Lessons from "Cold War Radio": A Conversation with Mark Pomar
When in 1991 Boris Yeltsin invited Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to open a news bureau in Russia, the move was hailed as the clearest sign yet that the Cold War was ending. Last year, Vladimir Putin’s regime forced RFE/RL to shut down its operations, causing staff to leave the country along with other Russian independent journalists, dissidents, and human rights defenders. With the current exodus from Russia reaching levels comparable to those following the 1917 revolution, the experience of “Cold War radio” has suddenly become relevant again. What lessons does American international broadcasting, widely acknowledged as one of the United States’ Cold War triumphs, hold for the current moment? What practices could today’s political exiles from Russia emulate to connect to their compatriots inside the country? Izabella Tabarovsky explores these questions in her conversation with Mark Pomar, author of Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty.
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- Book description: Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty
- Wilson Center event: Book Talk | Cold War Radio
Lessons from Cold War Radio: A Conversation with Mark Pomar
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Izabella Tabarovsky: From the Kennan Institute, this is Izabella Tabarovsky, and you're listening to the Russia File podcast. My guest today is Mark Pomar, senior fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at UT Austin and author of a new book, Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. For over a decade—in the 1980s and through the fall of the Soviet Union—Mark Pomar was intimately involved in the workings of these two radio stations, which played a crucial role during the Cold War and continue to broadcast and report news today.
The programs broadcast by the radios were credited with promoting human rights in the Communist Bloc; with helping dissidents survive and keep their spirits up; and with helping advance knowledge and awareness of culture, history, and religion that Soviet censorship sought to suppress. For anyone in the Communist Bloc who came of age during the Cold War, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty are household names and popular American brands, loved and respected by tens of millions of dedicated listeners.
When the Soviet Union finally crumbled, both VOA and RFE/RL were “universally acknowledged as heroes by both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin,” writes Pomar. The two radios were one of America's triumphs in the Cold War. Yet they're virtually unknown, even among the better educated and politically aware American public. On today's episode, we talk about the crucial role that these radio stations played in the development of international broadcasting, U.S.-Soviet relations and the end of the Cold War, and the lessons we can learn from that experience today.
Mark Pomar: Thank you. I'm delighted to be on your program and look forward to an interesting discussion.
IT: It's an interesting time for us to be speaking about your book. Some would say that we are in a new Cold War with Russia. And given the war in Ukraine, maybe it's more than a Cold War. And certainly within Russia, there is once again an environment of media censorship, nearly total control over information flows by the government. And there's an environment of fear and self-censorship. Do you think about this when you reflect on your career in international broadcasting; do you make these comparisons?
MP: You know, it's a very important point to make, that we are now back to a situation that is really prior to glasnost. Because once Gorbachev's glasnost took off—and really, it manifested itself in 1988, when jamming ceased—from the very beginning of broadcasting (1947 for VOA, 1953 for Radio Liberty) the Soviet Union systematically jammed broadcasting, sometimes not successfully, but for the most part it created problems for listening to any broadcast.
In 1988, the Soviet Union, under pressure from the West (we would raise this issue of jamming, that it didn't correspond to glasnost), the Soviet Union made the decision to cease jamming. Once it ceased jamming, we were able to hire journalists within the Soviet Union. We opened up an office. And that office continued. I was involved in the opening of that Moscow office back in 1989. [It] continued until February of 2022, when it finally closed. And there is no more Radio Liberty, no more Voice of America offices in Russia today. So we're back to a pre-glasnost situation.
So, yes, there's a lot of commonality that we now see between the attacks on the radios, the fact that they are an “enemy voice” (vrazheskiye golosa, as they used to be called in Russian back in the Cold War days). So, yes, there is definitely a symmetry that has occurred. And I think lessons from the Cold War could be very useful as radio editors and executives map out a new strategy.
IT: Well, and another thing that feels so similar is the wave of political emigration. We are facing an exodus that some are comparing to the post-1917 exodus from Russia. And just like then, who left? It was intellectuals, it’s independent journalists. It's independent thinkers, authors, artists, academics, people who interpret reality and make meaning for society. And so it seems that the pro-Western intelligentsia’s interpretation of reality is clearly not needed today, as far as the Kremlin is concerned. So there is that similarity also: that suddenly there are a lot of Russians who are outside of Russia wanting to address Russian audiences from abroad. And that seems significant. What do you think about that? Because on the radios, you worked with a lot of émigrés.
MP: Well, you know, in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when I was involved with the radio, in many ways, some of the most important cultural figures were in the West. Not only people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but Vasily Aksenov, Vladimir Voinovich in terms of writers, or Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor, his wife Galina Vishnevskaya—they were all living in the West and very eager to lend their voices to VOA, to Radio Liberty. [There was] Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov. I mean, we could spend the next half an hour just going over the names of very important figures in Russian culture, Russian arts that were part of our programing.
