National Security & Defense

The Soft Voice of America

From the NR archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article first appeared in the April 30, 1982, issue of National Review.

Thirty years ago, in 1953, when I had just been freed from the labor camp, I bought a radio receiver with the first money I earned. It was during my exile in Kazakhstan, and it was considered a suspicious move: Why should someone in exile buy a radio? But I listened intently, through the horrendous jamming, and tried to catch some bits of information from the Western nations’ Russian-language broadcasts. I got to be so expert that even if I could only catch half a sentence, I could complete it from just those few words. For 20 years I listened constantly to Russian-language broadcasts from the West. I made use of the information, rejoiced in the successes, and was deeply distressed by the mistakes.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance these broadcasts could have if they were well directed. Of course, people in the Soviet Union still listen to them, but many be­come disillusioned, as I did. I fear that those who determine the general tone of America’s Russian-language broadcasts did not understand at the beginning, and do not understand today, the main aim and purpose of these broadcasts. The objective should be to establish mutual trust, warm feelings, and contact with the oppressed people, and thus to tear them away, to help them tear themselves away, from their Communist oppressors. If this had been done over the last thirty years, how different things might be today! I can say without exaggeration that maybe we would not be thinking that there is danger of another world war.

But this has never been understood. In recent years the quality of these broadcasts has steadily declined — the Voice of America has not been good for some time now, and Radio Liberty is getting worse, much worse.

In order to formulate correctly the general direction the broadcasts should take, at least two questions must be answered. First, what is the situation in the countries to which the broadcasts are beamed? And second, what is the condition of those oppressed peoples, what are their needs, what kind of spiritual hunger do they have? With respect to the first question, the entire West, including the United States, seems to be bewitched, doomed eternally to a false vision of the situation in Communist countries. In the 30s — during the most dreadful time of Stalinist terror, when Stalin was exterminating many millions of people — editorials in the United States proclaimed the Soviet Union to be a country of social justice. President Roosevelt extended a helping hand to Stalin, and American businessmen rushed to provide the technological assistance without which Stalin could not have built his industrial base. And at the end of the war, America and Britain made Stalin a gift of all of Eastern Europe. It should have been understood that the Soviet rulers were enemies of their own people. But this was not understood. Since, in the West, the government is elected by the people, Westerners like to think that the government and the people are one and the same. Even in this country that is not the case, as I see when I compare the opinions of the people I live among in Vermont with the news from Washington, D.C. And then consider that these differences of outlook are nothing compared to the situation behind the Iron Curtain. In actual fact, in all Communist countries the government and the people are categorically opposed to each other. There is a gulf between them.

Failing to understand this was the great historical mistake that Roosevelt made in the Thirties and Forties. This mistake cost the Free World half of the globe — perhaps less than half in terms of territory, but more than half in population. And today the greatest danger is that the Free World’s leaders will repeat Roosevelt’s fatal mistake.

In fact, the same mistake has been repeated over and over again through the years. For instance, with Tito. Tito was the murderer, the executioner, of his people. Right after World War II, he shot hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens. He even shot down American civilian planes near the Austrian border. All this was forgiven (and worse, forgotten), and he has been held up as a great statesman. The same error was repeated again with Cuba. It was proclaimed in the Free World that what had taken place in Cuba was a people’s revolution. The same error was repeated again with North Vietnam. A totalitarian gang there seized the whole country, and American progressives proclaimed that it was a national movement for freedom. In Nicaragua, right under our nose, a totalitarian group of Communists seized power, and the Carter Administration hurried to help them financially.

The fatal historical mistake of liberalism is to see no enemy on the left, to consider that the enemy is always on the right. It is the same mistake which destroyed Russian liberalism in 1917, when the liberals overlooked the real danger, which was from Lenin. The same error—the mistake of Russian liberalism — is being repeated on a worldwide scale today.

And worst of all is China. China in the Eighties is like the Soviet Union in the Thirties; it is in need of everything. It seeks aid from America. If the U.S. provides it with technology and then with weapons, China may, for a while, serve as a safeguard against the Soviet Union, although even that is problematical. But if the U.S. arms China, China may take over the second half of the earth — that second half which includes America.

