Glasnost at Radio Moscow

The Press, March 28, 1990

Denis Dutton

Denis Dutton recently spent ten days in Moscow as a guest of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation. His purpose in Moscow was to speak to a conference on philosophy and the theatre, but he took the opportunity to visit both Radio Moscow and the Moscow News. He presents here the first of two reports on the effect of glasnost — the new openness — on the Soviet media.

Could the Soviet Union, rather than NATO or another Western country, ever start a war? This was a question put forward at a recent roundtable broadcast by Radio Moscow. That an international radio service notorious for official Soviet propaganda would even ask the question was surprising enough. But the answer, given by Isvestia columnist Alexander Bovin, was enough to cause Lenin to roll over in his tomb: “Looking back through history, one can see that there were situations where we were the first to provoke conflicts. Take the Cuban missile crisis, take Afghanistan, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary.”

We’ve learned our lessons, Bovin continued, and he didn’t think the Soviet Union was now a threat to world peace, but the mere broadcast of such suggestions about Soviet history on the external service of Radio Moscow shows a radical change in the Soviet airwaves. When as a lad in California and first twiddled the dial of my father’s shortwave set, Nikita Khrushchev headed the Central Committee and Sputnik was just around the corner. I’ll never forget the thrill of finding Radio Moscow amid the static, but it wasn’t just sunspots that prevented listening to it for very long. The cold war was on and Radio Moscow, like Tass and Pravda, was an official organ of government doctrine and policy. For Radio Moscow listeners, Soviet citizens were invariably a well-fed, hard-working lot whose life would be a socialist idyll, were it not for the threat to world peace posed by bourgeois, capitalist powers. No crime, no want, no unhappiness to cloud the clear sky over the Russian paradise. Like most accounts of heaven, it was not only a mixture of fantasy and lies, but was intensely boring as well.

More recently I’ve been listening again to Radio Moscow from New Zealand, and there’s no question that glasnost has enlivened things. These days it’s not just Soviet space achievements or pompous peace conferences one hears about. Radio Moscow is willing to look at everything from Stalin’s terror through the so-called years of stagnation under Brezhnev, right up to the current turmoil. So a trip to Moscow provided a welcome chance to find out how the staff of Radio Moscow feel about their station and the changes in the Soviet Union.

Boris Belitzky’s office is down a back corridor of the sixth floor of a ten-story Radio Moscow headquarters near Novokuznetskaya station. When I walked in, he had in his typewriter a half-completed answer to a listener’s query about the Soviet space shuttle. The question was from Kerry Ferrand, of Christchurch, “Novo Zelandia,” whose letter lay there on the desk. Belitzky, who went to high school in New York City, but who has worked at Radio Moscow since the dark days of 1945, responds to stacks of such questions. He says Gorbachov’s policy of glasnost has made all the difference. His job is “far more interesting than ever before.”

If the coincidence of finding him answering a letter from New Zealand was almost too good to be true, his claim that “the restrictions and taboos are gone” was decidedly over the top. When it comes to international reporting, Radio Moscow has clear limits, but Belitzky was certainly correct insofar as domestic Soviet reporting goes. Today, that the Soviets don’t have enough to eat isn’t only admitted by Radio Moscow, it is analysed almost to tiresome excess. “Some listeners think we’re going too far,” Belitzky said. There is detailed coverage of the Soviet Union’s ethnic predicaments, its economic quagmire, and the increasing stridency of its political extremes. Often it assumes, especially in foreign coverage, an official voice, but it also sings the praises of McDonald’s hamburgers and condemns intransigent Soviet bureaucracy. Radio Moscow makes for provocative, unpredictable listening.


Take as an example of Radio Moscow news coverage the treatment given the massive rally held on Sunday, February 25th in central Moscow. For three days before the rally Radio Moscow carried pleas from the authorities that the demonstration, and similar events to be staged the same day across the country, be kept peaceful. The day before rally there were broadcast denials from the police that violent acts against Jews and other minorities were planned by demonstrators. Naturally, the effect was not to reassure people, but to frighten them away from the demonstration. Radio Moscow in English is also broadcast on the AM band in Moscow, and I was one of those scared off.

In the event, nearly 500,000 people ventured to Pushkin Square, perhaps half the number who would have shown up in a less intimidating atmosphere. Fire-brand reformists, such as the historian Yuri Afanas’ev, addressed the meeting but there were no acts of violence. In a brief and oddly timid report that evening, Radio Moscow noted that the demonstration was a peaceful gathering “in favour of perestroika,” thus turning an assembly of wildly disparate interests and factions into a unified show of support for Gorbachov’s policies. So far, Radio Moscow seemed to be reflecting an official line.