And we felt very much that one of the functions of Radio Liberty and Voice of America was to give voice to those Russians that had been literally, in today's modern lingo, canceled. They were no longer able to communicate with their fans, with people they knew. I vividly remember Galina Vishnevskaya, the great opera diva, coming to our very humble studio on 330 Independence Avenue in Washington to read excerpts from her book. And she had suggested that she would be very interested in reading them to our Russian audience, which I thought was a fantastic opportunity for them to hear those very interesting memoirs. But in the beginning, we did an interview in which she said that recently—this was 1984 we're talking about—a book had come out about the history of the Bolshoi Opera, and the Soviet Union managed to excise photographs, her face from photographs in that. Her name was excised, as if for 20 years she, who was the diva of the Bolshoi Opera, did not even exist.
So we saw our function, we saw part of our mission [to give] these very important cultural figures that voice. I think the same thing is happening today, when you have people who have been in one way or another—either they left voluntarily or they felt they were threatened and needed to leave—to give them the opportunity to be on Radio Liberty or VOA or BBC or any of the other platforms, an opportunity to connect back to their home country.
IT: One of the quotes that I love in your book is you talk about how the radios nurtured a free and independent Russia that could exist and flourish outside of the Soviet Union. And I feel like today—you know, we work with a lot of independent journalists at Kennan—this is kind of what they're trying to do. It's a little bit different today, because they come to the West with their own platforms, because the technology is obviously very different today. But this idea, that they can be outside of Russia and address Russian audiences, it's important for them to do it, so that they can nurture this kind of free Russia from abroad. It feels like a real similarity there.
MP: I would say that in a country where you have draconian censorship, and Russia today has that, where you can be arrested and sent to jail or to prison for using the wrong word to describe the war in Ukraine, you basically have stopped real politics in the country. Russian politics can only exist outside the country, because that is where you can debate, where you can argue, where you can come to agreements. And so, just like Russian émigré politics in my time, the 1980s, encompassed everything from liberal to conservative—I mean, we had all kinds of voices at the radios and we felt in many ways [that] our responsibility was to give voice to those different currents of Russian political thinking—very much the same thing is happening now.
Now, you're absolutely right that there are so many different platforms that can be used. But back then, there were journals, magazines, there was Kontinent in Paris that had its point of view. There was Novoye Russkoye Slovo in New York that had its views, and so forth. So you had publications, which then the radios used. We also had, and this is a very, very important part of political culture, we had samizdat. The radios were the principal broadcaster of materials that were written within the Soviet Union [and] could only be passed from person to person. Once they were brought to the West, we were able to magnify that voice across the entire nation.
So someone like Andrei Sakharov was literally on the air at Radio Liberty, I would say, every day, because of something he had said, comments he had made, documents that he had written, prisoners whose trial he was following, all echoed in our broadcasts. The same would be true for various other prisoners of conscience that that were existing in the Soviet Union.
So I think in many ways we're back to that again today. Navalny [documentary] just won the Oscars. Well, that story becomes known through international radio. It's something that is broadcast, something that is discussed, [but] clearly will not be discussed in domestic media in Russia. So we're back to a very similar situation to what we had in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
IT: You write in such an evocative way about the medium of radio. One could ask—and I'm mostly a writer—why bother with the radio? It's so complicated to produce a radio [program]. It's complicated to even produce a podcast episode, when just the two of us talk. Why couldn't you just, I don’t know, publish things, distribute them? Why use radio?
MP: Well, I think if you look at today's Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the word radio is, shall we say, one of several parts. They have TV, they have video, they have radio, and they also have a lot of published things. So on their website there are many articles that are just simply written out, or, for those who prefer many of their radio programs, are then transcribed and one can read them in transcription.
In our time, radio was the only means by which we could reach behind the Iron Curtain. There were no other technologies that we could easily access. There were book distributions, but they were obviously on a very minor scale and never reached a large audience. Today’s technology offers many different [options]. So radio is one means. I think it's a very interesting one, because I think that radio—because it is a sound and there is no picture, there's no text to reread—I think it engages the mind in a more creative way. And this is my personal feeling, but I think when you hear a voice, you are engaged intellectually in a way that, perhaps, you can be a little bit lazier if you are reading (“well, I'll reread it, I'll skip ahead here”). Here, you pretty much have to follow, and if you want to make sense of it, you have to follow it pretty carefully and pretty closely.
There is also something amazing about the attractiveness or not attractiveness of the human voice. I mean, I'll tell you honestly, we had…especially our women broadcasters would receive love letters. There would be letters coming in, people just fell in love with their voice, they just couldn't help but listen to their programs, even if the content was a minor interest—they just loved their voice, and they enjoyed that. There was a flirtatiousness to the voice that no amount of writing can, I think, adequately communicate.
There is also voice—and I make this point because we very much believed, I mean in this case [in] the Russian service—that the Russian language was an international language. And I know at Voice of America, we made a very conscious decision to hire Americans who had learned Russian very, very well so they could talk about the United States, rather than an émigré who had just come off the boat, as it were, talking about American pop culture; we wanted a young American who lived it, knew it, felt it, it was his or her culture, [talking] in Russian, with an accent (and we would accept grammatical mistakes occasionally, although we tried to correct them), because it gave an authenticity to talking about the United States.
