Last week, Oleksandra Matviychuk accepted the Sakharov Prize on behalf of the Ukrainian people in the EU Parliament. The previous weekend, the 39-year-old Ukrainian also received the Nobel Peace Prize, which honored the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), which she heads. A few days ago Matwijtschuk came to Berlin for the premiere of the documentary "Oh, Sister", in which she plays. The moving short film, which is now also available online, describes the role of women in war. Matwijtschuk talks about her own role - and that of her organization - in an interview with ntv.de. She is also considering how she could use the prize money. And it's also about torture as part of Putin's warfare - and Russian culture.
ntv.de: Ms. Matwijtschuk, the "Centre for Civil Liberties" you founded was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. How important is such a prestigious award to your organization?
Oleksandra Matviychuk: It's a big responsibility. We haven't had the luxury of being heard before. Neither we, nor our colleagues in Russia. For decades, human rights activists have drawn attention to the fact that journalists have been killed, activists imprisoned and people persecuted for peaceful demonstrations in Russia. And how did the developed democracies react? They continued to shake hands with Putin, Germany built Nord Stream 2, business was done as usual. Nobody listened to us.
We have long tried to explain that a state that violates human rights in its own country is not only a threat to its citizens. In 2014, the world turned a blind eye when Russia annexed Crimea. Putin looked at this and realized: The West has swallowed everything, I can go on. Not only Putin is to blame for today's situation, not only the Russian people, who have imperial ambitions and have encouraged his government to wage aggressive war. The responsibility lies primarily with the international community, which has turned a blind eye for decades.
In addition to the CCL, the Nobel Prize this year also went to the Russian "Memorial" and to the Belarusian civil rights activist Ales Byaljazki. In Ukraine, there was mixed reaction to the Nobel Committee's decision to award joint awards to representatives of countries at war. Do you think this criticism is justified?
I don't share the criticism, but I can understand it. The media reported that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize. It reminded many of the Soviet myth of brotherly nations that Putin is now trying to revive. This is annoying. That is why we have repeatedly explained to Ukrainians that this is not a prize for countries, but a prize for people who fight together against the evil that is trying to establish itself in our region.
The Nobel Prize is endowed with the equivalent of more than 900,000 euros. Will the money be shared? Already know how to spend it?
The prize will be split between three organizations. With talks yet to begin on when the transfer will be made, there is still time to decide how best to use this money. Either for the needs of the population, the reconstruction of the country or to come to terms with the Russian war crimes.
The Center for Civil Liberties documents Russian war crimes. Since the war began, you've registered 27,000 cases. What are these crimes?
These are attacks on escape corridors, targeted shelling and destruction of churches, schools, hospitals and entire neighborhoods. These are filtration camps where people are illegally held, tortured and killed. It is the deportation of large parts of the population to Russian territory, forced adoption of Ukrainian children. We are registering how Russia is destroying Ukrainian identity in the occupied territories. It is obvious to us that this war has a genocidal character.
Can you explain that in more detail?
Human rights activists from Syria warned us against labeling medical aid with special labels, since that is exactly what the Russians are aiming for. The same applies to the word "children": the theater in Mariupol, in front of which "children" was written in large letters, was razed to the ground, although - or because - there were several hundred people inside. Civilians are kept as human shields in basements of buildings where the occupiers are stationed. In all liberated towns and villages we discover torture chambers. There people are cut into pieces, their limbs are severed, nails are torn off, they are tortured with electric shocks. This is atrocity unimaginable in the 21st century that has become part of Russian culture. People love to talk about Russian culture - that's how I see it.
Where do you think this cruelty comes from?
Of impunity. Russians really believe they can do whatever they want. You have never been punished for it. They think the law is not for them. A Russian colleague once said to me: "What surprises you? We had professors of international law at Moscow State University who said international law was for wimps. We are a strong nation." This impunity is a threat not only to Ukraine and other neighboring countries, but to the whole world.
In western Europe, part of the population is opposed to the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine and instead insists on a diplomatic solution.
You know, we're sitting here in Berlin now, drinking tea, the light is on, you can see a beautiful Christmas market from the window. In such an atmosphere it is very easy to talk about peace negotiations. But peace is not when a country under attack stops defending itself. Then it is not peace, but occupation. And I know what that means. I've been documenting crimes committed during the occupation for eight years. I have spoken to women who have been beaten and raped while pregnant. People who accuse us of not wanting to make peace because we don't agree with the occupation should get back to reality. The people of Ukraine want peace like no one else. But peace doesn't come if you just stop fighting.