Never forget that Mao’s government murdered millions — even more, probably, in proportion to the population than Stalin did. China is even more closed to foreigners than the Soviet Union. The West knows even less about it. When, thirty years from now, you read the Chinese Gulag Archipelago, you will be amazed: “Oh, what a pity, and we didn’t know!” But you must know! You must know in time, and not when it is too late.

No matter what the Chinese rulers may say when they are looking for favors from the U.S., no Communist government ever cares about the rights, the development of its people. Communist governments are like cancerous tumors: they grow wildly and have two aims only: first, to strengthen their power, and second, to expand their boundaries. Those are the aims of the Chinese government, as they are those of the Soviet government.

Now, to go back to the second point that VOA, Radio Liberty, and the other Western broadcasters should be considering: the inner state of the people toward whom the broadcasts are directed, their spiritual hunger, their frustrations, their aspirations.

Their main need is for knowledge. Information in the Soviet papers and on Soviet television is distorted beyond recognition. Those who live in the Soviet Union know, in a gen­eral way, what is happening in the world, but they know nothing of what is going on in the neighboring town, in the neighboring county. That is why foreign broadcasts are so important for them: only from such broadcasts can they get news about themselves, about what is happening to them.

Not to know what is happening in and to your own country is crippling. That is why the Voice of America’s self-imposed limits are so misguided. What does the average Soviet citizen know about, say, Afghanistan? Everything he hears from the government is distorted. And yet the Voice of America, which could fill this gap, has placed limits on its own best sources of information. It refrains from using rich accumulations of material because it believes that it only has the right to broadcast in a way which will not irritate the Communist leaders. For instance, the émigré anti-Communist magazine Possev, published in Frankfurt am Main, contains plenty of material about Afghanistan; its reporters travel to Afghanistan and meet with Afghan resistance fighters. Yet the Voice of America does not broadcast such material to the Soviet Union because it comes from a magazine which is too anti-Communist. Instead, VOA feeds its listeners second-rate gossip about what diplomats in Delhi hear third-hand. Thus, instead of effectively giving us news, VOA helps to keep us ignorant. In order not to violate State Department policy, it gives us a stone in place of bread.

Here is another example: A major rebellion took place in Novocherkassk in 1962, but for over ten years there was not a word about it on Western radio broadcasts — not one! Either the broadcasters did not know about the revolt or it was not reported in “sufficiently proven” sources. If the broadcasters do not have documentary proof, they can’t re­port on rebellions. And so it was not until ten years later that we heard from Western broadcasts about our own great rebellion in Novocherkassk.

Here is still another example drawn from my personal experience. In December 1973, when I was still in the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West. VOA—or, rather, one VOA announcer — read an excerpt from Gulag on the air. Immediately, Radio Moscow started screaming that VOA had no right to interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet Union, that the broadcast had fouled the international atmosphere. And what did VOA do? With the agreement of the State Department, it took the announcer off that assignment and forbade the reading of The Gulag Archipelago to Russia! More, for several years it was forbidden to quote Solzhenitsyn on VOA, so as not to discredit Communist propaganda. My book was written for Russians. Millions of copies were read in the West, but it could not be read to our Motherland!

But the Western broadcasters should be considering not only what the people of the Soviet Union know and don’t know, but also what their concrete situation is. For 65 years, Soviet citizens have been working for a pittance. For 65 years, both the mother and the father in a family have worked, but their combined earnings are insufficient to support the family. They are never paid more than 10 or 20 per cent of what their work is worth. All the rest is taken by the government in order to produce weapons. Several generations of my people have gone hungry. We may even be approaching physical degeneration. We are poisoned with alcohol. Women are carrying a load which men could not manage, a double load as workers both inside and outside the home. Our birthrate has fallen sharply, and infant mortality has risen.

We are poisoned both physically and morally. Poisoned physically by military manufacturing that is carried out without any protection of the surrounding environment—there is no control of water or air pollution. And poisoned morally because for 65 years we have been inculcated with Communist lies.

This combination of poisons has brought my people to a state close to spiritual and physical death. All memory of our past, our history, and especially the history of the last century has been wiped out. The history of the last century is particularly dangerous for the Communists, because that history is their enemy. The Communists are systematically destroying all traces of the truth, so that soon we won’t know anything about ourselves. I would compare this to when, in Stalinist times, the father and the mother of a family were both arrested, the children sent to an orphanage, and their last names changed so that they never knew whose children they were, what their origins were, what their past was.

