Should Oleksandra Matviychuk Share the Nobel Peace Prize With Russians?

Human-rights champions from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus will share the prize, given not to countries but to people working to change them.

A TV screen showing the face of Oleksandra Matviychuk, as if on a video-call
Oleksandra Matviychuk (Samuel Corum / Getty)

Last spring in Kyiv, in the spartan second-floor office of the Center for Civil Liberties—which has just received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize—I met the organization’s leader, Oleksandra Matviychuk. I didn’t know much about her then, and she was pressed between appointments, and the interview threatened to become the kind whose purpose neither side understands. But within a few minutes I realized that she was a remarkable person doing remarkable work.

Matviychuk is a 39-year-old human-rights lawyer. She began working for the Center for Civil Liberties at its founding, in 2007. During the Revolution of Dignity, in 2013–14, when Ukrainians drove out their corrupt pro-Russian president and set the country in a Westerly direction, Matviychuk started a project to give legal help to protesters faced with state persecution. Later, she became a leading voice for releasing political prisoners in Russia and Belarus, for aligning Ukraine’s criminal code with international human-rights standards, and for the rights of Ukrainian women. After the February invasion, Matviychuk and the Center for Civil Liberties immersed themselves in the terrible, essential work of talking to survivors of the Russian occupation and documenting war crimes for future prosecutions—ultimately, for justice.

In their campaign of terror, Russian troops were targeting not just prominent people like her, but families fleeing in cars, ordinary people on bicycles: “They killed them only because they can.” I asked how Matviychuk was able to build trust with traumatized, grief-stricken survivors. “Through action,” she said. “They see that we are fighting.” The work demands and creates immediate trust between strangers—“There are no strangers in the current moment”—and a willingness to take risks on the part of people long inured to mutual suspicion from the Soviet era. “It’s a calling which I would never choose by myself,” she said. “I have never expected myself to document war crimes. If I had a chance, I would try to avoid such a destiny, but we had no chance.”

As Matviychuk spoke, her blue eyes stayed fixed on mine and seemed to grow larger and brighter in her pale, thin, serious face. At one point, when I asked what effect the Russian invasion was having on her, those eyes suddenly filled with tears.

“I feel two huge waves of emotion,” she said. The first, she said, is “rage,” at the monstrous unfairness of a war whose purpose is to destroy the democratic society that Ukrainians were working so hard to build. And the second is “love,” for the solidarity and generosity the war has inspired among Ukrainians. “As you see, I’m too emotional, because it’s very hard to live on the two poles.”

The Center for Civil Liberties shares the Peace Prize with Memorial, a Russian organization that for years exposed the crimes of the Soviet Union, before being banned last year by the Putin regime; and with Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned dissident in Belarus. For this reason, the prize has been denounced by Ukrainians who object to any implied equivalence between a country under invasion and the two aggressor countries.

The announcement’s closing words—“this year’s laureates have revitalised and honoured Alfred Nobel’s vision of peace and fraternity between nations”—have come in for particular criticism, as if Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine should all just try to get along. This criticism implies that the prize was given to countries, not to human-rights champions who live in and want to change them. Mykhailo Podolyak, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky, wrote on Twitter: “Nobel Committee has an interesting understanding of word ‘peace’ if representatives of two countries that attacked a third one receive @NobelPrize together. Neither Russian nor Belarusian organizations were able to organize resistance to the war.”

Russia’s eight-year war against Ukraine and eight-month campaign to destroy the country have ignited an incandescent rage. It’s burning up the vestigial ties between Ukrainians and Russians. It’s reducing Russian to a language of oppression that Ukrainians increasingly shun (one writer predicted to me that it would inevitably disappear from Ukraine). It’s threatening to choke off the space for honest self-examination and self-criticism that’s been an important feature of Ukraine’s path to democracy. Several Ukrainian journalists told me that self-censorship from peer pressure, even more than state censorship, has become a wartime hazard. There’s a thin line between the spirit of national solidarity under existential threat—the love that Matviychuk sees in her compatriots and feels toward them—and the dark side of nationalism, which is intolerance, groupthink, mythmaking. It’s almost impossible to suffer and struggle as Ukraine is doing without feeling that no one else understands, that nothing the outside world says or does is enough.

Wondering what Matviychuk might think of the criticism of the Peace Prize, I went back to my notes from our conversation and found these words: “I hope that we will be able to overcome the rage, because sooner or later the war will finish, and we will have to continue building a civilized world.” She added, “Maybe, in such a crisis, you go beyond some borders like nationality or region, because we are humans. We see ourselves now like people who are fighting for freedom, for human values. For us it doesn’t matter if you are Ukrainians or not. We closely cooperate with Russian human-rights defenders, with Belarusian human-rights defenders. We understand their willingness to help is because we are all human.”