Whereas other programs required, for example, a very serious text. We were fortunate both at VOA, and especially at Radio Liberty, to have former Russian actors who had emigrated, who could pick the right tone, the right sense of gravitas to communicate whatever that message was.
And so I think voices communicated life. And for Soviet listeners who were, unfortunately, subjected to a rather, I would say, kind of homogeneous sound, very [typical] Soviet newscast sound, all of a sudden they would listen to Radio Liberty, they would listen to Voice of America or to the BBC, and hear highly individual, interesting, unusual, different voices. And so I think that was part of our attractiveness as well.
IT: And probably a more natural Russian speech because the language of so-called journalism in the Soviet Union was so stilted, so formal; it was so hard to read it or to hear it. And here I imagine that it was you could hear live conversation, [there must have been] just something very much alive about that.
MP: Well, you know, I describe in my book Vasily Aksenov, a very popular Russian writer living in Washington, DC. [He] would come to our studio to read parts from his book, and then there would be a conversation. And it was so intimate; he would even laugh, chuckle, reading his own parts [so] you felt—I listened to it again as I was writing my book, I went back and listened to those broadcasts—you sort of felt like you were at home in Vasily Pavlovich [Aksenov]’s apartment in the Adams Morgan area of Washington, chatting with him, having a wonderful evening, and he was sharing his readings with you.
I also tried to, whenever possible, to invite important Russian figures living in the West to comment on life in the West. [We used] Aksenov for the 1984 presidential campaign, Reagan and Mondale, for the nominating conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. I invited Vasily Pavlovich Aksenov to come and be a color commentator, just to talk as he was watching the TV screen: what were these Americans doing? Why were they demonstrating? How were they voting? And it was entertaining and funny and thoughtful. And I think it would reach Russian audiences in a way that a very stilted, serious, ponderous approach never would. So whenever possible, we would try to include those very, very vivid, unusual, interesting voices.
IT: So let's actually explain to our listeners: what were the two radios? Why were they established? What was the difference between the two? As you say, a lot of Americans don't really understand them, don't know them because they weren't the target audience. So, tell us a bit of the history.
MP: Well, let's start with Voice of America. We were, the United States was, the last major country to have an external broadcaster. In the 1920s the BBC obviously came into play, Radio Moscow, the Germans had international broadcasting. The United States did not. And when advisors to President Roosevelt suggested that the United States join in, there was a certain hesitancy [in] thinking that, well, the private sector can take care of it.
It's only after the beginning of World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, [that] the United States starts Voice of America, and it started it in English, in German, and French, and so forth—not in Russian, a very important point. It didn't start broadcasting in Russian, primarily out of deference to the Soviet Union, which was an ally during the war, and the Soviet Union would not like to have people broadcasting in Russia that it had no control over.
And so the Russian broadcasts of VOA only begin in 1947, with the Cold War gaining strength and beginning. No, those were very tentative. And I went back and I looked at those early broadcasts of VOA, and they were so, shall we say, apolitical and so careful not to say something that might be a little bit provocative. And only as the Cold War sort of grew and developed and extended did the broadcasts become more biting and maybe more critical.
So the Voice of America Russian service begins in 1947. Radio Liberty is a different animal to speak of. It is a surrogate radio station, and its goal is to be as if it were broadcasting within the country. So the idea behind, let's say, the Polish service of Radio Free Europe is to be a radio station broadcasting as if it were in Warsaw. The same thing would be true for the Czech service, as if it were in Prague, and for the Russian service, if it were in Moscow. In other words, the stories you choose, the approach you take, is one of a domestic medium that then takes a look at the broader world from the perspective of that country and its interests and so forth.
So naturally, Voice of America, which is the national voice of the United States, broadcast quite a bit about American politics, American points of view, American society, but always has opportunities to tailor that to the interests of its audience. In the case of the Russian service, obviously, whatever would be of special interest to a Soviet audience during the Cold War.
Radio Liberty sets its schedule in a very different way. It's looking at what are the kinds of stories that the Soviet Union is either distorting or avoiding. And in many ways, the role of Radio Liberty would be to fill out that space, to give a maybe a different point of view, to expand the overall concept of what is being broadcast. So its perspective is much more domestic oriented. Radio Liberty had a very, very extensive research department and a monitoring department. And the monitoring really looked at newspapers, radio, TV, Soviet [publications], so that every morning all of us would have on our desk pretty much the main stories in the Soviet Union, what they are saying, what they're avoiding, what they're focusing on, and that would help us to set up a news lineup that would be of interest, we felt, to a listener who would want to get a more critical view and a fuller view.
So they are different, but they intersect in the sense that they're both dealing—both Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—are dealing with the free, as we used to call it, the free world, the Western world, and how that world sees developments in the Soviet Union.
