The 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award 2021 ceremony

The 2021 Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award ceremony took place in Oslo City Hall Friday 29 October – on the day commemorating the names of victims of Soviet repression, in the year Andrei Sakharov would have turned 100 years.

Both occasions draw a clear line from the past to the award laureate Yuri Dmitriev – a historian and Memorial activist from Russian Karelia. He has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to excavation and identification of victims of Soviet terror, and the return of their names and search of justice. From mass graves in Sandarmokh hiding the remnants of more than 9000 persons of 58 nationalities, Dmitriev has provided the families of over 5000 of them with a name, a memory and a grave.   

In place of praise, Dmitriev is now one of Russia’s more than 421 political prisoners, and he could therefore not attend the ceremony himself. He is serving a sentence of 13 years in Petrozavodsk on trumped-up charges, and the case is ongoing.  

His friend and colleague Anna Yarovaya, journalist from Karelia, received the award on his behalf. Deeply moved by the occasion, she read a speech that Dmitriev had passed on via his daughter visiting him in prison.  

“We were under the impression that these awful times were behind us. But those who claim that history is circular turned out to be right. In Russia, the repressive system has been reactivated. Once again, people who disagree with the authorities’ current political direction are arrested and imprisoned. The pretext for the arrest is once again reasons constructed by the terrified authorities. Newspapers and periodicals, as well as television and Internet publications, are once again being closed at the request of the government in my country. More and more people are being forced to flee the country, fearful for their lives and the lives of their children, family and loved ones. 

No matter how difficult the human rights situation currently is in our country, we are convinced that our efforts are not in vain”, he writes.  

Read the letter in its entirety here. 

“ In recognition of his courageous and outstanding work to promote human rights in the pursuit of dignity and justice for victims of Soviet terror”, Secretary General Geir Hønneland was proud to award the 2021 Sakharov Freedom Award to Anna Yarovaya on behalf of Yuri Dmitriev.   

“Thank you for appreciating my work so highly. I will continue to work on the return of names, the restoration of our tragic history, and enlightenment as much as possible in my current condition.”

In her welcoming speech, Mayor of Oslo Marianne Borgen underlined the honour of hosting the Andrei Sakharov Freedom Award at the Oslo City Hall this year – 100 years since the birth of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  

– We have to encourage and support those who have the strength to stand up against human rights violations and fight for disarmament, civil rights and democracy.

 

The well-known opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza held the keynote address and underlined the link between the unresolved issues of the past with today’s regime. – Russia is not a place where human rights reign, he said. There are more political prisoners in Russia today than at the end of the Soviet Union.  

– What is happening to Dmitriev – what is happening to everyone of those hundreds of modern-day political prisoners – is a stark reminder of the grave mistake Russia’s short-lived democratic government made in the 1990s by its inability – or its unwillingness – to fully come to terms with the Soviet past. Unlike other countries of Eastern Europe, Russia never went through a process of full decommunization and lustration, of opening the archives, disbanding the old security services, condemning the crimes of the former regime, and making it impossible for their perpetrators to ever return to positions of power. “We don’t need witch-hunts,” was a popular argument offered by opponents. The most farsighted of Russian democrats – people like Galina Starovoitova and Vladimir Bukovsky – responded that the witches would soon return and start a hunt of their own. They turned out to be exactly right. 

State Secretary Eivind Vad Petersson: – Norway is deeply disturbed by Yuri Dmitriev’s imprisonment. We thank him for his courage and unyielding quest for truth.

The ceremony was beautifully accompanied by Marthe Wang trio, whose last song was dedicated to a hope for the future. Likewise, Vladimir Kara-Murza ended on a positive note and encouragement:  

– Soviet dissidents liked to say, “Night is darkest before the dawn.” Today is a dark time in Russia – a time when journalism is replaced by propaganda; when elections are meaningless rituals with predetermined outcomes; when peaceful demonstrators are beaten and arrested; when leading opponents of the regime are shot in the back in the Kremlin’s shadow or poisoned with chemical weapons. But the dawn will come – and the tens of thousands of young Russians who went to the streets across the country earlier this year in support of a different vision and a different future are best testimony to that coming change. 

– For now, it is important that the free world stands in solidarity with those who are persecuted for their audacity to think for themselves. Former Canadian minister of justice and one of the world’s foremost advocates for human rights Irwin Cotler once wrote that the worst nightmare for a political prisoner is to be forgotten. Today’s ceremony is an important antidote to forgetfulness. Let us strive towards the day when there are no political prisoners in Russia, across Europe, or across the world. Let us, as Andrei Sakharov did, believe in the power of human spirit. And let us work together to bring the dawn a little closer.

 

On the occasion of the 100 years since Sakharov’s birth, the NHC had commissioned a short film dedicated to Sakharov’s legacy – recorded in his flat in internal exile in Nizhnyy Novgorod. Profiled, local human rights activists praise his bravery and encourage today’s activists to appreciate how Sakharov stood up for what he believed in at a time much more challenging than today. Watch the film below:

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