The pay-TV channel 'Dozhd' is a thorn in the Kremlin's side. Now, a controversial poll about the Siege of Leningrad is being used as an excuse to axe the station from cable networks.
January 27 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of St. Petersburg toward the end of the Second World War. For nearly 900 days, the city - known as Leningrad in Soviet times - was besieged and bombed by German troops. To avoid having to provide the population with food, Hitler gave the order for the city not to be captured, but instead, blockaded. Around 649,000 people died - 632,253 of them from hunger and cold, according to figures presented during the Nuremberg Trials. Since then, the number of victims has been revised upwards to as many as 1.5 million. Today the Siege of Leningrad is recognized as one of the worst war crimes carried out by the Nazis.
On the siege's anniversary, the Moscow TV channel "Dozhd," also known as TV Rain, conducted an online poll, asking whether the Soviets should have surrendered Leningrad to the Germans in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives. Fifty four percent of respondents said "yes." The survey sparked an outcry, with several providers opting to drop the channel. The St. Petersburg Prosecutor's Office is reviewing whether the channel went too far. But many Russian intellectuals believe the survey is being used as an excuse to censor the opposition channel and perhaps get it shut down for good.
Live coverage of Ukraine's unrest
The private TV channel Dozhd is a rarity in the Russian television landscape. Nearly two thirds of the station's programming - political talk shows, news, analytical and experimental formats - are broadcast live. Dozhd gives government critics the chance to come on camera, when they've been barred from appearing on other networks. The anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, for example, was given generous airtime to talk about the undeclared assets and property of the State Duma deputies and other high ranking officials.
A more recent example is the reporting of pro-European demonstrations in Ukraine. Protesters occupying Kyiv's Independence Square are routinely branded as ultra-nationalists and criminals by Russian State TV. On the other hand, Dozhd reports on police brutality and attempts by Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych to "putinize" the country.
Dozhd is a pay-TV channel, which is currently distributed via cable, satellite and the internet. An annual subscription costs about 1000 rubels (22 euros, $30). Broadcasts can be watched online for free, but viewer numbers there are limited to a few hundred thousand. Dozhd is also a partner channel of Deutsche Welle. Three times a week there are live spots, with Viacheslav Yurin of the DW's Russian service reporting on the latest events in Germany.
Legitimate question or reckless provocation?
Dozhd website editor Ilya Klishin took to Twitter almost immediately after the first backlash against the poll: "The unethical question about the Siege of Leningrad was a mistake by the channel's producers and the editor responsible for social networks. The question has been removed. We apologize."
But the Russian Parliament had already jumped on the case. "What we saw on Dozhd's website is a direct insult to the sacred memory of war, and those who died during the siege," wrote Irina Yarovaya, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia party. "Such acts should be seen as crimes attempting to rehabilitate Nazism."
The Communists and members of the Liberal Democratic Party in the State Duma also strongly criticized the poll. But among ordinary Russians, any attempt to shake the myth of the Second World War is also seen as blasphemy.
An excuse to censor
Those defending Dozhd's actions are divided. According to Igor Yakovenko, the head of the foundation, Social Expertise, neither the wording nor the question about the Siege of Leningrad are grounds for such moral outrage. It's a question that also occurred to the writer and war veteran Viktor Astafyev: Are buildings and machines more important than people? Is the state there to serve the people, or the people to serve the state?
For Russia's Human Rights Commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, the poll was a mistake, and the timing was completely wrong. However, he told Russian news agency Interfax he was strictly against shutting the TV channel down. This would mean "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut," he said.
The German example
Both Dozhd opponents and supporters referred to Germany, where the 70th anniversary of Leningrad's liberation was marked with a speech by 95-year-old St. Petersburg author Daniil Granin in the German parliament.
Vadim Ampelonski, spokesperson for Roskomnadzor, Russia's federal service for the supervision of media and communications, strongly condemned Dozhd's survey, and addressed Granin's parliament speech, which was broadcast on DW-TV.
"Compared to the media debacle in the victorious country on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the blockade, the German society and media have demonstrated a very different level of civic and moral maturity," argued Ampelonski in an interview with Interfax.
Russian journalist Boris Sinyavsky reached a different conclusion. Under the headline, "History is an old whore, politics is too - just a young one," he described how members of the parliament were shaken by Granin's speech, but not outraged, as is often the case with Russian MPs. The reasons for the indignation in the Duma, the journalist wrote, can be explained by the fact that more than half of Russia's population are trapped in the communist propaganda myths of the past. The Russians, Sinyavsky writes, are still struggling to escape Stalin's shadow - as individuals perhaps, but not as an entire country.