The backlash against the poll published by Dozhd, Russia's only dissenting TV channel, played into government efforts to monopolize the media's message.
Alexander Zemlianichenko / Reuters
Russia's sole liberal-leaning independent TV station, the Moscow-based Dozhd (whose name translates as "Rain"), has found itself the brunt of public outrage, dropped by several leading cable providers, and put under investigation by the prosecutor's office – all for running a controversial history-themed online poll last week.
The poll asked viewers whether the Soviet city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, should have been surrendered to the Nazis in 1941 in order to spare its citizens the mass agonies of the brutal 900-day siege that killed as many as 800,000 people. The 70th anniversary of the lifting of the siege took place on January 27.
Anything to do with World War II remains profoundly sensitive in Russia, so it wasn't hard to predict that the revisionist tone of the question would stir up controversy. Amid a wave of public indignation and complaints from war veterans, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the poll "crossed all the lines of the permissible.... Once we show even the slightest tolerance of surveys like that, we’ll start an erosion of the nation, erosion of our memory, the genetic memory of our people."
The St. Petersburg legislature passed a resolution calling on Russia's chief prosecutor to "conduct an investigation into provocative material posted on [Dozhd] website … and, if just cause is found, take appropriate measures, including shutting down the channel." A leading pro-Kremlin deputy in the State Duma, Irina Yarovaya, called the online poll an attempt "to justify the crimes of Nazism and insult [our] national memory" and put forward a draft law that will criminalize any public speech that is deemed to "whitewash Nazism."
More ominously for Dozhd – which immediately removed the offending poll and apologized – is that at least four major cable providers swiftly cut the station from the packages they offer to viewers. Dozhd CEO Natalia Sindeyeva told journalists she was certain that the companies acted on clear instructions from the Kremlin. "All representatives of these operators told us off the record today that they received an order to find any reason – a technical, commercial, ideological or contractual one – to terminate the contracts," with Dozhd, she said.
Defenders of Dozhd point out that the scrappy Internet-based station has been the target of official threats pretty much since it launched five years ago. It has consistently offered thorough alternative coverage, spun mainly for educated liberal-minded viewers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, from events such as the Russian protest movement that erupted in 2011 to the anti-Russian unrest currently shaking neighboring Ukraine.
"Somebody's had it in for Dozhd for quite awhile," says Nikolai Svanidze, a prominent TV journalist and member of Russia's semi-official Public Chamber. "That's how one unprofessional, bad question led to the station being driven out. It was not formally due to official action, but the operators understood what the authorities wanted and acted accordingly," he says.
The Dozhd affair offers a glimpse into how things work in Mr. Putin's Russia, where blunt Soviet-style censorship is a thing of the past. After all, Dozhd remains fully accessible online, which is how it traditionally reaches about 90 percent of its viewers. But there is a strong whiff of political interference in the push against it. That makes it different from the West, where impersonal market forces and corporate media management shape – and perhaps distort – the information landscape.
Ironically, the Kremlin funds a 24-hour English-language TV network, RT, which devotes itself to a sometimes thoughtful, sometimes flaky, critique of Western politics in general, and the alleged shortcomings of the US "mainstream media" in particular. Even more ironically, RT remains accessible to the majority of American viewers only online because, despite some inroads in recent years, big US cable operators remain reluctant to pick it up. However, RT's own perfunctory and rather unsympathetic coverage of Dozhd's tribulations lacks any awareness of such ironies, and has none the analytical punch it might bring to the story if it were happening anywhere but Russia.
"What's happening to Dozhd is completely predictable, because Putin is extremely sensitive on anything that touches on the Great Patriotic War," says Andrei Kolesnikov, editor at the opposition weekly Novaya Gazeta, using the Russian term for World War II. "Much of the legitimacy of the current Kremlin system rests upon the reflected glory of the great Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, and it is used heavily by Putin. It's perfectly possible that big cable operators got phone calls from the Kremlin, as Sindeyeva claims, but it's pretty certain that they knew Putin's mind about this without being told."
"This is a very telling episode about the atmosphere in the country today. There are certain unwritten rules. Everyone knows them, and people who want to keep their positions and businesses make sure those rules are obeyed," Mr. Kolesnikov says.
Ms. Sindeyeva told journalists that the Leningrad poll was merely a pretext, and that authorities had probably decided to drive the station from the public space over other stories it has covered, such as its recent hard-hitting segment on luxurious countryside residences of Kremlin officials, based on a report by the anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.
Kolesnikov adds that the timing of the campaign against Dozhd is also probably affected by the current unrest in Ukraine, which has deeply worried the Kremlin.
Some commentators point out that the storm of outrage against the station does not accurately reflect the state of Russian political culture. Indeed, a current 9th-grade history textbook approved by the Ministry of Education suggests an almost identical question for class discussion. "At the end of the twentieth century, some views were expressed that too great a price was paid for the defense of Leningrad, that it might have been better to surrender the city to the Germans and thus save the lives of people who died during the siege. How can you evaluate such statements?" the question reads.
But coming from a liberal-leaning station, on an important anniversary of the war, was probably a predictable trigger for public outrage, say some experts.
"There's no reason for Americans to be smug, you have your raw-nerve topics too," says Boris Kagarlitsky, a long-time left-wing activist and director of the independent Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements. For instance, he says, what if an American anchor posed a provocative question about the Holocaust, or some station ran a poll asking viewers whether the terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 might have had valid motives?
"Of course pro-Kremlin propaganda used it as a pretext to launch an attack on Dozhd, and that's bad for free speech in Russia," Mr. Kagarlitsky says. "But the unmentioned scandal here is that 54 percent of Dozhd viewers who responded to that online poll actually said that Leningrad should have been surrendered to the Nazis. That shows how totally disconnected the small minority of privileged, upper middle class people who comprise Dozhd's audience are from the majority of Russians. There is this deep split in Russian society, and it is staring us in the face here."