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When It Rains

Russian independent broadcaster TV Dozhd, meaning TV Rain, is under fire after publishing a poll asking whether Leningrad- now St Petersburg- should have been allowed to fall into Nazi hands.

[Tomb of the Unknown Solider. PHOTO/Jacob Greaves]

Russian independent broadcaster TV Dozhd, meaning TV Rain, is under fire after publishing a poll asking whether Leningrad- now St Petersburg- should have been allowed to fall into Nazi hands.

Its estimated the siege of Leningrad cost the lives of well over 1 million people, with civilians forced to spend 900 days under Nazi bombardment, starving and isolated in horrific conditions. But as the tide turned in the Red Army's favour, the lifting of the siege has since been commemorated in Russia as a great sacrifice.

Now as the country marks the 70th anniversary of the siege, the question is why is it still so incendiary to ponder military and strategic choices taken well over half a century ago? Furthermore, why is there no room for discourse?

Cloudy outlook

The Kremlin's spokesman has already said that TV Rain "crossed every boundary of acceptable behaviour", and many MP's have rallied against the channel, with one lawmaker for ruling party United Russia calling it an attempt to "rehabilitate Nazism".

So why attack a broadcaster with such ferocity over an act intended to spark historical debate?

One answer would be TV Rain has become a growing pest for the administration- now they might have a chance to swat it.

The broadcaster rose to prominence in 2010 and took a defining stance against the tide of most Russian media, offering a fairer account of protesters standing for political reform. Since, its come to be characterised as a leading anti-Kremlin voice in the country.

Now the channel is facing the wrath of a public, which at its core tends to be conservative, patriotic and clinging to past moments of national glory. Comments of "brown rain" (#коричневыйдождь) have been trending on twitter, with calls already being made for the channel to be shutdown.

If ever there was a chance to put political pressure on TV Rain, now they will have some public support.

This would be a great shame for a broadcaster that's done a lot to help energize political discourse and at its best, serves as a much needed check and balance to power in Russia.

So how could an event 70 years ago still impact politics today?

Don't mention The War

The do's and don'ts for anyone new to Russia could be summarized as; do accept that vodka is justifiable at lunchtime (this is my judgement face) don't smile-that's reserved for the gassy and the sinister, do make peace with god before getting in a 'gypsy cab', and most important of all, don't please DON'T offer a different take on the Second World War.

Commemorating the years 1941-45 are big in Russia and after a quick glance at history it's easy to see why: 27 million people killed, a government, ideology and indeed nation(s) on the brink, all turned around into the decisive defeat of Nazi Germany.

Walk the streets of any big city in Russia on May the 9th, Victory Day, you will see pride, patriotism and remembrance (smoothed over with battalions worth of booze)

[Crowds line Moscow streets for Victory Day military parade, May 9 2011. PHOTO/ Jacob Greaves]

The fact a country still pays such lavish tribute is commendable, in spirit that is (no vodka pun intended)

In practice, remembrance that continues to define a nation- all regarding a moment of unimaginable bloodshed and militarism- hasn't done much for modern Russia and some freedoms, or lack thereof.

This is not a country where historical study thrives, where revisionism challenges accepted accounts of key events, or indeed where people get taught anything but a cherry picked past. Unsurprisingly then, a state-led narrative of history takes its toll on modern public discourse.

Think the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, uniting Hitler and Stalin in a deal of non-aggression as Europe went to war, was significant? Wrong!

Think Stalin might have been a bad egg? Wrong! He apparently did what he had to do.. (what by killing millions of his own people?) silence there in the back.

Think the Red Army wrought devastation as an invading army, raping women in the hundreds of thousands? Wrong again! ...Or at least lets not dwell on that.

Think its okay to question the logic in a military victory that reportedly forced some inhabitants to resort to cannibalism? You're really not getting this are you!

And apparently neither did TV Rain.

Indeed this is hardly a secret, the blunt inability to discuss such matters is decreed from the highest orders. MP Leonid Levin from the center-left party, Fair Russia, commented on the poll that memory of the war is one of those things where questioning is impossible, adding "the nation must be united over these topics or it cannot be called a nation"

The irony of a country so afraid of its own shadow is it allows for some of the heroism recorded during the dark days of WW2 to go unrewarded, as certain demons from the past creep back.

["Russian March" far-right supporters demonstrate in Moscow, 4 November, 2011. PHOTO/ Jacob Greaves]

The far-right exists in Russia as a movement with steady support. Rallies involving thousands of followers spouting xenophobia take place every November. This doesn't receive much political or public condemnation- indeed these marches are given the green light to demonstrate with the regularity many activist groups would envy.

This comes at a time when the Russian state has stepped up efforts to curb the influence of gays on elements of Russian society.

These sound far more like actions that "rehabilitate Nazism" than a poll calling for historical perspective and discussion.

Fundamentally cases like this occur because politicians still rule over a majority that aren't yet willing to part with a past that's given a country a proud/defining identity- and instead embrace a future where they're still struggling to find one.

The public anger shown to TV Rain in raising legitimate historical questions, only helps push modern debates about political reform further away.

If there cant be humble, introspective and challenging analysis about the past, what hope is there for more pressing problems?

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