How a Russian TV Channel Lost World War II

Is World War II over? Not really, if the latest scandal in Russian media is any indication.

Is World War II over? Not really, if the latest scandal in Russian media is any indication.

On Jan. 27, Russians marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the siege of Leningrad. The 872-day blockade by Axis forces cut off supply lines to the Soviet Union's second city, where hundreds of thousands starved to death. The city held on grimly even as the German army marched to Moscow and then flooded southern Russia. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his acclaimed Seventh Symphony in the besieged city, where it was performed in 1942 by musicians living on four ounces of brown bread a day.

On the day of the anniversary, the cable channel TVRain decided to poll its viewers on a history question: "Would it have made sense to give up Leningrad to save hundreds of thousands of lives?" No one at TVRain expected the ensuing storm.

Patriots of every stripe used social networks to vent their anger at the channel, which boasts a monthly audience of 8 million on cable and satellite platforms and 1.5 million on the Internet. "A good thing my mother cannot see this," wrote one. "Would it make sense to hand over TVRain to normal people?" and "Have they gone nuts over there?" were typical reactions.

"I do not even know what to call these people," state radio host Armen Gasparyan tweeted, referring to the management of TVRain. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky replied to the tweet by writing, in capital letters, "THEY ARE NOT PEOPLE."

The liberal-leaning TV channel, the only broadcast outlet for news that state-controlled national networks will not cover and interviews with personalities banned on state TV, responded by removing the poll from the site and apologizing profusely. Ilya Klishin, the site's editor, called the poll "a mistake by the producer and the social networks editor." It was too little, too late. All parties in the Russian parliament made a point of condemningthe channel. "Such actions should be punished as crimes aimed at exonerating Nazism," said Irina Yarovaya of the ruling United Russia party.

By then it was clear that allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin had discovered a pretext to crush the channel. "It is obvious to us that a campaign has been unleashed against us," wrote TVRain editor Mikhail Zygar. The poll "did not aim to insult anyone."

Yuri Pripachkin, head of the Russian Cable Television Association, suggested that TVRain be taken off the networks but later clarified that the decision will fall to individual cable providers. Meanwhile, the Russian broadcasting regulator is considering a complaint against the channel that might result in official sanctions.

TVRain's owner and chief executive, Natalia Sindeeva, was disconsolate. "I did not go to work today and I am crying," she wrote on Facebook. "I feel very bad for all of us, for myself, my family. For those who are trying to get something done in a country that runs a steamroller over the smallest sprouts of common sense and conscience."

Sindeeva was not without allies. Liberals on social networks pointed out that the website of state television's main news program, Vesti, had published a Josef Goebbels quote under the heading "Great People's Quotes About Lenin." The state TV company VGTRK promptly removed the offending quote from its site and social network accounts. It apologized on its Facebook page, saying its entire social media team had been fired as punishment.

Calling Goebbels a "great man" is arguably a more serious transgression than questioning the wisdom of Josef Stalin in defending Leningrad. Both cases, however, touch on the sensibilities of a nation that views victory in World War II as one of its greatest achievements. Underestimating the power of such deep-seated feelings can have repercussions ranging from the dismissal of a few ham-handed state TV underlings to the possible closure of the only TV channel that dares to defy the Kremlin. Fake as much of the official outrage may be, the memory of World War II is more sacred to many Russians than any form of religion, and messing with it is no less dangerous than dancing in a church was for the the punk-performance group Pussy Riot.

(Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View contributor.)

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