“Two generations have lived without the threat of nuclear war,” Mr Muratov tells me. “But this period is over. Will Putin press the nuclear button, or won’t he? Who knows? No one knows this. There isn’t a single person who can say for sure.”
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling has been loud and frequent.
Senior officials have dropped unsubtle hints that Western nations arming Ukraine should not push Russia too far. A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
Then one of his closest aides, Nikolai Patrushev, warned that Russia had a “modern unique weapon capable of destroying any enemy, including the United States”.
Bluff and bluster? Or a threat that needs to be taken seriously? Mr Muratov has picked up worrying signs inside Russia.
“We see how state propaganda is preparing people to think that nuclear war isn’t a bad thing,” he says. “On TV channels here, nuclear war and nuclear weapons are promoted as if they’re advertising pet food.”
“They announce: ‘We’ve got this missile, that missile, another kind of missile.’ They talk about targeting Britain and France; about sparking a nuclear tsunami that washes away America. Why do they say this? So that people here are ready.”
On Russian state TV recently, a prominent talk-show host suggested that Russia “should declare any military target on the territory of France, Poland and the United Kingdom a legitimate target for [Russia]”.
The same presenter has also suggested “flattening an island with strategic nuclear weapons and carrying out a test launch or firing of tactical nuclear weapons, so that no one has any illusions”.
Yet state propaganda here portrays Russia as a country of peace, and Ukraine and the West as the aggressors. Many Russians believe it.
“People in Russia have been irradiated by propaganda,” Mr Muratov says. “Propaganda is a type of radiation. Everyone is susceptible to it, not just Russians. In Russia, propaganda is twelve TV channels, tens of thousands of newspapers, social media like VK [the Russian version of Facebook] that serves completely the state ideology.”
NATO condemns ‘dangerous’ Russian nuclear rhetoric
“But what if tomorrow the propaganda suddenly stops?” I ask. “If it all goes quiet? What would Russians think then?”
“Our younger generation is wonderful,” replies Mr Muratov. “It’s well-educated. Nearly a million Russians have left the country. Many of those who’ve stayed are categorically against what is happening in Ukraine. They are against the hell that Russia has created there.
“I am convinced that as soon as the propaganda stops, this generation – and everyone else with common sense – will speak out.”
“They’re already doing so,” he continues. “Twenty-one thousand administrative and criminal cases have been opened against Russians who’ve protested. The opposition is in jail. Media outlets have been shut down. Many activists, civilians and journalists have been labelled foreign agents.
“Does Putin have a support base? Yes, an enormous one. But these are elderly people who see Putin as their own grandson, as someone who will protect them and who brings them their pension every month and wishes them Happy New Year each year. These people believe their actual grandchildren should go and fight and die.”
Last year Mr Muratov auctioned off his Nobel Peace prize to raise money for Ukrainian child refugees. He has little optimism about the future.
“Never again will there be normal relations between the people of Russia and Ukraine. Never. Ukraine will not be able to come to terms with this tragedy.”
“In Russia political repression will continue against all opponents of the regime,” he adds.
“The only hope I have lies with the young generation; those people who see the world as a friend, not as an enemy and who want Russia to be loved and for Russia to love the world.
“I hope that this generation will outlive me and Putin.”