IT: Did Soviet authorities distinguish between the two? We know that they viewed them as hostile and they targeted both radio stations in their own propaganda. Did they view one as more dangerous than the other?
MP: My sense is [that], of course, they viewed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty as more dangerous because it dealt far more with domestic issues. And then Voice of America is like Radio Canada International, Radio France International, Deutsche Welle, Kol Israel—I mean, it's something that every country has, whether you like it or don't like it; it's part of reality. And there was Radio Moscow that was broadcasting to the United States and one could listen to it as much as one wanted to. It wasn't very popular, but it existed.
The attitude toward Voice of America, I think, changed at different times. During detente, Voice of America was not even jammed for a while, the idea being that we should find some kind of understanding. Radio Liberty was always jammed. They did not like Radio Liberty. They felt it was raising issues and questions that they did not want to deal with.
Just to give you a very good example: human rights, samizdat, dissidents, Jewish refuseniks, issues that were very, very volatile in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Voice of America covered them, but covered them in a very general way. Voice of America actually had a very popular program called Survey of the Western Press, Survey of the American Press. So every day they would given excerpts from what the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, various news magazines did. And that, of course, included a lot of information of what was going on in the Soviet Union, by quoting Western correspondents.
Radio Liberty, just to take human rights as an example, had three or four daily programs about human rights: human rights in terms of who was sitting in the gulag, who was just sentenced to the gulag, who has been arrested, the latest samizdat, what the impact of the Helsinki Accords is. In other words, it would take an issue like human rights, which was a great irritant to the Soviet Union, and it would have two to three hours’ worth of programing a day, whereas at VOA it would be covered, but in a very general kind of way. So I think that, of course, irritated them far more, and they saw it as more, as they would say, interference in their domestic affairs.
So the jamming was harsh, and also there was kind of a cottage industry of attacking the radios in the press. In other words, every so often there would be an article either in Izvestia or in Pravda or in some of the other regional newspapers attacking some aspect of the radios: “they [are] doing something terrible. This is awful. It's all CIA, it's all Allen Dulles’s plans,” and all the kind of clichés kept coming back.
But what was interesting is that once jamming ceased, the tone of the articles—still, the Soviet Union—started changing. And all of a sudden, by 1989, Pravda was having articles praising the role of the radios, talking about what important things they had done. So that is where the really fascinating changes in the Soviet Union took place, as glasnost progressed.
One could see—and I went back and actually read quite a few of the newspaper articles about the radios in 1987, ‘88, ‘89, ’90—and you can clearly see how the tone changes and how that harsh and unfair criticism disappears, and a very, very different view is presented in the papers.
IT: What did they actually appreciate about the radios once they were able to say something positive about them? What was it that they found so significant about the radios?
MP: I would say that if you go back to the early documents of Radio Liberty, you will find the word glasnost mentioned back in the late 1940s, because in many ways what the radios wanted—I mean, we didn't think we were going to bring the Soviet Union down or that the Soviet Union would disappear; that was way beyond even our imagination in those years—but what we did think could happen in many ways had started to happen in the late ‘80s, that the Soviet Union would just become a more open society with different points of view, and you could discuss the 1930s, you could discuss the gulag system, and you could have no censorship in terms of literature that was being published and read and discussed. And so, I think in many ways what the radios always wanted to be was what, at least on a certain level, Gorbachev's glasnost was all about. So it was really a kind of coming together of policy at the top with a long-standing mission in terms of the radios.
Now, what happens in the late ‘80s is that Soviet citizens begin to be interviewed and are part of the radios. So there is a melding, if you wish, of the domestic….So, yes, the radio station is still based in Munich, but with a bureau in Moscow and freelancers in all the different cities of the Soviet Union, it is Soviet voices [that] are free to discuss their works in a way they still can't do necessarily on Soviet media. So Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize winning writer: I listened to her interview in 1990, where she's talking about her work and how easy it is for her to be interviewed on Radio Liberty for a program about literature, where she still has a hard time dealing, obviously, with Soviet media, which is still in the hands of the old guard.
So I think Radio Liberty becomes that wedge that starts entering the Soviet Union and kind of breaking down some of the old patterns and opening it up. And that was a major, major triumph, I would say, at the radios, when Soviet voices began to be heard, not just émigrés , but people who would give an interview, let's say, in Washington or in Paris or Munich or even in Moscow, and they wouldn't be arrested. They would be able to go back. They could continue living a normal life. And so those were those moments where the local Radio Liberty mission began to be realized in-country.
IT: Well, and I think that this speaks to a level of trust that the radios were able to develop with their audiences. And this is important because I think for some people, the notion of state-sponsored radio programs, state-sponsored international broadcasting, one immediately thinks, well, it's just state propaganda. Was it propaganda that you were putting out?
MP: Well, you know, the term is a very tricky one because it's generally used as a term of abuse and criticism rather than [in] any positive way. We certainly didn't intend to be propagandistic, if one considers propaganda to be purposefully trying to present a certain story in a certain way with it, with the effect of changing something. No, we felt that, as an overall mission, our job was to present the diversity of opinion, diversity of views, and always, always adhered to a fact-based newscast.
