20 years under Putin: a timeline

In late January, the Russian government launched a campaign against the independent TV channel Dozhd, known for its liberal position. The reason is a poll regarding the Nazi blockade of Leningrad during World War II served as a pretext for the government campaign. Seen by the government as a "spiritual bond" that unifies Russian society, the blockade is a very sensitive topic. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses how far the Kremlin is prepared to go.



Founded by businessman Alexander Vinokurov and his wife Natalya Sindeyeva, Dozhd began broadcasting in April 2010 at the very height of Medvedev's thaw. Dozhd is the main asset of a media company of the same name, which also owns the channel’s website, Slon.ru, and Bolshoi Gorod magazine. From the very beginning, Dozhd stood out against the entire spectrum of Russian TV: only on this channel could viewers see representatives of the nonsystemic opposition without any restrictions; political debates and shows that had either completely disappeared from other TV stations or acquired a purely propagandistic nature; and lots of live broadcasts, including those featuring young and ambitious TV hosts.

Vinokurov confessed to Forbes that although he is an investor in all three projects, legally, he is not yet a co-owner of the company. Sindeyeva is the sole owner of Slon.ru and Bolshoi Gorod and co-owns the Dozhd TV channel with her former creative producer Vera Krichevskaya (who holds a 5 percent stake). According to RBK Holding General Director Sergei Lavrukhin and former executive director at ONEXIM Group Mikhail Prokhorov, who bought RBK and considered the possibility of purchasing a stake in Dozhd, currently, total investment in the TV channel is around $40 million.

At the time of Dozhd’s founding, Vinokurov and Sindeyeva also benefited from political luck: Dmitri Medvedev's presidency created opportunities for the appearance of a "mini-NTV," referring to the channel that was shut down by the Kremlin in 2001 in the context of a conflict with founder Vladimir Gusinski. In the 2000s, the Russian authorities managed to almost completely purge the media market. State TV channels became openly pro-Putin, whereas privately owned stations replaced their owners with businessmen loyal to the regime. In such a situation, launching an ambitious television project was a rather risky venture: success virtually guaranteed political problems. However, the Dozhd media company managed to "take a shot" at the challenge, largely thanks to good connections with members of Medvedev's close circle, including the former Russian president's press secretary, Natalya Timakova. This connection played a crucial role in facilitating a visit by the Russian president to the Dozhd TV studio in 2011, which added to both the respectability and the authority of the young channel in the eyes of the elite and helped to attract more advertising revenue. It became fashionable for representatives of the establishment and influential experts to participate in Dozhd shows, which soon acquired the reputation as one of the most liberal media outlets of today's Russia.

It is important to mention that the Kremlin allows the existence of independent media in Russia based on two crucial conditions. First of all, these outlets should not be classified as mass media, and their actual influence on the public mind should not match that of key media outlets. In the print media sector, Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that is extremely critical of the regime, is still being published; although the authorities usually do not touch the newspaper itself, journalists regularly suffer pressure from the regime (suffice to mention the well-known conflict between the newspaper's deputy editor Sergei Sokolov and Russian Investigative Committee chairman Alexander Bastrykin, who promised to kill the journalist in the woods), not to mention murders and beatings. The most notorious case of journalistic repression is the assassination of Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Ekho Moskvy radio can also be classified as a liberal media outlet. This station, however, is rather an exception, caused by the special relations that exist between Vladimir Putin and Echo chief editor Alexei Venediktov. In February 2010, Gazprom Media, the company that controls the radio station (Gazprom Media assets are indirectly controlled by Putin's close friend Yuri Kovalchuk), tried to force changes in the Echo Moskvy board of directors by removing independent directors. However, the management strongly opposed this attempt and in fact regained its autonomy. The Kremlin was then outraged by the station’s "lack of professionalism" in discussing the missile defense problem: during a talk show, experts expressed the opinion that the American missile defense system did not represent a threat to Russia, which the Kremlin found unacceptable.

The government considers "spiritual bonds" to be the cement of the "conformist majority." Any attempt to question the validity of these "spiritual bonds" may be seen by the government as a challenge. This is why the survey conducted by Dozhd caused a wave of protectionist outrage.

There are many examples of the Russian government's repressive political stance toward the media. Suffice to recall the replacement of Izvestiya's editor for publishing photos of the Beslan school siege, the replacement of Kommersant Vlast's editor for publishing a picture of a ballot paper against Putin, and the removal of politically acute TV programs from the air (the latest cases concern the cancelation of Ksenia Sobchak's talk show GosDep on MTV after the host invited Alexei Navalny to the studio and the removal of two editions of the Nerealnaya Politika program on NTV).

