Liberal Russian television channel Dozhd (or, “Rain,” in English) set off a storm of controversy after questioning a wartime decision from WWII. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said Dozhd “crossed all lines of the permissible,” while Dozhd’s CEO sees an orchestrated Kremlin attack on the channel.

A TV host of the Dozhd channel. Photo: RIA Novosti / Grigory Sysoev 

A small but fast-growing news and politics television channel, Dozhd, known for standing out from the big three Kremlin-controlled federal channels with its critical take on the government, came under fire this week over a question on its history program in a controversy that threatens the station’s existence.

The question “Should Leningrad have been surrendered to save hundreds of thousands of lives?” was addressed during a program called Dilettantes on Sunday, Jan. 26.

Just raising the idea touched a national nerve.

The Siege of Leningrad (the city now called St. Petersburg) by Nazi troops is one of the most tragic pages in Russian history. During the 872 days of the siege, up to 1.5 million civilians and soldiers were killed in a city of 3.2 million, largely from famine. During January-February 1942, up to 1,000 people died every day, often from hunger, many of them falling dead in the streets.

The question was also posted on the channel’s website in real time, but taken down a few minutes later. The website’s editor-in-chief apologized shortly for the “inappropriate question.”

Even so, the channel was bashed by some of the top-ranking officials along with all of the four parliamentary parties, with at least one of them calling the channel to be closed.

“I absolutely agree with those who believe and say that the channel crossed all lines of the permissible,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said in a phone interview with Dozhd on Jan. 29. “And what saddens me even more is that no appropriate apologies have been made.”

Asked if he has read the official apologies on the Dozhd website and on Twitter, Peskov said he hadn’t heard or seen any apologies. “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,” Peskov added.

By the time the interview was aired on Dozhd, several leading internet and cable TV providers had announced severing contracts with the channel.

The CEO of Dozhd, Natalya Sindeeva, said she believes the Kremlin is behind an orchestrated attack against her channel.

“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,” Sindeeva said on Dozhd on Jan. 29.

Sindeeva added that the attack had actually begun several months ago, after the channel ran a story about luxurious property of high-profile Kremlin officials and United Russia Party activists, based on a report by the anti-corruption fund set up by a fierce critic of the Kremlin, opposition activist Alexey Navalny. The story featured the Kremlin’s chief ideologist Vyacheslav Volodin, who, Sindeeva thinks, is the person that ordered the attack.

Both critics and defenders of the channel have joined the fray.

The speaker of the upper chamber of Russian parliament and former governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matvienko, called the survey an act of sacrilege and an insult.

“Falsification of the outcomes of the Second World War, and the rehabilitation of those who unleashed this war, those liable for millions of lives ruined and for those who died burning in concentration camps…. It is beyond my understanding how a question like this could have been asked on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the blockade,” Matvienko was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

The St. Petersburg legislature voted 35:8 on Jan. 29 to urge Russia’s Prosecutor General to carry out “a probe into the fact of posting the provocative material on the website of the Dozhd TV channel, give it legal assessment and take the necessary measures, up to closing this TV channel.”

“I feel ashamed for the St. Petersburg parliament,” a member of the legislature, Boris Vishnevsky of opposition party Yabloko, wrote in his blog. “The authors of the draft couldn’t name a single legislative norm that the posting of the poll violated. It’s because there’s no such norm in nature.”

Vishnevsky also said that some of the Siege survivors he met the other day were infuriated to see “sated and well-off people speculating about whether the city should have been defended,” but, he added, “a mistake, especially an admitted one, must not be used as a pretext for repression against an undesirable channel.”

Thursday afternoon the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office was reported to have launched a probe to find out whether “the channel crossed all lines of the permissible on the eve of the memorable date of the breakthrough of the blockade.”

The statement echoed with comments made by Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, in a phone interview with Dozhd on Jan. 29.

Yury Pripachkin, the president of the Association of Cable Television and the board chairman of the association’s member, Akado, proposed cutting the broadcast of Dozhd from his company’s networks the day before.