So I think it was very important for our listeners to realize that—to this day, the same thing is true, and they can go and watch VOA or Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty online—there is a newscast, a news program, which is in our time no different than what you would get from any credible Western media organization: [a] two-source rule, most of the news we got was from AP or UPI or Reuters…, and that news would not be any different. The news lineup, as I mentioned earlier, would be very much, at VOA, reflective of the Western press. So whatever the Western press was writing about issues, that would be reflected in many of our programs.
And then there was what we used to call feature programing—in other words, programing that each service could select for itself. And that was different at Voice of America, Radio Liberty. Voice of America tried to capture some of the interesting complexities of living in an open, democratic society. We had a program on women in society back in the 1980s. We had a program on medicine. We had a program on agriculture. We had entertaining programs, music programs, theater programs, Broadway programs—a whole range of different issues that tried to communicate: what was life like in an open society?
Radio Liberty would focus more on Soviet-related issues, but the same concept would hold true. What are the…different views [about] immigration? What are some of the cultural phenomena? I mean, it’s a very funny thing to say, but Radio Liberty played all the Beatles songs in the 1960s when they were not allowed in the Soviet Union. And older listeners would tell me, “well, we learned about Simon and Garfunkel through a radio Liberty program or through Voice of America,” or “we got to know Johnny Cash.” I mean, all kinds of Western commonly-known things that were not allowed in the Soviet Union. You have to go back and think that the Soviet Union had draconian censorship on certain aspects that we would find quite strange today, but nonetheless, they existed. So there was this diversity.
Of course, neither Voice of America nor BBC nor Radio Liberty would be necessarily promoting Soviet points of view, because we felt that our listeners had more than enough of hearing Brezhnev or hearing any other leader. But there was a certain respect for that. I would say that there was a decorum to our broadcasting that does not exist in today's cable news world, as far as I can tell. I mean, there was a sense of, one never disparaged anyone, one was very careful. Even, I would say, to the point where a Voice of America broadcaster was very careful not to criticize. You could invite a guest who could express different points of view, but you yourself did not get on the air and start criticizing whatever happened in the Soviet Union. That was not considered proper and not considered part of decorum, and so forth.
So I think overall, yes, we did win the trust of listeners. Yes, we were greeted very warmly, I think especially in Eastern Europe. If you look at Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa or other leaders—Lennart Meri in Estonia who nominated Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for the Nobel Peace Prize—you're getting a sense that they saw the radios as part of their ability to become leaders of their countries in a democratic way.
In the case of the Soviet Union, certainly Gorbachev listened to VOA and BBC and Radio Liberty when he was under house arrest. Yeltsin was interviewed many times on Radio Liberty before he became president. See, that’s another thing: Radio Liberty was very keen on interviewing Soviet leaders, Soviet figures, even before 1991. So I think, yes, we were greeted as a serious, important, thoughtful radio station that had the best interests of the country at heart. We were not out to destroy anything. Our mission, as we saw it, was, rather, to bring about a democratic and open society.
IT: So this is really interesting and again, I think, relevant to the current moment, because I know that journalists today—independent Russian journalists who find themselves abroad in exile—there are discussions of what is the right tone with which to speak to Russian audiences today. Because on the one hand, many of the [audiences] support Putin and they may not resonate with an oppositional kind of a discussion. But then how do you bring [these audiences] in? How do you bring them into the fold? If you speak too much to them in a language that would resonate with them, then you sound like you are actually supporting the pro-Putin agenda. I think it's a really interesting and complicated issue, choosing the right tone to speak to an audience like that.
MP: I would say that our life was much easier than it is today. And I make this point because we were broadcasting into a country that was open and eager to learn more and more about the West and was very open to accepting a lot of the ideas of the West. Sometimes naively so, but nonetheless accepting. I had the opportunity to spend time in the Soviet Union. I went for the first time in 1973. I came back and spent a Fulbright year in 1981. So I had a sense that the Soviet Union—at least the people I interacted with and dealt with—despised the Politburo, did not believe in communism. I never met a communist to save my life anywhere in my time in the Soviet Union. On the contrary, they were very interested in seeing: what does the West say? What is the West like? They asked me thousands of questions. There was this almost childlike interest and naivete about this great West. So it was easy for us to put on these different programs, and people were very eager to listen and to follow and so forth.
Today, we have a very different situation, because we have a situation where you have, in a significant part of the Russian population, an aversion to the West, a kind of nationalism rising up, an imperialist point of view. And I think that makes it harder to communicate back into the country.
The other advantage we had—and one that doesn't exist today—is that we could always separate Soviet and Russian. We could always say, “well, this is Soviet, but Russian culture, Russian literature, Russian identity—that's fine, that's interesting.” I say naively, because I think many of us assumed—and now, in retrospect, probably incorrectly—that once communism fell, once the Soviet Union, as such, fell, everything would be just wonderful and everybody would get along with everyone else and Russia would be part of Europe. And for a while it seemed possible. It seemed possible. It now, of course, [it] is totally impossible, or at least not likely.