In Germany, the slogan "This is not our war" is being heard more and more frequently from opponents of military aid to Ukraine. What do you make of it?
These people should read Putin's speeches, then they will understand who he is waging war against. Ukraine is rarely mentioned there. It's not a war between two countries, it's a war between two systems: authoritarianism and democracy. When Ukraine opted for democracy in 2014, Putin started this war - to stop us. In fact, war has been raging in Europe for a long time: information war, diplomatic war, energy war, economic war. The most important thing is to take the right steps in good time so that the military component is not added. Because if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will go even further. It's very naive to expect him to stop. History shows that authoritarian leaders have very large appetites. And they only stop when they are stopped.
But some people seem to want just that - a strong leader, an authoritarian regime.
It never ceases to amaze me that people who rave about authoritarianism and "strong leaders" live in developed democracies. You should move to Russia. It's very easy to support Putin while in Germany and enjoying all the benefits of western civilization. But if you support him, move back to the country - or rather the system - you are supporting. Let's see how long you last there.
In your Nobel Prize speech you called for solidarity and said: "You don't have to be Ukrainian to help Ukraine. It's enough just to be human". What can a humble person in Western Europe do to help?
You can call the war a war. You can write about Ukraine. You can collect donations, help refugees. It is very important for us to know that while we have no electricity and no heating - like in my Kiev apartment for example - millions of our mothers with children in Europe are safe. That gives strength to fight.
And what can people in Russia do?
Unfortunately, it is not Putin's war, but that of the Russian people. Because most Russians support him. It's an imperial culture, a culture based on the idea of so-called Russian greatness. Most Russians see their greatness in the violent restoration of the Russian - or Soviet - empire. This is why negotiations cannot stop Putin - he represents the desire of the Russian people who have not redefined their imperial past. But there are some marginal voices - unfortunately they are marginal - and they are very important. For example, the voices of the Russian human rights activists, who have been calling the war a war for the past eight years. They basically have no other means than their own word and their own position. People in developed democracies have many more opportunities to influence the situation.
What help can Western governments provide?
First and foremost, it's weapons that are sorely needed. In Germany, for example, there's still a ping-pong of excuses as to why it can't supply "Leopard" main battle tanks. Time flies, people die - and the discussions continue. These discussions are very painful against the background of the many people who die every day without these tanks. Sanctions are also very important. They will have a long-term impact, but we are now talking about the immediate future in which we must survive. There were still no sanctions that could have a rapid, cascading effect and bring down the Russian economy.
What does Ukraine need besides arms and sanctions?
We also need justice. Because all the horror that has become part of our lives is the result of the total impunity that Russia has enjoyed for decades. The Russians tortured and killed people in Georgia, Mali, Libya and Syria. There was a video a few years ago of the Russians filming a Syrian man chopping off his hands with a shovel and beating off his head. Then the man is cremated. And the Russians don't even hide their faces in the video. Our colleagues, Russian human rights activists, sought criminal prosecution, but this crime was not even registered. It has become part of Russian culture. Not Puschkin, not Dostoyevsky, but this demonstrative execution is the symbol of Russian culture for me. This is Russian culture and everything else is a cover.
We must end this impunity. We must bring the actual perpetrators to justice, as well as Putin, Lukashenko, the high military command and the political elite. Not just for justice for Ukrainians, but to stop them. So that they don't do the same in other countries in the future.
What is Ukraine fighting for in this war?
We fight for freedom in all its manifestations. The freedom to be an independent, sovereign country. The freedom to be Ukrainian and to be able to live our language and culture. And for the freedom to make our democratic choices. Russia did not start the war in 2014 because it was afraid of NATO. But because after the Revolution of Dignity Ukraine was given the opportunity to carry out democratic reforms. Putin is not afraid of NATO, but of the idea of freedom. And that's what we're fighting for.
How do you see the future of Ukraine after the war?
We all fight for victory. But victory for us does not only mean that all Russian troops leave Ukraine. Victory is achieved when we succeed in democratic change, when we can build democratic institutions. When we have human rights for all, when we have an independent judiciary, a government accountable to the citizens. We will have to work hard to make this transition. And we are already in the process of democratic reforms during the war. We are fighting to be included in the European family. I want to reiterate that Russia started the war just when our authoritarian regime fell and the road to European integration was opening.
Uladzimir Zhyhachou spoke with Oleksandra Matwijtschuk.