terms with its past will never build a better future. Two years after then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s progressive reforms, Memorial activists realized that tomorrow’s freedoms would not be guaranteed by today’s rhetoric. To sustain themselves and their leaders at a higher level, Soviet citizens had to take heed of the depths into which their state and society had fallen. The centrifugal forces unleashed by Gorbachev meant that 15 countries had to find their own way through this process. Of all the legacies Putin inherited from the Soviet Union, Memorial was the most unwanted.

The story with which Putin led Russia into war – a story of continuous and relentless threats, of eternal and unblemished greatness, and of inherent and unassailable righteousness – can only be told if the story itself ceases to exist. ‘to exist. People who believe that their country has never committed crimes in the past are more likely to believe that it could never do so now. To make this believe – in a land riddled with mass graves, where persecutors and persecuted still live side by side – requires not just rewriting history, but erasing it entirely. To rob Russians of their future, Putin first had to rid them of their past.

So there is no greater proof of Memorial’s failure than Putin’s assault on Ukraine, but there is also no greater proof of Memorial’s necessity. As Memorial activists regroup in exile, finding refuge for their archives in the West, they hold in the pages of the past the key to the future of Russia and, to some extent, that of Ukraine. More than Russian dissident Alexey Navalny’s ill-fated crusade against corruption, more than the defeated disavowal of that war by today’s dissidents, the greatest challenge to Putin’s power – a power his successors will inherit if Memorial does not not succeed – is the idea that Russia’s future must be different from its past.

When groups like the Center for Civil Liberties are successful, Ukraine can keep Russia at bay. If groups like Memorial are successful, Ukraine may not need them.

About Timothy Ball

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