So I think we had those advantages. Today's journalists, independent journalists or journalists at Radio Liberty or VOA or at BBC, are broadcasting a little bit into a more hostile environment, where there is a tendency to not believe, a tendency to dismiss, a tendency to be very defensive when you're listening. So if you're in a situation where your [audience] is defensive and not necessarily accepting, it's that much harder to communicate, it’s that much harder to make your points.
I watch and listen to both Voice of America and Radio Liberty Russian services quite regularly, and I think they find the right tone. And I do also [follow] some of the independent journalists on their own sites. But I think that for them, it's so much harder to find the right way in which to reach the audience in a way that we actually, in retrospect, had a very easy time.
IT: And I think that you're right that in the Soviet Union—and I think it's also a reflection of the time—there was still an understanding that truth exists. Today we live in this supposedly post-truth environment. And there was trust in Western media. And what struck me, in fact, in what you were writing was a commitment to the truth right from the beginning, and I'm quoting from your book: “the authorities, the radios ruled out the technique of falsehood for the radios. The task of U.S. radio would be to tell the truth, the simple truth in a friendly spirit.”
That really resonated with me because I grew up in the Soviet Union. I was a teenager when perestroika arrived, and [there was this] sense that there had been a deficit of truth. You didn't even know what this truth was. You didn't know what you were missing. But you knew that you needed it, that something was covered up, you couldn't reach it, and you were just longing for it. And then it came and it was part of the exhilaration of the era, I think, and part of the headiness of the era, that suddenly all this information comes in and you feel. There's this catharsis of learning things that, perhaps, were ugly—obviously, a lot of them were ugly—about the history of your own country, but it was such a relief to know. And I think that this this focus and commitment to the truth, it was just the right choice to make.
MP: Well, you know, one of the things that our listeners have told me, older listeners, when the Soviet Union opened up and became Russia in the 1990s—obviously, I was able to talk to many people who had been listeners all along—and they said that the fact that the Voice of America broadcast the Watergate scandal in such an open way, the fact that we covered the civil rights movement in the United States with all of its violence and injustices and so forth, and the fact that we understood. Well, first of all, that's natural to an American organization, that you expose what is there to be to be shown, you're not trying to hide that. And I think that partly came naturally to us. But partly we understood that that was a very important thing to communicate to Russians, because that created a sense of trust and a sense that we were not out to sugarcoat the United States and present it as some marvelous place where everything is just ideal, and so forth. That would be untrue, and that would be obviously not serve anyone's purpose.
So I think you're right. And we did live in a time—and I speak for myself—where I truly believed that once facts were known, things would happen, people would really care. You broadcast The Gulag Archipelago, you expect people to respond, because, my God, look what happened in the 1930s, look what happened in the 1940s. We now live in a much more complicated and, I would say, in a sense, more dangerous world, where falsehoods are created, and you know perfectly well that there is a sense of, “there is no truth, everything is relative.” And that's a very, very dangerous and a very difficult, difficult environment in which to be a journalist.
IT: Exactly. What other values guided the broadcasting of the two radios? You write about the emphasis on promoting individual freedom and democracy. What were some of the fundamental values that that guided the programing?
MP: I would say, if I had to generalize and describe the radios with two words, I would say human rights. Probably human rights and the respect for the individual and that individual's rights virtually starts at the very beginning and goes through all of our broadcasts, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on news stories of the day. But I think that, you know, as I went back—and you can listen to thousands of Radio Liberty broadcasts over the years on the internet actually; you just sit at home and listen to them—and I went back and I listened to some of the ones from the 1960s, 1970s. I realized that passion and the interest with which the human rights issue in the Soviet Union [was covered] really characterized so much of our programing.
There's a wonderful essay by a Russian Soviet dissident, Andrei Amalrik, called “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” which I remember picking up in some little New York bookstore in the late 1960s. And in the first paragraph, he says: what will ichthyologists say when fish begin to speak? And up until the dissident movement of the 1960s, until the period, the Thaw period, the appearance of dissidents, and especially the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and [Yuli] Daniel, you had basically people describing what the Soviet Union was like, but you didn't have the “fish,” the Soviet citizens actually telling you what they were experiencing.
In that moment when samizdat appears, when the dissident movement begins, was a moment that I think really crystallized [the] radio program. It gave it that central, dynamic mission: we will bring these voices back to the whole country. Because they are authentic. This is the “fish” speaking. This is not the scientist sitting outside and commenting, which is the way it was in the 1950s, for the most part.
So I think that human rights, the values of human rights, the importance of human rights—and that extends to religion, to beliefs, to literary interest, to your own identity—I mean, it's a whole host of things. The Soviet Union, and I would wager to say, maybe that today's Russia has a much more constrained sense of what your rights are as a human being. We tried to bring in many, many different ways, what that meant to live a life that valued your personal, individual development as a human being. And I think it cuts across so many areas, from culture and literature to music to religion to the Jewish emigration movement.
