SAY WHAT? - In a surreal spectacle that managed to juxtapose the best and worst of abstruse humanity - its big beating heart alongside its enduring inequities and tendency to wage brutal pointless wars - an international audience of 1%ers amiably haggled Monday for a while before one of them bought the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize won by independent Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov at auction for a record-shattering $103.5 million, which will now go to help Ukrainian children displaced by the war; Muratov had earlier also pledged to donate his $500,000 prize money to give child refugees "a chance for a future." Muratov is the co-founder and longtime editor of Novaya Gazeta, established in 1993 after the break-up of the Soviet Union with - irony alert - money from former President Mikhail Gorbachev's Nobel Peace Prize, and one of Russia's last major media outlets critical of the Kremlin. For years Muratov had defied tightening restrictions - and occasional paint attacks - to produce Novaya Gazeta pieces on corruption in Russia, the wars in Chechnya and Crimea, and growing abuses by Putin. It survived long after most other outlets had closed or been blocked following Putin's invasion of Ukraine, but in March finally suspended both print and online operations after it became a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison to report anything on the war that veered from the government line. In today's Russia, says Muratov, "independent journalism is impossible."
Last October, Muratov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines. Each received their own medal to honor their battles to preserve free speech in their respective countries, despite ongoing harassment, censorship and death threats. Muratov dedicated his award to the memory of six Novaya Gazeta journalists murdered for their work, including some of the country's most high-profile critics of Putin. In his Nobel Lecture in December, Muratov blasted "the aggressive marketing of war" by those in power. "Today's ideologues promote the idea of dying for your country instead of living for your country," he said on what was then the 116th day of the Ukraine War. "It is obvious that freedom of thought has seen better days, and world peace was a fragile thing." Despite what he describes as dwindling support for the war in Russia, Muratov sees little hope of political change: "The powers-that-be (have) never been so monolithic...They're like the crew of a submarine with no escape." That take-no-prisoners unity, combined with "the tragedy" in Ukraine of so many civilians killed or fleeing, made him desperate to act. "What can you do when you feel yourself helpless?" he asks in a video. "I have never felt so helpless in my 60 years." Arguing "the world no longer has alien refugees," he came up with the idea of auctioning off his Nobel as "an act of solidarity" with the up to 14 million Ukrainian refugees.
His 23-carat Nobel, "the famous heavy gold medal," went on sale with Heritage Auctions in New York on Monday, to coincide with World Refugee Day; all proceeds will go to UNICEF to help child refugees. "We thought for a long time about what we could do, and we thought that everyone should give away something dear to them," said Muratove, who hopes the act will serve as "the beginning of a flashmob" to inspire people to do good. In the auction world, there was excitement for what a Heritage spokesperson called "a unique item being sold under unique circumstances." In video of the auction, a palpable buzz issues from the small, sedate crowd, many with phones pressed to their ears to connect with still-anonymous, very rich buyers looking to score a Nobel and feed some kids in the same uber-capitalist moment. Early Monday, the high bid was only $550,000. In fits and starts, with the crowd's applause and exclamations, it inched up: $750,000...$1.45 million...2 million...5 million. Suddenly a new bidder called, "$103.5 million." Gasps and cheers. Previously, the most paid for a Nobel was $4.76 million in 2014 when James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, sold his 1962 medal. Heritage's Joshua Benesh was awestruck, flabbergasted: "I don't really know what happened in there." Honestly, we don't either. But Muratov was happy. His country, he argued, had taken too many children's past. "We want to return their future," he said. "The most important thing we want to say and show is that human solidarity is necessary."