Press Freedom, Russia and Shish Kebab

The latest dust up over press freedom in Russia started over the name of a shish kebab restaurant. From sometime CJR contributor, Julia Ioffe, for Newsweek’s “Wealth of Nations” blog:

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.

The authorities then forced the owner to change the name to Soviet Kebab House, at which point journalist Aleksandr Podrabinek recognized a story.

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, a liberal opposition online publication.

Now, Podrabinek is in hiding after death threats and an attempted break-in at his apartment, which is being picketed daily by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group that is demanding he be kicked out of the country and stripped of his Russian citizenship. All, literally, in the name of shish kebab.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.