I think one of the key issues—and I write about this in the book because I think it's a very important one—in the 1970s [is] you had the phenomenon of what we would call in English refuseniks, or otkazniki in Russian, who wanted to emigrate, were denied an exit visa, lost their job, and ended up in no-man's-land in the Soviet Union. And so much of our broadcasting focused on that and on similar situations of people finding themselves in this kind of denial of their right to be who they felt they were and what rights they had.
So there were many aspects of the radio, you know. It was a large operation; we had hundreds of different programs. But if I were to pick out the central core of what we saw as our mission in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, up until 1991, I would say it’d be human rights. And I would wager that today it is again a central issue. It's the people today who are going out and protesting and holding a sign against the war; [they] are similar to Natalya Gorbanevskaya or Pavel Litvinov going out in 1968 on Red Square or holding a sign against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and being horribly beaten and thrown into jail and sent to psychiatric hospitals. You're having the same situation happening again today.
And so again, I would say, the role of media, whether it's independent journalists that you mentioned earlier, who are working on their own platforms, or journalists at the radios, really we're back to a human rights issue. And I think if we can go a little further into Putin's Russia, if you look at the constitution and the amendments that were passed recently, many of them are very anti- (what we would consider in the West), anti-human rights, whether it's your personal identity or sexual identity, whatever issue it is; it's very restrictive and it's very prescriptive as to who and what you are. And in the West, our general sense is the individual determines for himself or for herself that identity. And so I think in that sense, there's a clear similarity between what we were facing and what we are facing as a society today—again, with the sense that it was easier for us then. It's harder now.
IT: It's a really interesting perspective. And you write that by giving publicity to some of these cases of the dissidents and refuseniks and people who were in the gulag, you probably saved lives because keeping their names out on the air prevented the Soviets from doing something that could undermine them physically or even kill them.
MP: You raise such an interesting point, because the Soviet Union, for all of its crudeness, cared about world opinion. Today's Russia does not. And I think that is one of these ironic moments where the Soviet Union, in the Politburo—and people have told me that they've seen records—there were serious discussions: “well, what should we do with Solzhenitsyn? Well, the world opinion would be such and such. Well, you know, we can't just send Sakharov to the gulag, it doesn't look good, it hurts our image.” There's all of this back and forth of concern. I don't think in the Kremlin today that kind of concern for world opinion would be as vivid and as clear as it was then. So, yes, by publicizing the case, we were able to at least help these people survive, so they wouldn't die in the gulag. Not always successful. Andrei Marchenko, who is a very prominent dissident, did unfortunately die in the camps. But where we could, we did. And I think that we saw that as a mission. We saw that as something that really was very, very important for our work and a kind of moral issue.
And this is a point that I think is sometimes, maybe, missed in discussions of the radios, is that we felt we had a moral mission as well, that we were a media, but we were also there to connect people who had been so arbitrarily cut off, who had relatives, friends and so forth. It's a small issue, but we had an interview with a very prominent violinist, Mullova, Viktoria Mullova, who had defected. She came to our studio in the mid ‘80s and she gave an interview, and then she turned to me and she said, “well, can I tell my mother I'm okay?” I said, “yes, go on the microphone and make sure you communicate that you’re ok.” So we sensed sort of a responsibility to the human level as well. It wasn't just always serious, ponderous broadcast. There was a human element to it.
IT: One of the things that surprised me as I was reading the book was that there were some controversies around the radios in the United States, in Washington—about the strategy and about the approach and whether they should continue to be funded. Can you touch on that? Because I would have expected that this was just simply embraced as a really valuable resource.
MP: Well, I would say the first kind of existential crisis for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was détente. Because if you take détente to its logical conclusion—that we are there to work with the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union is there forever, we have to find a relationship with which we can negotiate—then the question remains: why are you funding a radio station?
And I may boldly say that Radio Liberty was decolonizing Russia before that term ever became popular. Because in addition to Russian, we had the Ukrainian service, the Georgian service, the Armenian service, the Kazakh service, the Tatar-Bashkir service, and on and on and on. And that also irritated the Soviet Union even more, probably, than the Russian broadcasts, because we were acknowledging from the very early days that there were different nationalities that had their own cultures, and they wanted to hear the programs in their own language. That was done very early on, very consciously, and something, by the way, the BBC did not do. The BBC only broadcast in Russia. It never broadcast in any other language of the Soviet Union.
We did. Even at Voice of America, when I was there as the head of the USSR division, we had a very vibrant and large and active Ukrainian service. We had a Georgian service, Armenian service, Uzbek service, Azerbaijani service. So there was an understanding that we were not just broadcasting in Russian to a Russian audience.
