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Russian dissident wins German human rights prize

Andrej Kern
February 1, 2024

Sergei Lukashevsky is an important voice of the Russian opposition. After fleeing Moscow, he fought for a free Russia via Radio Sakharov. He has now been honored for his activism.

One man presents an award to another, behind them an orchestra
Conductor Adam Fischer (right) established the Human Rights Prize, which Sergei Lukashevsky (left) won this yearImage: Susanne Diesner

Sergei Lukashevsky left Moscow with his family in March 2022 following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Now in exile, he left behind a long-running struggle against Vladimir Putin's increasingly brutal regime.

Lukashevsky spent the previous 14 years in Russia as the head of the Sakharov Centre in Moscow, probably the most renowned human rights organization in the country.

Named after the Soviet-era civil rights activist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the center had long been a vocal critic of the Russian leadership. It was declared a "foreign agent" in 2012 and finally closed in the summer of 2023 after it was denied funding.

'Radio Sakharov': Platform for a new Russia

Like tens of thousands of other Russian intellectuals, Sergei Lukashevsky now lives and works in Berlin.

"For the first few months after February 24, 2022, we remained in a state of shock in the face of this catastrophe," said the 48-year-old historian.

But then he took on a new challenge. With the support of the research collective "Correctiv,"´Lukashevsky and his colleagues set up the exile medium "Radio Sakharov": A radio station and podcast platform. The idea has been to revive the Sakharov Center as a global information and exchange platform for anyone who wants to help shape a new Russia after Putin.

A two-storey house with a forest behind it.
Too critical: The Sakharov Center in Moscow displeased Putin - and was closed downImage: Valery Sharifulin/TASS/IMAGO

In recognition of these efforts, Sergei Lukashevsky was awarded the 2024 Human Rights Award of the Tonhalle Düsseldorf on January 28.

The prize, which comes with a €10,000 endowment, was established by conductor Adam Fischer, a Hungarian-born musician who had his own experience with dictatorial regimes — and whose grandparents died in the Holocaust.

"The terrible wars and conflicts that are currently raging around the world, be it Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine, Hamas' attack on Israel and the resulting devastating war in Gaza, must not tempt us to relativize human rights violations, to view them from a national perspective through one lens or another," said Fischer in his tribute speech.

Even if it is difficult to remain neutral, one should never forget that "human rights are absolute," Fischer added. "They are universal, regardless of gender, religion, origin or political opinion."

Russia: What happens next?

For Sergei Lukashevsky and his colleagues, the prize is much more than a symbolic gesture of recognition. Due to the active solidarity of German society, it is also an opportunity to draw attention to their work and the existence of a pro-democratic opposition in Russia.

"The recognition of this fact is also important for the survival of Western Europe," emphasized Lukashevsky.

A man sits in front of a microphone.
Editor-in-chief of 'Radio Sakharov': Sergei LukashevskyImage: DW

The activist believes that Russian autocracy under Vladimir Putin will not survive. "Of course, this regime is also coming to an end,” said Lukashevsky. "We can't say exactly when, but it's just a matter of time."

As a historian, he is primarily concerned with the question: What role should Russia play in the future?

"You have to completely rethink the entire Russian history, especially that of the last three decades," he said. "And this work must be done now."

Whether at home or abroad: "Russia belongs to Europe — no matter what is happening there. And the fact that Russian society does not only consist of Putin and his circle is of central importance not only for the future of Russia but also for Western countries.

The idea that Russian society has fallen completely silent is wrong, the dissident insists.

Musicians standing onstage.
The musicians of the Tonhalle Düsseldorf played at the award presentation Image: Susanne Diesner

In an official opinion poll conducted by Russia's central television channel, 12% of Russians said they did not support the "special military operation," as Putin calls the war against Ukraine.

"With a population of over 140 million, we are talking about many millions of courageous people,” Lukashevsky emphasized, adding that the prize he won also belongs to all these people who have risked much to freely express their views.

2024 marks the ninth time that the Tonhalle Düsseldorf Human Rights Prize has been awarded. Previous winners include the climate activists from Fridays for Future Germany (2021), the Turkish cultural promoter and human rights activist Osman Kavala (2022) and the Iranian activist Sanaz Azimipour from the "Woman*Life Freedom Collective Berlin" (2023).

This article was originally written in German.