by Julia Ioffe
It started off as an article about a cleverly named kebab house in Moscow and quickly became yet another story of political coercion and muzzling of the press. Less than a week after the article came out, Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, is demanding that the journalist who wrote it, Aleksandr Podrabinek, be kicked out of the country and stripped of his Russian citizenship. After death threats and an attempted break-in at his apartment, Podrabinek is now in hiding, announcing on his blog that "in the interests of security, I am limiting my contacts."
Partly, this is the same, tired story of the Kremlin intimidating the last remnants of a once free press. But it's also a story about a country still fighting over the meaning (and ownership) of patriotism, over the return of Soviet symbolism, over where the Soviet Union ends and Russia begins, and over how to talk about the martyrdom and the crimes of World War II.
Here's how it happened: the restaurant in question opened in July, calling itself the Anti-Soviet Kebab House because of its location across the street from the Soviet Hotel. Har-har. But to an association of elderly veterans it wasn't just a bad pun, and they complained to the local authorities. The name, they said, mocked their sacrifices in World War II—which, with casualties of more than 20 million, has become the most sacred of cows in Russia. It is known there, officially, as the Great Patriotic War. (Vladimir Putin recently showed just how sacred it is when he refused to acknowledge, for the sake of Russian pride, Soviet crimes in Poland in 1939.) Not only that, the veterans' group said, but the name besmirched the homeland for which they fought, and they demanded that it be changed.
News of this uproar leaked on Sept. 17. By the 18th, the owner of the café announced that the authorities had interceded and he had been forced to change the name to Soviet Kebab House. As workmen prepared to take down the "Anti-," the café's owner remarked wryly that now "the debate is about saving the kebab house even without the name. We'd be happy just to be able to stay open at this point."
This kind of pandering to hypervocal and hypersensitive veterans—and harping on a mythically clean and valorous Soviet past—caught Podrabinek's eye. No fan of Soviet power (he had been sentenced to a Siberian labor camp twice, once in 1978 and again in 1980, for criticizing the Soviet Union), Podrabinek penned a takedown of the veterans group in ej.ru, a liberal opposition online publication.
He bemoaned the fact that the owners of the kebab house gave in to the veterans' demands, and he excoriated the veterans for their false patriotism. "Your homeland isn't Russia," he wrote. "Your homeland is the Soviet Union ... And the Soviet Union is not the place you imagine in your schoolbooks or your lying newspapers," he said, referring to the robustly nostalgic communist press. "It's not just a place of astronauts and overfulfilled agricultural quotas, it's also a place of peasant uprisings, the victims of collectivization and Holodomor; it's hundreds of thousands shot in Cheka basements and millions tortured in the Gulag to the sounds of the rotten [Soviet] anthem." But Podrabinek was careful to make a distinction: "Yes, we should respect those who fought Nazism, but not those who defend Soviet power."
Evidently that was not caveat enough: two days after the piece came out, the same local authorities who had forced the kebab-house name change went to the offices of Novaya Gazeta (Anna Politkovskaya's liberal newspaper) to complain about Podrabinek—who didn't work there. Then came the protests from veterans. Finally the president of Nashi, the patriotic youth group often likened to the Hitler Youth, said, "We will demand [Podrabinek's] departure from the country." Not for writing anything anti-Russian, mind you, but for writing something anti-Soviet—for being tough on a country that no longer exists.
Podrabinek's address and phone number appeared online, and now Nashi members are picketing his house around the clock. On Tuesday the youth group filed a lawsuit demanding that he apologize to the veterans (an idea that resonates in the Russian blogosphere) or be deported.
For its part, the Kremlin has allowed the crackdown to thunder on without comment. It has a long, close association with Nashi and has encouraged these neo-Soviet displays before. (A renovated subway station recently opened with a Stalin quote restored in giant, prominent letters, and, last week, Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov praised Nashi for the group's supposedly pivotal role in forcing the Obama administration to back down from its missile-defense shield in Eastern Europe.)
Podrabinek says on his blog that he has received information from "trustworthy sources" that people "at the highest levels have made the decision to deal with me in any way necessary." In a country ranked third most lethal for journalists, this is no empty threat. Nor is Podrabinek a stranger to Kremlin strong-arming. In 2004, after he helped with the publication and distribution of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko's book, security services seized the copies he imported into Russia and called him in for questioning. (He reportedly refused to answer questions.) In 2006, he was arrested in Minsk for protesting the dubious reelection of Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.
And so, just as Russia tells the Committee to Protect Journalists that it will act on what is now an embarrassing number of attacks on the press, Nashi continues its harassment and Podrabinek remains in hiding, not answering requests for an interview. Only here can a man risk losing his life over a café name.
Ioffe is a writer living in Moscow.