Once détente came about and you had this relationship, a lot of these questions came up, as to: are you trying to pick apart the Soviet Union? Are you trying to, in Putin's words, dismantle it, or are you just simply acknowledging these different cultures? Senator Fulbright was very anti-radios and made all kinds of nasty statements. And there was also the funding of the radios that made—I’m speaking here, about Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—made them more vulnerable, because the CIA funded them until 1971. And so because you had a CIA funding and it was sort of seen as…other people pretty much knew it was funded by the CIA…nonetheless, the very fact that it was somehow hidden and not acknowledged also caused a certain amount of turmoil during the détente years.
But the radios did survive. They were able to go through the transition to an open funding source where they would be acknowledged. And I think that they became seen as part of what we've been describing as an open approach.
But détente certainly was a period....And then, of course, and this is another aspect that's important, and that is that in political situations where you have rival, different points of view, you are going to have disagreements. And so, yes, we had conservative views presented on the radios whenever Solzhenitsyn spoke and maybe Maximov in Paris. But then we had Lyudmila Alexeyeva and sort of the more liberal points of view expressed. We tried to give them both equal time or at least plenty of time. But there were all kinds of squabbles: why did you do this? You're doing too much of that. And of course, that spilled out into the press and created all kinds of, for me, at least, administrative problems, having to deal with it.
But I think in the long run, we did the right thing by not going to any extremes; obviously, we never wanted to do extremes. But I think it was important to communicate to a Soviet audience that there were very different points of view expressed in the emigration, all of which came back to Russia once communism fell. So you could find all of these different people and all of their different views expressed. The conservatives obviously came back. So did the liberals, and the rest is history.
So I think that we did the right thing. But yes, controversies were there. And of course, in any organization with émigrés, there's always, maybe, extra-heated, shall we say, debates and denunciations and excessive emotional turmoil that goes with it. That's part of the territory, if you wish.
IT: What would you recommend—we touched a little bit on some of the lessons of that era for the contemporary moment—but what would you recommend for journalists today who are trying to speak to the Russian audience and trying to inform it? What are some of the lessons that they should follow?
MP: Well, in a time of war, of course, that's a very, very difficult, extra difficult period, because we have an active, brutal war in Ukraine taking place as we speak. And I think it's extremely important to reflect that war, even if it's going to upset some Russian listeners, in terms of what is happening. But I think that what the radios are doing now, and I give them full credit, they're trying to have a very calm tone in terms of presenting what is going on. And I think it's extremely important—extremely important—to highlight those Russians in the country and maybe some outside, but especially those in the country, who are standing up for certain important principles. It's what we did whenever people were arrested and sent to the gulag. So you have some of that happening, quite a bit of it happening today. And I think it's important to make those stories known, whenever possible, if you can either do it directly or through maybe secondary sources. But the point is that to show a Russian listener that not only is the war brutal, not only is the war destroying many opportunities for Russia, but it has cleavages within Russian society that they need to be aware of and know [about], if they're going to have a healthy and normal country in the future.
I would avoid, as we did: we did not speculate on intrigue in the Kremlin, we didn't try to read the tea leaves as to who was going to replace Brezhnev, we would interview people occasionally,…but that was not our mission. Our mission was more of the human aspect of it. And I think that's probably a more important one today. There's a lot of information coming out. Technology has made Russia much more open than the Soviet Union was. I oftentimes tell Americans that when I went to the Soviet Union, I couldn't even make a phone call outside the Soviet Union. You had to go and register with the Central Telegraph and telephone to order an outside call outside the Soviet Union, just very, very primitive. Now, of course, there's lots of information coming out. People are still able to leave. So I think communicating the story of what this war means on so many different levels is probably the singularly most important thing that the radios can do.
And maybe, wherever possible (you know, this is important too), to extend some sense of hope that, you know, there is going to be life after Putin, there is going to be life after, when the war ends. And one has to think about what and how to build that different society [with] a different government. Offer hope. Maybe that's another way of….We tried to do that. We tried to…as a matter of fact, if you listen to the early 1950s broadcasts, which are kind of quaint and in some ways very dated, but the broadcaster would say: “we are trying to show you (you Russians and the Soviet Union) are not alone, that we care about you, we care about you.” And that's a topic that came back and back and back.
We received an award from one of the Jewish groups in New Jersey in the mid-1980s because the Voice of America Jewish program they gave the award [to] gave hope to those waiting. That was the key word: they gave hope that they weren't forgotten, that somebody cared about them. It sounds a little old-fashioned and maybe a little bit mawkish, but that is an important part of a radio broadcast—to give people hope that there is something beyond, that there is a culture that thrives, there are ideas that are interesting. And I think, in the best programs today or in our time, that that's what they try to do. And that's where the human voice, to come back to your point earlier, the human voice can communicate that far, I think, more effectively than the written word.
IT: This is a great note to finish on. Mark, thank you so much for joining us today.
MP: Loved it. I could talk about this all day, too.
IT: And me as well. From the Kennan Institute, this is Izabella Tabarovsky. Thank you for listening, and we'll look forward to having you on the next episode of The Russia File podcast.
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more