The decision to recognize Memorial alongside a Ukrainian group and Belarusian activist, said Yan Rachinsky, “is remarkable precisely because it shows that civil society is not divided by national borders.”
An embattled Russian rights group that received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was pressured by the Kremlin to decline the honor because of the Ukrainian organization and jailed Belarusian activist who also received the award, BBC News revealed Saturday.
“We were advised by our authorities to turn down this prize because they deemed co-laureates inappropriate,” Yan Rachinsky, the head of Memorial, said in an interview. “Naturally, we did not take notice of this advice.”
Along with Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group—which the Russian Supreme Court ordered to close last year—the 2022 recipients are the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties and Ales Bialiatski, founder of Viasna, a group that supports political prisoners.
Saturday’s Nobel ceremony comes more than nine months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko has been a key ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin throughout the war.
Calling the war “monstrous,” Rachinsky told the BBC that the Nobel Committee’s decision about the prize “is remarkable precisely because it shows that civil society is not divided by national borders—that it is a single body working to solve common problems.”
Rachinsky also acknowledged conditions in his country, saying that “in today’s Russia, no one’s personal safety can be guaranteed. This is perhaps the main distinction between Russia and civilized countries. In civilized countries, people can talk openly about their views, not risking being arrested if their views are different from those of their president.”
Since the February invasion, Russian authorities have responded forcefully to anti-war protests, arresting thousands of people across the country.
The BBC noted that “the Russian Foreign Ministry has been contacted for comment.”
Despite Russian authorities’ attempted crackdown on Memorial—the same day of the Nobel announcement in October, a Moscow court ordered the seizure of the group’s headquarters—members remain determined to continue its work.
“Memorial has two equally important main areas of work,” Rachinsky explained Saturday during a speech in Oslo. “The first is the establishment of historical memory about the period in our history known as the time of the ‘Great Terror’ carried out by the Soviet state against its people.”
“Second, Memorial fights for human rights in the countries formerly part of the Soviet Union,” he noted. “This includes the gathering, analysis, and publication of information about violations of human rights in areas considered ‘hot spots’ of conflict.”
— Memorial in English (@EnMemorial) December 10, 2022
The decision to honor Memorial during the war generated some controversy—which Rachinsky addressed. According to him, “The question that troubles us: Did Memorial really deserve to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?”
“Yes, we have tried to resist the erosion of historical memory and legal consciousness by documenting crimes of both the past and the present. Modesty aside, we have done a lot and accomplished more than a little. But did our work prevent the catastrophe of 24 February?” he continued. “The monstrous burden that fell on our shoulders that day became heavier after we received the news that the prize had been awarded to us.”
“Memorial is precisely a union of people who voluntarily assume civic responsibility for the past and present and work for the future,” he said. “And maybe we should take this award not only as an assessment of what we have managed to do in 35 years, but also as a kind of advance on what we aim to do, because we are not giving up and we continue to work.”