It was the eve of the Moscow mayoral elections in September, and opposition leader Alexei Navalny was blowing away all expectations as his poll numbers continued to rise, increasing the possibility of a run-off with Kremlin-backed acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

On the television channel Rain TV, which was conducting its own real-time exit polling, charts and percentages flashed across the screen and well-known pundits analysed the results. At the same time, state-controlled television channel First Channel (Pervyi kanal) was broadcasting from the ruling United Russia party's dowdy campaign headquarters, ignoring the controversial Moscow vote count in favour of Dmitry Medvedev's glowing appraisal of the party's results elsewhere. (Sobyanin officially ran as an independent.)

The difference between the two channels' coverage on that night offered a small analogy of the political situation in Russia today. While many factors account for Vladimir Putin and United Russia's perennially favourable election results, there is no doubt that they are helped along by glowing coverage on state-controlled television channels, which remain the main information source for a majority of Russians. Meanwhile, Rain (known as Dozhd in Russian), Russia's only liberal, independently own news station, is the favoured media outlet of a new class of opposition-minded urban professionals, thanks to its modern look and critical coverage of the regime. Its supporters say that's why Kremlin forces are now working to shut it down.

Behind the scenes at Rain TV. Photograph: Grigory Sysoeev / RIA Novosti

After a controversial audience poll that asked whether the Soviet Union should have surrendered Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to the Germans, Rain received a letter from Russia's communications watchdog warning that it had violated media law. This was followed by an investigation by the prosecutor general and cancellations by major cable providers that have drastically reduced the channel’s audience. Taken with the seemingly Kremlin-inspired change in leadership at top radio station Ekho Moskvy, and the recent reforms that put Dmitry Kiselyov, an outspoken opponent of gay rights, in charge of the largest state-owned news agency, Rain’s troubles seemed to herald a shift in Russia's media landscape. The new atmosphere is at best humourless and at worst restrictive of analysis, criticism and liberal points of view.

"Rain’s troubles seemed to herald a shift in Russia's media landscape"

“This process has been going on for several years,” Rain owner Alexander Vinokurov, an investment banker who started the channel with his wife Natalia Sindeyeva, told The Calvert Journal. “All media that are more or less independent are suffering economic, political or organisational pressure.”

Rain began broadcasting as an internet-only channel in 2010 but quickly became the preferred news channel of the well-to-do urbanites who drove the wave of anti-Putin protests in 2011 and 2012. Within two months of its start, cable operators started to pick it up, and its reach and influence burgeoned. Its most popular videos on YouTube have hundreds of thousands of hits. Before the controversy, the channel reached nearly 18 million households. According to media research group TNS, its typical viewer was a 25- to 35-year-old male entrepreneur or manager with an above-average income; in other words, the new urban middle class.

Station owners Natalia Sindeyeva and Alexander Vinokurov

Rain features slick design, hard-hitting journalism and a focus on contemporary Russian culture — many of Moscow's most interesting bands have appeared on its live music show — that matches the cosmopolitan tastes of its audience. While many shows are hosted by respected journalists, socialite and sometime celebrity protestor Ksenia Sobchak also has her own show; her wide-ranging conversations with figures like Navalny, imprisoned anti-Putin oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot have drawn both criticism and praise but rarely gone unnoticed. What is more, in an exception from the increasingly anti-western stance of most media, Rain has actively engaged foreign correspondents in Moscow.

The channel’s troubles started when a Sunday evening talk show on at the end of January broadcast a poll asking viewers whether the Soviets should have surrendered Leningrad to the Nazis during World War II “in order to save hundreds of thousands of lives”. Approximately a million civilians died in the 872-day siege, a crucial moment in a conflict that claimed the lives of well over 20 million Soviet citizens and which continues to loom large in the Russian consciousness. Even the suggestion of surrender is, it turns out, sacrilege in today's Russia. 

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny on Rain TV

The poll was pulled from the air after 12 minutes, but the damage had been done. Later that night, pro-Kremlin bloggers started circulating a screenshot from the broadcast, and cable providers began dropping the channel. After the country's largest cable operator Tricolour stopped showing Rain last week, the channel had lost 85% of the homes it reached. Despite Rain’s offer to provide cable operators free content for the next year, none of the three major operators have picked it back up, depriving the station of the advertising revenue it needs to survive, Vinokurov said.

Pro-Kremlin pundit Sergei Markov wrote in an editorial in The Moscow Times that Rain not only had a pro-opposition stance, but had also “virtually supported revolution” with its sympathetic coverage of the Bolotnaya Square protests on the eve of Putin's third-term inauguration in 2012 and of the anti-government Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine.

