A Russian schoolboy has received online abuse and death threats after suggesting that many German troops who invaded the USSR in World War Two were themselves victims of the conflict.
Teenager Nikolai Desyatnichenko was speaking to German MPs in Berlin. German and Russian schoolchildren had researched stories about war victims.
Some Russian MPs reacted with outrage.
The Kremlin said the criticism was excessive, but suggested re-examining aspects of Russia’s education system.
Desyatnichenko said he had learned about a German soldier named Georg Johann Rau, a Wehrmacht corporal who fought in the Battle of Stalingrad and later died in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp.
“Georg’s story and my work on the project touched me,” he said, adding that he had started visiting the war graves of German soldiers around the Siberian city of Kopeisk.
“It deeply saddened me, because I saw the graves of people who died innocently, many of whom wanted to live in peace and did not want to go to war.”
He spoke of the “unspeakable difficulties” faced by soldiers during the war, and ended his speech to the German parliament by expressing the hope that “common sense will prevail on Earth and the world will never see war again”.
‘Forgive us, Adolf’
Desyatnichenko’s remarks went unnoticed for two days, until a Germany-based Facebook user with a Russian name posted a video of his speech late on Sunday, remarking that he found it “disgusting”.
The post received more than 1,000 likes and provoked a wave of criticism and abuse directed against Desyatnichenko, initially mainly from strongly pro-Kremlin social media accounts. Several accused him of attempting to whitewash Nazi Germany’s crimes in the USSR.
“Forgive us, Adolf,” read one typical sarcastic comment on Twitter.
The controversy generated more than 10,000 tweets in little over 18 hours, according to the social media analysis tool Spredfast.
It was also quickly picked up by Russian state television, with national channel Rossiya 1 devoting an hour-long political talk show to it, with one guest blaming “liberal propaganda” for the boy’s remarks.
On Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said those accusing Desyatnichenko of defending Nazism were wrong, and accused them of “hounding” the boy, but also suggested that problems in the education system may be to blame for his remarks.
The Kremlin has in the past been accused of exploiting sensitivities around the war in order to promote a wider nationalistic agenda.
‘Nip in the bud’
Several commentators suggested that Desyatnichenko’s school in the Siberian town Novy Urengoi was to blame. They also suggested something might be wrong with the education system as a whole.
“We have brought up a generation that feels sorry for Nazis,” one pro-Kremlin account calling itself Former Agent tweeted. Another said schools and colleges should be checked for the presence of “foreign non-governmental organisations” (NGOs).
The education department of Novy Urengoi said on Monday that it had launched an investigation into Desyatnichenko’s school.
While most online commentators have been critical of Desyatnichenko, a few have come to his defence.
One Twitter user said the schoolboy had spoken to German MPs in “a spirit of reconciliation”, but that this did not mean Russians had “reconciled themselves to Nazism”.