Our people are in the same situation. They are deprived of any memories about themselves. Or they are like someone lying in bed, dying; and the American radio broadcasts are like a visitor — not a doctor, but a visitor — who comes in very self-satisfied, cheerful, beautifully dressed, and sits down, and says: “Now I will entertain you. Now I will tell you how I dress, how many suits I have, what a wonderful apartment I have, what I recently bought, how much money I save, what a good time I have. Do you want me to do a little dance for you?” And the visitor begins to do various dances in front of him.

That’s how radio broadcasts to the Soviet Union are run today. They give us nothing to slake our spiritual hunger. Instead, a foreign voice reads us propaganda lectures on how to understand the world. Granted, these lectures come not from a Communist point of view but from a liberal democratic one. But after 65 years all propaganda has become repulsive to us.

That’s just one aspect. It is the most important aspect for our people; but there is another side, the one that is most important for America. These broadcasts give a picture which does not correspond to the spiritual life of the American people. They speak of trite, superficial things, so that our people have a lower opinion of Americans than Americans deserve.

VOA broadcasts are full of frivolity. For instance, there are three different jazz programs, a program of pop music, a program of dance music, and then a youth program on which all of these are repeated. This is such a mistake. Perhaps those interested in jazz may turn on their radio five minutes earlier or turn it off five minutes later and in this way happen to hear something besides jazz. But the point is, we don’t need VOA jazz programs, which are jammed, because our jazz fans have at their disposal jazz programs from the rest of the world, which no one jams. They can hear these programs perfectly. So VOA does not attract listeners that way; all it does is waste valuable air-time.

Or consider sports. With great solemnity VOA broadcasts programs on sports. But sports are a favorite subject of Soviet radio. It is the only interest which Soviet radio willingly fosters in our youth—because, in the Soviet Union, sports act as the opium of the people. They divert young people from thinking about their situation, about their history, and about politics—something the Western broadcasts should not be encouraging. Even worse, the stations find time to broadcast about hobbies. These programs repel and anger the Soviet listener and make him turn off the radio; he feels only contempt for a broadcast that tells him how people with lots of time at their disposal collect empty bottles, or labels from something or another. Or he is told, in great detail, about the conveniences of international travel — information of no conceivable use to him — when the time could be spent on subjects of value to him such as history and religion.

To sum up: Radio broadcasts from the United States do not give our people the spiritual help they need. That’s one point. Secondly, the broadcasts present Americans as more trivial and less significant than they really are, i.e., they are doing America harm. And, thirdly, the stations limit even simple information about current events. In matters of foreign policy, they are overly scrupulous about sources, as witness the case of Afghanistan. So far as the internal situation in the Soviet Union is concerned, the broadcasts concentrate on material provided by dissidents in Moscow. If tomorrow the dissident movement should be destroyed, that source of information would be lost altogether.

But there are great fields of information about the Soviet Union of which Soviet citizens need to hear, and which the American broadcasters either do not have or do not wish to use. Instead, there is wide coverage on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union. Half-hour after half-hour is spent on interviews with recent émigrés: how they like America; how they have found work; how much they earn; how they have furnished their houses. Not that there is anything wrong with this. But it is given disproportionate emphasis, and it replaces needed information about the situation within the Soviet Union. And what feeling does it arouse in the Soviet listener? Irritation. Most Soviet citizens cannot emigrate to the West. Only a certain number of Jews can. Why then boast about how well they are doing? It is tactless.

Our people want to be told about our workers, how they fare in our country, but the broadcasts do not speak of that. What is the situation of our peasantry? There is never a broadcast on that subject. The situation in the provinces? The cruel conditions of service in the army? People in the army listen to the broadcasts — there are many shortwave sets there. But nothing is ever broadcast about any of these situations.

The Soviet worker, the peasant, the soldier — all live under dreadful pressure, but their stories remain untold. Such information is widely available in the émigré press, and it could be broadcast to the U.S.S.R. without much effort. But to do so would violate State Department policy. The Soviet rulers might get angry at the State Department and refuse to buy from the U.S. the modern electronics without which they cannot live.