"Many believe the real reason for Rain’s closure was its independent coverage"

But Maria Baronova, a journalist and Rain host who was prosecuted — and ultimately amnestied — for “inciting mass riots” on Bolotnaya Square, disagreed that the channel is fomenting a revolution. In 2011 to 2012, “the opposition was the newsmaker so Rain put out a lot of news for the opposition, not because it's opposition … but because there was a big audience that wanted that,” Baronova told The Calvert Journal.

Many believe the real reason for Rain’s closure was its independent coverage — the channel rebuffed attempts by officials to interfere in its editorial policy in 2011, Vinokurov said — and ownership, which unlike most major channels isn't beholden to the state or state-controlled companies. The straw that broke the camel's back, Vinokurov believes, was its coverage of an investigation by Navalny of a luxurious secret dacha allegedly belonging to top Putin aide Vyacheslav Volodin, who is said to be responsible for overseeing United Russia's electoral success.

Rain presenter Ksenia Sobchak with Pussy Riot members Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina

The move has been widely condemned by activists, human rights defenders and political pundits, including the presidential human rights council. Earlier this month, police detained dozens of protestors in Moscow after they opened umbrellas near Red Square in a statement of support for Rain. This weekend, an estimated 100 people in the regional capital Perm held an umbrella picket to support Rain, pointing to the existence of a dedicated Rain audience in urban centres outside Moscow and St Petersburg.

In a letter to Putin, celebrated film director Alexander Sokurov lamented the broadcasters' move to drop Rain, asking the president to “give them a clip around the ear” to save the groundbreaking channel. “Someone told them that you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, gave this order. I don't believe that. I don't believe the Russian president would be scared of satire, of criticism,” Sokurov wrote.

It seems possible that Putin did not in fact give the order to close Rain, since he more often rules by hints and suggestions, letting his will be known through seemingly offhand remarks during public appearances that officials then jump to fulfil, according to their own interpretations of what he said.

“There are no staff cuts, there's work, and abandoning the channel seems like a dirty thing to do”

Nonetheless, many seen a concerted Kremlin campaign behind Rain’s downfall: the channel's general director, Mikhail Zygar, has said cable operators admitted privately that they dropped Rain after receiving phone calls from the presidential administration. Notably, Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that “the channel crossed the line” morally and ethically with the survey.

Morevoer, Tricolour belongs to Gazprom Bank, which is controlled by Putin's old acquaintance Yuri Kovalchuk, who, like the president and Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, is a founding member of the Ozero summer house cooperative outside St Petersburg, which is seen by many as the inner circle of the Putin regime.

Behind the scenes at Rain TV. Photograph: Grigory Sysoev / RIA Novosti

The pressure on Rain comes shortly after Putin signed a decree in December stipulating that state news agency RIA Novosti and Voice of Russia radio would be absorbed into a new media outlet called Russia Today (Rossiya Segodnya). Presidential administration head Sergei Ivanov suggested the changes were designed to make state media hew more closely to the Kremlin's conservative line on social issues, saying that “Russia has its own independent politics and strongly defends its national interests.” In his speeches, Putin often positions Russia as a bastion of traditional values against Western depravation. As the head of the new outlet, the Kremlin appointed TV host Dmitry Kiselyov, who is known for his patriotic, reactionary broadcast segments, including one in which he said the authorities should “burn or bury the hearts of gays” who die in car crashes.

For now, Rain hosts are staying with the channel despite its troubles. “There are no staff cuts, there's work, and abandoning the channel seems like a dirty thing to do,” said correspondent Nikita Belogolovtsev. Baronova said she has nowhere else to go as a television journalist. “Should I go to NTV!?” she asked, referring to the channel known for its pro-Kremlin coverage and hit pieces on the Russian opposition. “The pay is the same and it's not interesting.”

"Rain's closure would be lamented not only by opposition-minded Russians, but also by the broader journalistic community"

But if Rain cannot tempt back the major cable providers, it will have to cut at least 90 percent of its staff or close down entirely, according to its directors. Vinokurov said that the channel, which had revenues of over £6 million last year but did not turn a profit, cannot survive on the internet alone.

Its closure would be lamented not only by opposition-minded Russians, but also by the broader journalistic community. It would disenfranchise a generation of urban Russians that is critical of the Putin regime, its dominance of politics and its conservative line, leaving them without a voice.

In his letter, Sokurov also asked Putin to have a “paternal, patient” conversation with Rain and the rest of Russia's rebellious youth for the sake of the country's culture and national development. “Mr President, Rain is the youngest creative team in the world working in television,” he wrote. “Whatever people might be saying, that is a national achievement, an exception from all the rules.”

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