Russian TV program draws protests from Putin critics

March 18, 2012

Several hundred mostly young protesters gathered outside the main television center here Sunday afternoon to shout their disapproval of a television program that purports to show opposition demonstrators getting paid for their efforts and coordinating with the U.S. State Department.

Police detained more than 100 people for blocking pedestrian traffic outside the giant Ostankino TV building, among them the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov and the Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov.

The mood was angry, and the police were out in force. Squads pushed their way through the crowd, picking off demonstrators one by one and marching them to waiting vans. With each detention, the crowd shouted, “Shame! Shame!”

At a time when opposition passion appears to be losing some steam, the documentary-style television program “Anatomy of a Protest” has provoked considerable bad feeling. The program, shown on the NTV channel last week and scheduled to be repeated Sunday evening, takes on protesters who have demonstrated against electoral fraud and against president-elect Vladimir Putin with melodramatic flair. The opposition says the scenes showing demonstrators receiving cash or packages of food were faked — or, alternatively, show people who were getting compensated for turning out at pro-Putin rallies.

“They say we came for money. It’s not true,” said Gennady Fadeyev, 38, a film director. “I came out for free earlier, and I’m here for free today.”

Protesters tied cash to the branches of a tree outside the NTV headquarters and left little packages of cookies and fruit at its base, in a slap at the TV station.

One politician, Boris Nadezhdin, announced through his blog on the Ekho Moskvy Web site that he is suing NTV over the program and invited others to join him.

The film, he wrote, “must be recognized as untrue and denigrating the honor and dignity of citizens representing the Russian opposition, including myself.”

In the 1990s, NTV was a fiercely independent television station, but Putin brought it to heel when he first became president in 2000. Today it is owned by the state-controlled Gazprom company and is widely regarded as one of Putin’s biggest cheerleaders. Its news division specializes in implausible special investigations that link democrats and clean-government organizations to the U.S. State Department.

Oleg Andryanov, 32, said he first came to Ostankino a decade ago to protest in favor of NTV’s independence against Putin’s efforts to take control. “We couldn’t protect them then, and now look what they’ve turned into,” he said.

Alexander Leyfa, a 27-year-old translator, said people who turned out for the big protests in Moscow this winter were “humiliated by this so-called documentary.”

More would have turned out Sunday, he said, but people understood that there was no permit for the demonstration and were wary of the police.

“Me myself, I’m a bit afraid,” he said. “But I can’t be anywhere else.”

As the afternoon wore on, the crowd began to melt away. Although it was above freezing for one of the first times all year, a damp chill set in and demonstrators began singing old camp songs to keep warm. Among them was “Katyusha,” a Soviet World War II favorite.

Occasionally, they would turn to face the TV building and chant, “Shame on NTV.”

Then, at a still moment, someone shouted, “Swan Lake!” The Tchaikovsky ballet is indelibly associated by Russians — even those who were mere children at the time — with the failed hard-line Communist coup of 1991, when Soviet television played it over and over as a way of suppressing the news. For many, “Swan Lake” stands for cowardly television and the ultimate failure of those politicians who believe that only they can dictate events.

Police said those arrested Sunday face fines and administrative charges.

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