Martin Dewhirst reviews ‘Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’ by Mark G. Pomar

5 June 2023

by Martin Dewhirst

Martin Dewhirst reviews Cold War Radio: The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty by Mark G. Pomar, Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2022, US$ 34.95.

There are more than a dozen serious works in English about Radio Liberty (until 1959, Radio Liberation) and Radio Free Europe (RL/RFE), but, remarkably and regrettably, only a few about the Voice of America  (VOA) and, for that matter, the World Service of the BBC (which started broadcasting in Russian in 1946).  Even if you have perused all these books, it will still be worth your while to read Pomar’s brand new study, because he looks back on history in the knowledge of the horrific consequences of what has happened in and around Russia since 1991.  Will there be another chance to move towards a less dangerous Russia and a less dangerous world?  How should the West relate to the Kremlin after the departure of Putin?

Before going further, I should make a full disclosure of my miniscule input into the dedicated attempt to make Russia and Russians more Western/European.  I first went to RL (but not to RFE – they were then operating in very different parts of Munich) as an intern for the summer of 1963, having been expelled from the USSR the previous year.  At that time, one could decide which was the better bet: try to help much of Eastern and Central Europe to regain its independence from Moscow (RFE), or try, at RL, to undermine the Kremlin by regarding it as the ‘main enemy’ which had first to be defeated before RFE’s hopes would be feasible.  As an RAF national serviceman in 1956 during the Hungarian Uprising, I had no hesitation in deciding that RL was more crucial than RFE.   Later developments in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine seem to suggest that this was the better strategy.  However, it’s only too clear now that it’s much harder to change the Russian mentality than the German mentality.  I worked for RL, albeit more off than on, until shortly before the coup and counter-coup in Moscow in 1991.

Clearly, Putin’s Russia is much more dangerous than Gorbachev’s Russia was, but was this inevitable, and is this partly, or even mainly, the fault of the West which, on the whole, preferred, and even sponsored, Yel’tsin’s insane economic policies?  Pomar, who occupied very important positions both in VOA and in RFE/RL, naturally doesn’t discuss this, but his splendid, lucidly written monograph has a lot to teach us about how best to try to comprehend the Russian-ness of Russia and reduce the danger of repeating earlier mistakes. 

Perhaps the most stimulating parts of this book are the Preface, Introduction and Chapter 1: ‘Setting the Stage’.  Here the author marks out the differences between the two radio stations: ‘For the VOA Russian broadcasters, the pronoun we meant the United States; for the RL Russian broadcasters, it meant Mother Russia’ (p. xiii).  Pomar goes on to distinguish between ‘strategic broadcasting’ and ‘purist journalism’.  ‘The strategic approach saw broadcasting as a weapon that could pierce the Iron Curtain and weaken Communist rule.’ (p. 3), whereas ‘advocates of the purist approach stressed high journalistic standards, disdained attempts at strategic narratives, favored the inclusion of nonpolitical and cultural topics, and argued that programming reflecting liberal values would attract a large and devoted audience that could be weaned away from Soviet propaganda’ (p. 4). 

Over the course of time, VOA priorities changed and changed again, first backing the ‘radio strategists’ in the 1950s and then swinging ‘to the purists during the period of détente in the late 1960s and 1970s, only to return to the strategists in the Reagan years’  (p. 5).  Back in 1958, VOA, which had begun broadcasting in Russian on 17 February, 1947 (it was founded in 1942, for the obvious reason), resolved that ‘materials dealing with Soviet internal affairs shall constitute no more than a minor portion of programming’ (p. 35).   At times, VOA management  ‘discouraged citing émigré journals, such as Kontinent, and even considered an interview with the poet Joseph Brodsky as unnecessarily provocative. […] While VOA was allowed to report on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago by citing Western sources, the Russian Service was prohibited from interviewing the author or broadcasting readings from the book’ (p. 39).  This changed dramatically not long after Solzhenitsyn’s unwilling departure from the USSR.

RFE/RL, on the other hand, which started broadcasting on 1 March, 1953 (a few days before Stalin’s death, for years a subject of the inevitable joke), was always more targeted towards the future,  although it naturally also dispensed a wealth of reliable information on the past and present of the whole USSR, in many languages in addition to Russian (although this multilingual effort is not covered in Pomar’s book).  It struggled endlessly to question quite popular Western appeasement policies, which it distinguished from a genuine détente.  I suppose one could say that it was closer to Solzhenitsyn than to Sakharov, but all the latter’s samizdat was meticulously processed and broadcast.  Perhaps even more than VOA’s Russian service, RL genuinely felt that ‘the proper role of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’ (p. 107).  Naturally, in the Reagan years VOA’s strategy became much closer to RFE-RL’s, despite the worry that ‘even the most fervent anti-Communists at RL were proud of [their] empire and dreamed of it becoming a Russian one’ (p. 158).  Well worth noting today!

Nearly all the time until the late 1980s both these radio stations were, of course, steadfastly jammed.  Engineers ‘at VOA and BBC estimated that the Soviet Union spent between $500 million and $1 billion annually to jam, more than the combined annual operating budgets of the VOA, RFE/RL, the BBC, and Deutsche Welle’ (p. 227).  Currently other means are utilised to discourage listening in Russia to foreign broadcasts, and neo-Soviet and genuinely post-Soviet people within the Russian Federation are not finding it easy to access either many of the older sources of reliable information to which they had become accustomed, or some of the newer ones. How long can this continue?  Pomar doesn’t speculate, but his judicious chapters on human rights, culture, history, Solzhenitsyn, religion and glasnost’ during the Soviet period, which there is no space for me to cover here, suggest that we shouldn’t give up hope or stop trying to do our bit to improve the situation.

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