The Nobel Committee has once again made a controversial decision that angered many. It awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Belarusian human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski, the Russian human rights organization Memorial, and the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties.

Any award is bound to disappoint those passed over. No award selection is perfect, and some deserving candidates are always left behind. However, this peace prize was being awarded at a time of war, which serves as a source of additional conflict.

Yet the decision is entirely and very precisely in keeping with the committee’s goals, which were reiterated at the awards ceremony. It stands in opposition to attempts to divide nations into good and bad ones. It runs counter to the dehumanizing but, unfortunately, quite popular discourse that “bad nations” are devoid of good and deserving people—let alone public activists and organizations—who are important for the world.

To proponents of this discourse, every single activist and organization and regular subject of a dictatorship is its associate and accomplice. By awarding the prize jointly to people representing the aggressor, victim, and accomplice countries, the Nobel Committee is saying that that is simply not true. By giving two-thirds of the prize to residents of two dictatorial regimes, it is making it clear: they are not associates.

In these unpeaceful times, it’s important for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to emphasize that the demarcation line between victim and aggressor, good and evil, dignity and villainy is not synonymous with state borders or even the front line. In fact, this demarcation line separates individuals rather than the masses. By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to someone from Russia for the second time in a row—an exceptionally rare occurrence—at a time when Russia looks and is acting worse than perhaps ever before, the committee is sending a message to the world, and particularly to Russia’s European neighbors, who are trying to dispense with the above principle and simplistically divide nations. It’s a reminder from the committee that dividing people doesn’t bring peace.

The decision is also a resounding response to the Russian regime, which has accused the West of Russophobia and the cancelation of everything Russian. The committee is sending a message: “We are canceling the regime rather than Russia and Russian culture.”

This decision echoes the selection of the Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov and the Greek-Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis by the Cannes film and Salzburg opera festivals. Concert halls and bookstores that refuse to cancel their engagements with Russian performers and authors are guided by the same principles.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed similar sentiments in one of his best speeches of late. He stated that his country was ready to negotiate, but not with the current Russian leadership. In other words, he believes that there are people he can talk to in Russia, although their number has dwindled significantly.

That statement contrasts sharply, however, with those made by millions of his angry compatriots who believe there is no one at all to talk to in Russia. The decision by the Nobel Committee stands out similarly amid the chorus of Western opinions calling for the severing of any contact with any Russians.

The Nobel Committee acted the way it did because it knows the facts on the ground all too well. It doesn’t buy Russian President Vladimir Putin’s made-up concepts of the Russian world, the West, and history; nor, however, does it accept or encourage contrived paradigms from the other side. According to those paradigms, Ukrainians are by default European and democratic, while Russians are Asian and servile. It’s unclear where Belarusians, taken hostage by their dictatorial government and later by the Kremlin’s support for that government, fit on this continuum.

This is not the first time the Nobel Committee has awarded the same prize to warring parties. Moreover, the committee has occasionally brought together the leaders of warring states or territories, although, as a rule, they were signing truce or peace deals. Unlike with Palestine’s Yasser Arafat and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin or Ethiopia and Eritrea, however, this prize goes to allies rather than former enemies. Its goal is to encourage people fighting for rights and freedoms against state tyranny to conceive of themselves as allies. It serves as a call for action and a reminder.

Many may find this call and reminder uncomfortable. After the death and devastation that the Russian army has brought to Ukraine, many Ukrainians want to see no sign of Russians. Some may also think that the prize will shift international focus from the suffering of the Ukrainians to the people of the country that inflicted that suffering on them. In their view, the outside world will now believe that Russia also has some fighters and victims who deserve our concern, which effectively equates the victim and the aggressor.

Finally, Ukraine simply doesn’t want to find itself in the abominable company of countries headed by two intellectually bankrupt leaders and inhabited by people who largely appear content to sleep through their leaders’ historical dreams and do nothing to wake up from them.

Faced with a choice between pleasing Ukraine and trying to bring a just peace to Europe, the Nobel Committee chose the more complex task, but stayed true to its charter. The prize awarded to the adversaries of Putin and of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko implies that peace won’t be reached on the Kremlin’s terms. But the choice of winners representing these particular nations suggests that true peace will have to involve all three of them.

Even before the war, many actively supported the division of Europe. The Nobel Committee is reminding us that we can’t built a new European post-war order, however just, by building a new wall.

The award also restates an obvious fact: any Ukrainian victory will be incomplete without help from Russia, and an incomplete victory won’t make the country safe. Only help from forces inside Russia, including Memorial and its counterparts, can ensure a complete and shared victory. The award is a reminder that the current threat to Europe and the world can be eliminated by changing Russia from the inside. Any other solution of the “Russian question” may be impossible or self-destructive due to geographic proximity, size, resources, and the nuclear threat.

Of course the West is disappointed with today’s Russia. Hopes for a predictable country focused on Western values rather than phantom pains were dashed, so even the most rational minds may consider punishment a possible solution. But simply punishing a country for unfulfilled dreams has never made the world a better place.

Awarding the prize to Memorial and a Belarusian activist is a down payment for changes in the future. Both regimes are still standing, which means that the human rights activists haven’t quite accomplished their mission. Memorial, which worked for decades to expose the truth about victims of Stalin-era repression, told us about the horrors of the Soviet dictatorship, but failed to thwart the emergence of a new one.

The Nobel Committee doesn’t necessarily reward victories, however. Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Poland’s Lech Walesa won their prizes while they were still being persecuted. In fact, the Nobel Prize often finds those who can be trusted in untrustworthy states, those who can help their societies to overcome the malaise. And it simply reaffirms that such people do exist. 

  • Alexander Baunov