Radio Russia

In the Soviet Union, politics and radio were inseparable. Some things never change.

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Radio Russia

Since the emergence of radio in the 1910s, Russians haven’t just listened—they’ve listened passionately, forcefully, illegally. In the ’50s, they reassembled shortwave radios to tune into Western broadcasts. In the ’60s, they joined amateur radio clubs and spoke with their cohorts in the United States and Europe. They huddled by their radios for 40 years to hear Voice of America’s Russian programming, trying to make out scraps of dialogue and musical fragments over the screeching white noise of Soviet interference. Some of them even risked their livelihoods to tell journalists from VOA—and Radio Liberty, another American-government-run station—the truth about government oppression.

up against frequencies that play Rihanna and Eminem. Other stations broadcast official government news reports, and—with a little outside help—progressive independent stations now report on Siberia’s rock ’n’ roll scene. Politics is at once present and absent everywhere on Russian radio—when it’s not the text, it’s the subtext. For all the changes in broadcast technology, radio somehow manages to feel completely transformed and utterly familiar. 

Soviet Premier Vladimir Lenin was obsessed with radio. He knew that each new technological development would spread the word about Communism, and he wrote and spoke enough about the medium to fill a 1970s anthology called Lenin on Radio, which collects letters, telegraphs and speeches. (Just imagine the corresponding work Eisenhower on Television.) Lenin called radio “a newspaper without paper, and without distance.” And even in 1975, decades after Lenin and Stalin’s most potent ideological battles, the Great Soviet Encyclopedia described the art of radio in the U.S.S.R. and other socialist countries as nothing less than “an active force in the creation of a new reality and in the upbringing of the new man.” American radio, on the other hand, was full of “soap operas (sponsored by detergent manufacturers), horror plays and police stories. These distract working people from current social and political problems and propagate bourgeois ideology.”

In 1921, years before Communist ideas were entrenched, loudspeakers in hospitals, hotels, plazas and other public places blared the state’s official news bulletins for two hours every evening. Resistance wasn’t just futile­—it was inconceivable. The Soviet voice was everywhere. By the end of the decade, hundreds of hours of music and even children’s programming like Radio Little Octobrist and Cultural Heritage for Our Children had emerged on the airwaves.

Radio’s popularity exploded in the late 1920s and early ’30s in terms of audience (from 90,000 listeners in 1928 to six million in 1941), pedigree (writers like Mayakovsky and Gorky led literary programs and read their own work on the air) and, inevitably, politicization. In 1930, Soviet citizens tuned in to a radio documentary about the construction of the Dnieper Hydroelectric Station; in the course of 100 minutes, everyone from illiterate workers to foreign engineers to factory directors shared their stories of the difficult—but triumphant, patriotic, glorious!—experience of building the new nation’s infrastructure. It was ambitious reportage, a This Soviet Life for its time.

The problem was that it was all staged. The entire show was scripted and rehearsed for days in advance, and not a single journalist asked a real question. Needless to say, this was not the only incident of its kind, so when the Soviet government confiscated radios during World War II, the act wasn’t exactly unexpected.

Voice of America emerged during the war as the United States government’s official radio service, airing its first Russian broadcast on Feb. 17, 1947. The need to speak directly with Soviet citizens (perhaps undermining some of the U.S.S.R.’s authority along the way) was urgent, but American policymakers were reluctant to endorse and fund a program that by its very nature would be propagandistic—after all, VOA’s mission was to spread the word about America. A few years after VOA was founded, Theodore Streibert, director of the United States Information Agency, put it in stark terms: “It is a necessary instrument even though, emotionally, we might not want to have anything to do with it, any more than we want anything to do with the atomic bomb.”

Concerned about the corrupting influence of pro-American radio, the Soviets started jamming the station a year after its first Russian broadcast, overloading strained radio signals with assaults of noise and static. But VOA was much more than just Soviet-bashing; in its early days, it was schizophrenic, mixing righteous pro-American commentary with entertainment shows like Willis Conover’s Jazz Hour, which ran for almost 40 years and introduced an entire nation to jazz—and to Conover, who became a star in his own right. When he traveled with the Charles Lloyd Quartet to Estonia in 1967, the crowd at the Tallinn jazz festival surged forward as soon as it heard his voice.

