National Security & Defense

A Voice of America, Part I

Myroslava Gongadze (Photo: Dmitri Savchuk)
The VOA and a remarkable Ukrainian-American woman who works there

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger, “A Voice of America.” It focuses on Myroslava Gongadze, the head of the Ukrainian service. Mr. Nordlinger expands the piece in his Impromptus this week.

You don’t hear much about the Voice of America, here in America. They hear about it abroad — and from it, of course. The VOA broadcasts to almost 200 million people in 44 languages.

Those languages include Dari, Creole, and Lao. I would be hard pressed to tell you what Bambara is. In fact, I have to look it up: a lingua franca of Mali.

For many millions, the VOA is the only reliable source of news. They receive it via radio, TV, the Internet, and cellphone.

‐Let me quote the VOA Charter:

The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world … To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:

1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.

2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.

3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies.

‐The service began during World War II — in 1942, to be specific. Its first director was John Houseman, best known as an actor. He was especially well known in his senior years, when he was the pitchman for Smith Barney. His tagline was, “They make money the old-fashioned way: They earn it.”

‐A New York-born journalist, William Harlan Hale, was the voice of the very first broadcast. He said, “The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.”

‐I had business at the VOA last year. It is a striking place. You encounter people from all over the world, who have come to America in search of a better life. A freer life. Everyone has a story to tell.

Houseman, too, had a story, by the way: He was born in Romania — as Jacques Haussmann, the son of a Jewish-Alsatian father and a British mother.

‐As a rule, VOA people are democratic, patriotic, and idealistic. They are not naïve, having seen too much to allow for that. But they are probably not cynical. They are engaged in the important work of transmitting genuine news to their native lands, in their native tongues. They serve both their adoptive country and their original one.

Naturally, they have gripes about their work. So does everyone. This is a government agency, to boot. There is bureaucratic bitterness. But VOA people are conscious of doing something vital and good.

‐Everyone has a story, as I’ve said, but I will relate just one: that of Myroslava Gongadze, the chief of the Ukrainian service. I met her last month. Her story is more dramatic than most — no one would choose it — but then many of these lives are marked by drama, including violence.

‐Mrs. Gongadze was born Myroslava Petryshyn in 1972. Her birthplace was Berezhany, in western Ukraine. Her father was an engineer; so was her mother, who also worked as a bookkeeper in a school. The family did not have much, but they had more than many. They got by. There was food.

Many Ukrainians’ grandparents did not survive the war. Myroslava’s did. One grandfather was a hero of the Red Army, as they marched on Berlin. Going home, he threw away his medals. He threw them into the Rhine. Apparently, he did not do this out of disgust or in protest. He simply — ditched them.

He would tell his daughter (Myroslava’s mother), “I didn’t need them. The war was over.”

Myroslava herself never talked to him about it. “I was too young, and he was too quiet.”

Turn now to Myroslava’s paternal grandmother. She had five children. One day, Soviet soldiers came, to deport the family to the east. She threw herself on top of her kids and said, “You’ll have to kill us all. We’re not going.” The soldiers simply … left.

My impression is, every Ukrainian has such stories (often with worse endings).

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‐Myroslava was 19 when the Soviet Union collapsed. “Everything was new,” she says, “everything was possible.” She was beginning a life and so was her country. “It was a special time for both of us.”

‐She went to the university in Lviv, studying the law. Law seemed a practical field, she thought (and so did her mother). But her heart’s desire was to be a journalist. The VOA’s very first television program, as opposed to radio program, was in Ukraine. It was a weekly show called “Window on America.” Myroslava watched it and thought, “I’d like to anchor that show one day.” Now she supervises it.

‐In due course, she met Georgiy Gongadze, a muckraking journalist and filmmaker. As his name suggests, his father was Georgian. His mother was Ukrainian. He and Myroslava worked together, and they married in 1995. They were a beautiful, admirable couple. In 1997, twin girls came along.

Georgiy investigated the corrupt regime of Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma did not like this very much. Georgiy was being hounded by the secret police. He alerted people to this development. In September 2000, he went missing.

His wife swung into action. She made as much noise as she could. Journalists had been killed before, and so had opposition politicians. But they had died quietly. Myroslava determined to make noise, in her husband’s behalf.

She held press conferences. She lobbied parliamentarians and foreign ambassadors. She organized protests. She did everything she could to make Georgiy’s disappearance a huge story, an important national event. And she succeeded.

But the regime would not return Georgiy. They killed him. Two months after his disappearance — his abduction — his body was found.

‐Shortly after that, Myroslava listened to a chilling tape. It was made in the innermost councils of government. And it had come into opposition hands. On the tape, Kuchma and his men were laughing about the murder of Georgiy Gongadze. They were also wondering what to do about his widow — who was still making noise.

The widow figured she should run, with Georgiy’s and her children.

People around her said, “No, it will be all right. You could be a member of parliament. You could do all sorts of things.” But she trusted her instincts. In 2001, she and her daughters were granted political asylum by the United States.

‐She worked as a freelance journalist. From the National Endowment for Democracy, she received a fellowship — a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship. Reagan, you don’t need to be told about. Fascell was Dante Fascell, as you may recall. He was the congressman, a Florida Democrat, who for many years chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. NED always makes things even-steven: R’s and D’s.

In any event, Myroslava did a variety of things, once in America. But with special intensity, she campaigned for her husband — that is, for justice in his case. She went to the European Court of Human Rights. She pursued every channel she could.

“It must have been like having a job,” I say to her. “Yes,” she says. “It was like having a second job, or a third job.” She had to earn a living, and she had to raise her children. One thing she did not do was go off and grieve, which anyone would have understood.

She says — as people often say — that she had no choice. I’m not sure about that. People do have choices, and they make better or worse ones.

Anyway, to be continued tomorrow. Thanks for joining me, and Myroslava Gongadze.

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