Olympic Nazi row threatens top Russian radio station

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulates Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia after the Team Figure Skating event Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Putin congratulated Yulia Lipnitskaya after her triumph in Sochi

Russia's 15-year-old skating prodigy Yulia Lipnitskaya has become the darling of winter sports fans around the world after her dazzling and flawless ice routine helped the host nation land a team gold at the Sochi Olympics on 9 February.

But she has also unwittingly found herself at the centre of a bitter row after leading Kremlin critic Viktor Shenderovich likened her triumph to German success at the infamous Nazi Olympics in 1936.

The row could also spell trouble for editorially independent radio station Ekho Moskvy radio, which posted Mr Shenderovich's remarks on its website.

Ekho Moskvy's importance as the most powerful outlet for dissident opinion in Russia was recently underlined after niche independent TV station Dozhd was effectively banished from the airwaves following a similar row, also relating to World War Two.

Nazi comparison

By common consent, Yulia Lipnitskaya has been the standout act of the first week of the Sochi Games. Some commentators questioned her choice of the theme to Steven Spielberg's Holocaust epic Schindler's List as the accompaniment for her medal-winning performance. But most shared Russian President Vladimir Putin's admiration for the young star's exploits. "Very good, clever girl," he said, pinching her cheek as he congratulated the winning team.

But for Viktor Shenderovich, admiration was soured by the knowledge that this "brilliant girl soaring above the ice is giving a boost to Putin's popularity ratings".

He compared the plaudits for her to the German public's jubilation over shot-putter Hans Woellke winning his country's first athletics gold medal at Hitler's Berlin Olympics.

"Today, though, something stops us from celebrating his victory," he wrote, reciting some of the scenes of Nazi barbarity, including the Dachau concentration camp and the siege of Leningrad.


Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Viktor Shenderovich has been a long standing critic of Putin and Kremlin politics

A backlash quickly followed. Writing on his blog, One Russia MP Aleksandr Sidyakin accused Mr Shenderovich and Ekho of "crossing a red line" and of "decrying the greatness and dignity of our country".

Other pro-Kremlin social media users turned to ridicule, recalling how in 2010 Mr Shenderovich was humiliated after hidden-camera footage of him apparently performing a sex act was posted on the internet.

State news channel Rossiya 24 even showed excerpts from this footage during a late-night news bulletin on 11 February.

Mr Shenderovich has said that the footage was doctored.

Speaking in the State Duma earlier that day, another One Russia MP, Vladimir Vasilyev, insisted that Ekho Moskvy would "have to apologise because society does not forgive those who insult [war] veterans".

TV Rain

Mr Vasilyev likened Ekho Moskvy's decision to post Mr Shenderovich's blog on its site to independent TV station Dozhd's (Rain's) publication of an internet poll that appeared to question the expediency of Russian resistance during the siege of Leningrad, one of the most iconic and traumatic experiences of the Soviet people in World War Two.

The ensuing scandal led to Dozhd being dropped by leading cable and satellite providers, which has brought it to the brink of collapse.

Most commentators think Dozhd is the victim of a Kremlin-inspired campaign provoked by its positive coverage of opposition politicians in Russia and the recent pro-EU demonstrations in Ukraine.

Viktor Shenderovich is best known for his work as a satirist on Kukly, the puppet show aired on NTV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which is often described as Russia's answer to the UK's Spitting Image.

His savage portrayals of Putin in Kukly may have played a part in provoking the Kremlin into wresting control of NTV from oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky in 2001 and ousting many of the channel's independent-minded journalists.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Yulia Lipnitskaya was by common consent the standout act of the Sochi Games' first week

Both Mr Shenderovich and Ekho Moskvy's veteran editor-in-chief Aleksey Venediktov have refused to apologise for the Lipnitskaya blogpost, saying there is nothing to apologise for.

But Mr Venediktov has as much as admitted that threats have been made to use the row against him in connection with his upcoming bid for re-election as editor-in-chief in March.

"My personal fate and my career are not and will not be a bargaining chip in this episode affecting how I understand my professional duty as a journalist and editor-in-chief," he insisted.

Under Ekho's constitution, the editor-in-chief is elected by the staff, but his or her appointment has to be approved by the board of directors.

During Mr Venediktov's 15-year stewardship, Ekho has maintained a strong reputation for editorial independence, despite the fact that it is majority-owned by an arm of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom.

But, says political commentator Svetlana Samoylova, a "pattern is emerging - the media are having tough (at the moment) self-censorship foisted on them with the real risk of difficulties if they refuse to toe the political line".

"You can bet your bottom dollar that the case of Shenderovich's blog will not simply be allowed to fade away," she warned.

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