Completely different rules exist for media outlets that are not considered mass media. A relative freedom of expression exists in the sphere of Internet media, which are not controlled by the state: in this sphere, the Kremlin operates through a network of paid bloggers and pro-Kremlin websites. With only about 11 million viewers a month, the Dozhd TV channel has faced politically motivated difficulties, but they have generally been of a local character and have not hindered the work of the channel.

So why is strong political pressure being put on Dozhd now? A survey, "Should Leningrad have been surrendered to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?" conducted on January 26, served as a pretext for the campaign. The question was asked in the context of the Diletants program, which is a joint project of Dozhd and Echo Moskvy radio. The survey caused an immediate response: a flood of criticism hit the TV channel both from "protectionists," who suggested using the most radical measures against Dozhd, including criminal liability, and some liberals, who considered the question to be improper and unprofessional.

It is important to mention that in the last two years, the problem of the Russian media’s loyalty to the regime has become more complicated in the eyes of the Kremlin. These complications concern the limits that can be tolerated with regard to not only coverage of current political events, but also discussions on historical topics, which Vladimir Putin called "spiritual bonds" in his 2012 address to the Federal Assembly. The president also declared in the same speech that "Russian society today is experiencing an obvious deficit of spiritual bonds" and called on listeners to "strengthen society's spiritual and moral foundation". Experts and journalists are still arguing about the true meaning of the phrase "spiritual bonds. However, one may assume that the government itself lacks communication models that could secure loyalty of "Putin’s majority". The mission of "restoring the state" was accomplished during Putin's first two presidential terms, but the program of recovering the state’s former strength has stalled, social life remains extremely complicated, and many systemic problems are not being solved. Having become politically strong, the state is helpless in terms of management. This is why there is unrest even in the pro-Putin electorate: Putin's support is based on the absence of an alternative and Russian society's paternalism.

The government considers "spiritual bonds" to be the cement of the "conformist majority," which it mobilizes around specific events, such as heroic acts performed during World War II and space exploration. In modern Russia, “spiritual bonds” also include the Olympics, the concepts of "traditional values," "the Eurasian integration," and so on. Any attempt to question the validity of these "spiritual bonds" may be seen by the government as a challenge. This is why the survey conducted by Dozhd caused a wave of protectionist outrage.

The government has made it clear that the channel's fate hangs in the balance. Deputy Communications and Press Minister Alexei Volin declared that the "fate of Dozhd's broadcasting on cable television will depend upon both the position of business [the owners of the cable companies] and civil society. We have been receiving many complaints from owners of cable companies that Dozhd's programs cause moral damage to viewers." Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov declared that the "station had crossed all the limits of what can be tolerated" and that the question posed by the survey was an offense "much more serious from the point of view of morality and ethics." Several State Duma deputies demanded that the channel's activity be checked on the grounds of extremism, and the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly called on Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika to sanction Dozhd by shutting it down. "Such actions should always be treated as a crime of restoring Nazism," declared Irina Yarovaya, head of the State Duma Committee on Security. Although Dozhd quickly issued an apology, this did not mend the situation: one after another, cable providers began removing the channel from their packages.

The decision of Russia's biggest satellite television provider, Tricolor TV, to dump the channel, which slashed Dozhd's TV audience by 80 percent, was the last straw. At a press conference on February 4, Vinokurov and Sindeyeva declared that they had offered its programs to operators for free. The channel is trying to solve a political problem by making a marketing decision that has no chance of success. Vinokurov expressed the opinion that the most likely reason for the shutting down of the channel was Dozhd's coverage of Alexei Navalny's exposure of top United Russia members. Major operator Rostelecom immediately responded that no cooperation was possible until the channel "restored its reputation."

It appears that the Kremlin has decided to create as many difficulties for the channel as it can by making its existence uncomfortable and placing in jeopardy its relations with advertising sponsors. This "electric shock therapy" will likely take its toll on Dozhd: journalists will remember their bad experience with liberties on the air, and protectionists, having felt their strength, will keep close tabs on the "moral image" of the channel. Putin has demonstrated that it is not necessary to shut down an irritating media outlet—sometimes pushing it to the wall is enough to make sure everyone remembers who the boss is.