The greatest spiritual need of our people is to become aware of themselves. If during the past 30 years the Western broadcasts had helped our people remember who they were, helped them to rise spiritually to their feet, the entire world situation would be different. Our recent history has been trampled and distorted beyond recognition; everything we hear is saturated with propaganda. It is hard for Americans to imagine such ignorance. The average Soviet citizen in essence knows nothing: what were the causes of the Revolution; how it occurred, and how the Bolsheviks took it over and instituted totalitarian rule; what people’s movements there were against the Bolsheviks, and how they were suppressed; how our peasantry and our working class were destroyed by terrorist means. We need to know the truth about all this. If such knowledge were given us, we would — both civilian and soldier — become spiritually free of our government.

However, programming at VOA and Radio Liberty is now mostly in the hands of ideologues who are operating under the influence of myths, of false beliefs about Russia. And at the root of these myths we find Karl Marx. Marx claimed that the Russian people were “reactionary.” And from that claim it followed that all of Russian history was “reactionary” — the monarchy was “reactionary,” Russian traditions were “reactionary,” most Russian leaders were “re­actionary,” even our Orthodox religion was “reactionary.” So what do the ideologues do? They shoot down two-thirds of our historical figures for fear that they might be called “reactionary.” If some American journalist — just one — or some second-rate scholar has ever said about a Russian that he was “reactionary,” then that Russian is eliminated from history: He no longer exists.

In this way, paradoxically, American broadcasts tend to help the Communists. The Communists fight to root out our memory of our history, and U.S. broadcasts do the same. Consider a recent example: Last September was the 70th anniversary of the death — actually the murder — of the greatest Russian statesman of the twentieth century, Prime Minister Stolypin (1862–1911). In the five years prior to his death, Stolypin had succeeded in pulling Russia out of complete chaos and disintegration into a state of prosperity. The act of his murder inaugurated the great terror of the 20th century. Yet both Radio Liberty and the Voice of America killed anniversary broadcasts on Stolypin. A fine broadcast had been prepared at Radio Liberty; it was dropped without discussion or explanation. The Voice of America had prepared an eight-minute reading from my chapter on Stolypin. The broadcast had already been announced, but it too was killed. These parallel actions show that there is no question of different administrators making independent decisions—there is an ideology that dominates the direction taken by both stations. No matter where one locates Stolypin—some consider him a liberal, others a conservative—he was a great Russian statesman, and I would like to underline the amazing fact that both American radio stations, independently of each other, censored their broadcasts in advance, even though their listeners had been told that the broadcasts would take place.

Consider a final example of the kind of self-censorship which prevents Radio Liberty and the Voice of America from satisfying the spiritual needs of their audience. Russian Orthodoxy, during the past 65 years, has suffered its own Golgotha. Constant efforts have been made to destroy Christianity in Russia, to root it completely out of memory and heart. That is the consistent policy of the Soviet government, and it has resulted in tens of millions of people not being able to go to church. Many live three hundred miles from the nearest church, i.e., they can have a child christened, but they cannot attend church regularly. American broadcasts once again could help fill this gap: they could carry services, mark Christian holidays, explain the divine services and Christian terminology, especially to children, who are almost totally deprived of religion in the U.S.S.R. Communist power seeks to deprive us of religion; and American radio broadcasts, directed by ideologues who accept the stupid premise that Russian Christianity is “reactionary,” follow the Communists’ lead.

For 30 years the broadcasts have avoided any encouragement to Russian Orthodoxy to rise up and become an organized social power in Russia. I don’t know anything about the American Polish-language broadcasts. I hope they have been excellent. I hope they have supported Polish Catholicism, strengthened it. But for the Russian people, the broadcasts ignore religion; it is as if they deliberately seek to avoid encouraging us to find strength in the Church, to create such religious unification as exists in Poland.

The year 1981 saw a sharp turn for the worse in Radio Liberty. I will say nothing about the 15 other languages in which Radio Liberty broadcasts, which I do not know. But the programs in Russian have degenerated to such an extent that, if they continue as they are going, it would be better to do away with them altogether.

Still, there is a Latin proverb that goes, “Dum spiro, spero” — where there’s life, there’s hope. Thirty years have gone by, but that does not mean that we should not begin again today. We do not know how much time history will give us, and maybe it is still possible to accomplish much if the Reagan administration actively undertakes to improve U.S. broadcasts. I am not speaking about an increase in the budget, but about a fundamental change in direction. I have said much that needed to be said. The rest is in the hands of your administration.

— Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident, was a Russian novelist and historian. This article first appeared in the April 30, 1982, issue of National Review.

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