A row that started with a joke about an "anti-Soviet" kebab shop has spiralled into a full-scale intimidation case in which a Russian journalist has been forced into hiding by young nationalists.
Alexander Podrabinek, the Russia correspondent for a French radio station and a veteran Soviet-era dissident, had his home picketed and was threatened with legal action by Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, after he wrote an article criticising the censorship of the name of a restaurant in a northern suburb of Moscow.
The dispute began when a kebab take-away that was always jokingly referred to as the "anti-Soviet", principally because it sits opposite the Soviet Hotel, tried to formalise the nickname with a new sign. City officials were unimpressed, however, saying the name was insulting to Russian veterans of the Second World War.
Mr Podrabinek wrote a furious article criticising the decision for an online magazine. He pointed out that there were several restaurants and other venues in Moscow bearing the name "Soviet", as well as streets, theatres and newspapers that had retained Communist-era titles. But while none of these are banned, displaying even the most lighthearted anti-Soviet names is seen as distasteful.
Mr Podrabinek, 56, spent several years in a labour camp in the 1970s after he published covert research into the use of psychiatric treatment as a tool of repression in the Soviet Union. In recent years, officials have made a concerted effort to restore pride in Russia's Communist past. Criticism of the Soviet Union is often taken to mean dismissing the country's role in the Second World War.
So when members of Nashi, the organisation set up by Kremlin ideologues during Vladimir Putin's tenure as President, saw the article, they went on the attack. The group, which critics have likened to the Hitler Youth, said it would take Mr Podrabinek to court and vowed to make his life hell unless he apologised.
"We want to remind people that Podrabinek lives in a country that was created by the veterans of the Great Patriotic War," said Nikita Borovikov, a Nashi leader. "He walks along streets that were built in the Soviet period... By insulting the veterans, he insults himself."
Red-jacketed Nashi activists set up outside the journalist's house yesterday, erecting banners in the street and asking neighbours to sign a petition against Mr Podrabinek. Earlier this week, he wrote in his blog that the situation was "worse than it first appeared" and he had been forced to go into hiding.
"It's not about Nashi," he wrote. "Their attack on me and my relatives is just a propaganda trick; an imitation of 'popular disgust'. There are serious people behind them with serious intentions. I have received information from reliable sources that the decision has been taken at a high level to take revenge on me in any way possible."Reuse content