Russians listened to VOA on shortwave radios, which proved to be the great—and perhaps fatal—paradox of Soviet radio history. The Soviet Union manufactured millions of shortwave radios (20 million by 1958), which became more affordable as more were produced. Officially, they were a symbol of technological innovation; unofficially, they made speaking the enemy’s language much easier, but not too easy. Soviet radios didn’t have the four shortest bands (the best for long-distance listening), and the government spent an extraordinary amount of funds and resources on jamming. In 1973, The Economist estimated that the government spent $250 million to build 3,000 transmitters, and that the annual operating costs were $185 million. But jamming could never completely disrupt the West’s broadcasts, particularly as both American broadcasters and Russian radio fans became savvier.

In his zeal for radio, Lenin had not only ordered government research and development, but had also encouraged a growing network of amateur radio fans. By 1960, they even had their own magazine, Radio. Amateurs could easily reconfigure Soviet radios to receive Western broadcasts, and their semi-official status as registered tinkerers let them easily communicate with hams in the West. Of course, there were only a few thousand amateurs (known in Russian as “lovers”), but their mischievous embrace of the grey zone helped millions of Russians listen.

And listen they did, particularly after the launch of a second American radio station, Radio Liberty (originally, and more provocatively, known as Radio Liberation). RL and VOA claimed a listenership of 40 million to 60 million, and despite continued jamming and anti-American rhetoric, the two stations emerged as major forces—particularly in 1965, when the writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were arrested for publishing anti-Soviet literature. Daniel’s most controversial work was a story entitled This is Moscow Speaking, in which the state-run radio announces an impending “Public Murder Day,” when “all citizens of the Soviet Union who have reached the age of sixteen are given the right to exterminate any other citizen.”

Throughout the trial and afterward, VOA and RL were in constant contact with dissidents, so Soviet citizens came to know much more about this show trial than they could have ever imagined. Letters were written and petitions signed. Just as Lenin had used Soviet radio to indoctrinate the Russian people, the West had accessed the same hearts and minds through the same medium.

In 1971, it was revealed that the CIA had channeled undercover funds to VOA and RL. But even at their peak, the American stations never matched either the stridency or the ideological rigor of Soviet radio, which, meanwhile, had become the largest broadcaster in the world—2,010 hours in 80 languages each week. In 1979, the U.S.S.R. launched Radio Moscow, whose World Service played Western pop music, along with imitation Russian hits. Eventually, even the stridency and the rigor faded. In the years leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, radio shook almost entirely free of the censorship that had defined it for over 70 years. Techniques that had once been deployed to fool the public were now used to enlighten it, as journalists found themselves free to report on the country’s historic transformations.

A few years after Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Nashe founder Mikhail Kozyrev told journalists Peter Baker and Susan Glasser that, after the mid-’90s, when the Russian appetite for anything Western was insatiable, “it’s cool to be Russian again.” During market research for his new radio station, his respondents made it clear that “they wanted to listen to ‘our’ music, the music of ‘our generation.’ Every sentence had the word nashe in it.” Today, many stations are modeled after Nashe—all of them take language, and not music, as their organizing principle. And along with these, there are the megaliths, either government-owned (like the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company) or private, like the bevy of conglomerates that resemble America’s own Clear Channel.

But in an age of satellite radio and the Internet (not to mention any number of other technological distractions), no one strain of radio can truly dominate. Nationalist rock is just one component of Russia’s broadcast mix alongside stations that play chansons (mournful songs of criminality and anger, beloved by cab drivers), American Top 40 and R&B, and even field recordings from Abkhazia.

The Foundation for Independent Radio Broadcasting, or FNR, is responsible for that last category. The organization was started by the BBC World Service in 1992 to develop original programming, and has been independent since the BBC’s disengagement in 1999, amassing funding mostly from Western nonprofits. With grants to local radio stations and a constant stream of its own programming, FNR is fighting against the imported American tendencies of consolidation and homogenization. Thanks to FNR, listeners can tune in to Radio Abakan, based in a small Siberian city, and anyone in the world can access a podcast interview with Albert Kuvezin, the lead singer of Yat-kha, a Tuvan rock group. Though it’s clear that Russian mega stations will continue to dominate these far-flung regions for years to come, “we’re taking more of a long view,” says FNR producer Charles Maynes. “There’s a space for the public interest.”

But what’s most striking about FNR’s work is that it has more in common with, of all things, Soviet radio than today’s commercialized cacophony. Maynes says that young producers were initially taken aback by FNR’s sensibility: “For them, this was really entirely new, but it was older producers who worked in the Soviet broadcasting system that said, ‘Oh, we used to do that.’” The careful attention to sound and tape, the patient, attentive journalism—all of it reminded them of their own broadcasts in the waning days of the U.S.S.R. “That tradition was here,” Maynes says, “but it disappeared in the ’90s. We’re trying to return those qualities to radio without necessarily returning to that dynamic."