“We sent a man to the demonstration. He recorded material. Why weren’t we allowed to use it?” The frustrated speaker was Sergei Goryachov, deputy head of the North American Department of Radio Moscow. I interviewed him two days after the demonstration. Goryachov is a lean, articulate man in his early thirties who talks with an intensity I frequently encountered among Moscow intellectuals. The sixth floor studio where we sat was decorated with American posters. On one wall was a well-used dart board. “We still have a lot of propaganda here-we have a long way to go.”

The initial bulletin on the demonstration would have seemed to confirm Goryachov’s complaint, but a few days later Radio Moscow did indeed feature a long report on the demonstration which used the very live material Goryachov had wanted to use immediately. Though it may have been late, no one could say that the report was particularly biased in its approach.

The 25-minute-long “Inside Report” featured a careful description of the demonstration and the radical groups and members of the Congress of People’s Deputies who had organised it. The reporter roamed the crowd, using his tape unit to give a sense of the variety of opinion represented. One speaker said that the “great oak doors” behind which the Soviet leaders meet are an obstacle to perestroika. Yuri Prokofiev, head of the Moscow Communist Party, countered by insisting that glasnost really had opened government and that sloganeering would not help the country, but rather “constructive programmes,” a criticism of Yeltsinites and other radicals.

There were comments by Oleg Niemsa, a leader of a newly formed political action group, the “Social Democratic Association,” who expressed fears of the “danger” Mikhail Gorbachev could present if he were given the powers of a President of the Soviet Union in the present system. He said the President should be elected by a general popular vote, as in other democracies. The Congress of People’s Deputies should be abolished he said, and replaced by a true democratic parliament, which is elected by direct vote and which has all the powers of a western-style parliament.

Two men held a banner calling for Communist Party reform. They were champions of the “Democratic Platform,” a grass-roots movement which wants to see the Party transformed into a democratic organisation. Next the reporter encountered members of the Russian Popular Front, parading under the old flag of pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia. “The government should heed the voice of the people! We demand radical reform,” Valery Skulatov declared. He demanded the restoration of private property, giving land back to individual farmers, and that “in the cities the omnipotence of bureaucrats be toppled.”

In this enormous crowd, the reporter remarked on the presence of a single person, Yuri Kenasiev, carrying the flag of the Soviet Union. He said that he was “for a revival of the Union on a democratic basis,” and that the basic ideas of socialism were still sound.

The reporter also managed to find a black and red banner of the anarchists. One of their leaders, Andre Issaev, “a nice-looking young man” who is a candidate for the Moscow City Council, saw the demonstration as representing “virtually all the democratic forces of Moscow.” Despite the intimidating rumours prior to the demonstration, everyone turned out, he said, showing that people “were willing to take risks for the sake of upholding their principles.”

The report gave attention to the rumours, and quoted one man who said they were a pack of lies calculated to keep people from showing up. And finally there was an interview with a American student who spoke of the rumours and of how well-behaved the crowd was.

One of the speakers at the rally, Alexey Emilanov, complained the “completely biased” coverage Pravda had given previous demonstrations. He said that the fact that high members of the ruling circle of the Soviet Union did not appear at the demonstration showed that they were “completely divorced” from the people. “They’re isolated.”

Yuri Prokofiev was again heard expressing party-line doubts that the demonstration represented “true democracy,” while radical Sergei Stankeivich, a spokesman for the interregional group of deputies and one of the organisers for the Moscow meeting, defended it as exactly what was needed now: “We are ready to demonstrate our absolute devotion to radical changes....We are tired of the slowness of so-called perestroika. We want changes now!”

Overall, the report was remarkably impartial, giving time to views from across the political spectrum of the contemporary Soviet Union. This was accomplished not with scripted commentary, but by simply letting demonstrators speak for themselves.

Goryachov was the first person to achieve the position of Senior Editor at Radio Moscow without being a Communist Party member. “But his Party membership followed soon after the promotion,” said his younger colleague Irina Solovtsova, a producer for the North American service. She smiled while Goryachov shifted uncomfortably. Neither she nor her two other younger colleagues in the English service who were present were Party members.

“Yes,” Goryachov admitted that he had joined the Party, but he still insisted that his promotion happened because his bosses fought for him. “Anyway,” he shrugged, “we’ll very soon have more than one party.”

