MOSCOW — A lesson for Russian media: Be careful what you ask for.
Someone at Dozhd TV, a popular, independent television channel, thought that the 70th anniversary this week of the lifting of the siege of Leningrad would be a good time to get its viewers’ opinions on a simple question.
“Should Leningrad have been surrendered to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?”
World War II is a sacred subject in Russia, where it is known as the Great Patriotic War. It’s not a topic that invites examination, skepticism or counterfactuals. The facts, as understood in Russia, are that the Soviet people, through tremendous and heroic sacrifice, saved their country and the rest of the world from the Nazis. The story of Leningrad — today’s St. Petersburg — is part and parcel of that understanding.
Moving beyond those facts, which are largely correct, is not welcome.
Leningrad endured a siege by the German army that lasted 900 days, from 1941 to 1944. As many as 900,000 people died — 1,000 per day — most from starvation and exposure. The siege left the city a shambles.
Outrage, much of it calculated, has poured down upon Dozhd since Sunday.
Irina Yarovaya, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia party, called the survey an “attempt to rehabilitate Nazism,” the Interfax news agency reported.
Other politicians accused the station of extremism, a crime in Russia.
Cable operators are dropping Dozhd from their packages. The Russian agency in charge of mass communications plans to issue a formal warning.
Some of the pain was genuine. The head of the Residents of Blockaded Leningrad public organization, Irina Skripacheva, told Interfax that she wants the Internet-based television channel closed and subject to criminal penalties.
“Who could think of such a thing?” she said.
As if on cue, the St. Petersburg prosecutor’s office, which called the question “blasphemous,” said it “is carrying out an inquiry concerning possible violations — whether or not the TV channel overstepped the border of what is acceptable ahead of the memorable date of the breakthrough of the Siege of Leningrad.”
Russian official history doesn’t care to dwell on the more horrifying aspects of the siege: cannibalism, families abandoning children, children abandoning parents. It isn’t appropriate here to wonder whether Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who never liked the city, was trying to punish it by not doing more to lift the siege.
Maybe these were questions Dozhd had in mind, but the survey was quickly pulled from the Web site, and the editor-in-chief, Mikhail Zygar, apologized. The station says it won’t fire anyone over the survey. A few stalwart members of the opposition have come to its defense, on the grounds that simply asking such a question cannot be a legal offense, even in Russia.
“Closing the channel would demonstrate a profound contempt for those who want to compare different sources of information,” wrote Irina Khakamada, a former politician, on the Dozhd Web site.
“The most disgusting thing in this story is that the driving force of the ‘patriotic’ scandal is this band of thieves,” wrote Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader, referring to the beneficiaries of President Vladimir Putin’s political system.
When Navalny was leading protest demonstrations in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, Dozhd offered thorough and fair coverage — which United Russia didn’t care for. More recently, it has done the same with protests in Ukraine, another strike against it.
Now, the station’s supporters say, the system is leaping into the Leningrad fray as a way of getting payback.
“The recent ideological campaigns indicate that people tend to see minor flaws in others while ignoring big flaws in themselves,” wrote Irina Prokhorova, head of the Civil Platform party and the sister of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, on Facebook. “The story with Dozhd is a fine example of that.”