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Vladimir Putin during the Russian Navy day in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 28, 2019.

Vladimir Putin during the Russian Navy day in St. Petersburg, Russia, on July 28, 2019. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

We can’t know what was said in those secret deliberations, but the Nobel Committee must have thought about giving Volodymyr Zelenskyy its Peace Prize. That would have been a popular choice — he easily topped the 2022 Time magazine reader poll for the most influential person of the year.

They were right instead to honor Ukrainian, Belarusian and Russian civil and human rights activists. The prize is “not against anyone,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chairwoman of the Nobel committee. And yet, on Vladimir Putin’s 70th birthday, it is clearly a repudiation of everything he stands for and an eloquent defense of the importance of both civil society and memory in building peace.

It’s not that Zelenskyy isn’t a strong or deserving candidate. The Ukrainian president’s uncommon courage and leadership has inspired a number of people under extreme duress, and he has made the democratic world think about freedoms we often take for granted and what it means to defend them. He’s fighting a war he didn’t choose, a war of necessity. But there were reasons to pause. As President Joe Biden noted grimly, the world is as close as it’s come to nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. What if awarding the prize to Zelenskyy prompted the ultimate act of defiance from Putin in his bid to win the war at any cost?

Last year’s prize, given to Filipino journalist and rights activist Maria Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, highlighted the importance of safeguarding freedom of expression. This year’s committee extends that to acknowledge the critical importance of collective memory and accountability too. Enlightened leadership is essential, but building peaceful, long-lasting democracies requires the bottom-up work of restoring trust and facilitating healing — work that this year’s recipients do.

Ales Bialiatski, the jailed Belarussian human rights activist who was awarded the peace prize, has led a nearly 30-year campaign to promote freedom and democracy and provide support for political prisoners. Like many human rights campaigners in authoritarian countries, he has endured extreme hardship in the service of cause. His award will hopefully embolden those working to end rule by dictatorship in Belarus and prevent Belarus from being dragged further into Putin’s war.

The other two prize recipients point to the importance of historical memory, something Putin has tried hard to wipe out. The Russian human rights organization Memorial emerged during the glasnost period to document crimes of the Soviet era. Its first chairman was the late Andrei Sakharov, who himself won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. His late widow, Elena Bonner, fought tirelessly for the same cause. In citing Memorial, the Nobel committee is, perhaps belatedly, acknowledging that there is no hope for long-term peace without historical record and accountability.

The Ukrainian human rights organization the Center for Civil Liberties, recognized for their “outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power,” is also an important part of this triad. Each week brings new evidence of war crimes in Ukraine that need to be painstakingly documented, investigated and ultimately prosecuted. That is a mammoth task, as justice for all victims is too tall an order. But any bulwark against future aggression must include the process of prosecuting war crimes. It will be important to have institutions that also hold Ukrainian authorities to account, too.

It’s easy to be cynical about the Peace (or any other) prize. Heaven knows, the committee has made choices over the years that were tin-eared or even downright regrettable. It has often seemed self-important and too trend-conscious. And yet, there is merit in remembering that in places of oppression and war, it is the daily acts of defiance by those on the ground, the efforts to bring justice and accountability and restore the bonds of civil society that give peace its greatest long-term chance.

As for Zelenskyy, the prize he needs is not a Nobel.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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