As to what the limits of acceptable topics for coverage, Goryachov had difficulties to think of an example that would be over the edge. I had a strong feeling that having been so tightly controlled for so long, these radio journalists were out to prove they could talk about any problem in the Soviet Union. What about Lenin, I asked, the figure who is still the state deity in this officially atheistic land? No, Goryachov insisted that even he is emerging as fair game. Goryachov himself is working on a story about the revaluation of Lenin, but he says that it is only unfinished because he himself is dissatisfied with it, not because of in-house censorship.

Irina Solovtsova, agrees censorship is less of a problem than a few years ago. “The major paradox we’re wrestling with is between being a government spokesman and being an independent news source.” The conflict shows most clearly when the hourly news bulletins are compared with more informal feature stories, and in Radio Moscow’s treatment of international news. One symptom of “official news” is the placement of stories in the straight bulletins.

On the day of my visit to the studios, most journalists would have chosen the defeat of Daniel Ortega at the polls in Nicaragua was the major world news story, but at Radio Moscow it was once or twice the second, and usually the last headline on the hourly bulletins. The lead story was Vaclav Havel’s visit to Moscow, and the misgivings of Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze about German reunification led other bulletins, even if later items were by Western standards more newsworthy.

More significant yet is Radio Moscow’s curious double standard in its treatment of internal and foreign stories. While reports are often fierce in their criticism of internal conditions of the Soviet Union, there is never a cross word directed at Soviet allies, such as Syria, Libya, Cuba or North Korea “Democratic Korea,” as its is still laughably described on Radio Moscow. Virtually until the day of his fall, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu was insulated from criticism in the Soviet media, including Radio Moscow. One Isvestia commentator even complained that he was afraid that Soviet-U.S. relations might improve to the point where he would no longer be permitted to criticise the Americans.

The policy of going easy on foreign friends reached its low point last year when Radio Moscow blandly reported on a roundup of trouble-makers and student agitators that had taken place in Beijing its reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Nevertheless, indications are that as the scope of glasnost widens, we can expect to hear more outspoken analysis of the behavior Soviet allies on Radio Moscow.

Sergie Krabu, whose bright face and perfect American accent suggest Malibu, California, has only worked for Radio Moscow for three years. Though he has never known anything in the job but some degree of glasnost, he says he knows how much things have changed. One recent alternation to Radio Moscow practice was the reintroduction of live news broadcasts. Bulletins were read live until the military invasion of Afghanistan. On that day, a Radio Moscow announcer delivered an unscripted denunciation of the action, and from then on all news bulletins were recorded in advance.

“In the end, the announcers got lazy,” Krabu explained. They liked the ease of reading ahead of time, correcting their mistakes and letting someone else play the tapes. Announcers have been reluctant to return to the high-wire tension of live radio.

Time was when even in the Soviet Union people listened to foreign broadcasts to find out first what was happening in their own country. This is no longer the case, but in trying for scoops, Radio Moscow staff are learning some hard lessons familiar to Western reporters. The day before my visit to the studios, the service broadcast an abject apology for having carried an account of riots, curfews, and bloodshed in Samarkand, a story which turned out to be false. In particular, the apology begged forgiveness from British correspondents, as the BBC had picked up the story. Goryachov explained that the original source for the story was Interfax, a Radio Moscow subsidiary, and they regretted not having better checked it out. “But at least we didn’t carry that false CNN story last month about Gorbachev resigning from the Party leadership,” he said, referring to a widely promulgated false alarm of a couple of months ago.

One of the most encouraging things about talking with these young and energetic reporters is precisely their sense of wanting to compete with the Western media, even if the price is an occasional mistake. And it is clear that they are making progress, as the BBC now occasionally carries stories which quote Radio Moscow as the originating source. There is also an obvious feeling among the people I talked to at Radio Moscow of wanting to go forward, never to return the censorship and repression of the past. As with so much else in Soviet life today, the dark shadow of history looms.

Leaving the building at day’s end, Sergie Goryachov donned a ski cap and walked with me to the subway. Descending the long escalator to the platform I remarked on the lovely marble architecture of the station, and he told me it was built in 1943. I was incredulous. How could such a splendid station have been constructed during the depths of the Second World War, I asked. “Oh, it wasn’t a problem.” Then he added with a note of bitterness, “There were lots of enemies of the state to do the job.” It doesn’t occur to most visitors to Moscow consider how much of it was built by victims Stalin’s purges. But some Muscovites aren’t going to forget.