Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

A Voice of America

Myroslava Gongadze (Dmitri Savchuk)
Myroslava Gongadze and the importance of the VOA.

Washington, D.C. — The Voice of America does not make much news here in America — but it makes plenty of news elsewhere. More important, of course, it broadcasts the news, in 44 languages, to almost 200 million people. A few of the languages, I have barely heard of: Bambara, for instance (a lingua franca of Mali). In any event, the VOA is the only reliable source of news for many people throughout the world.

This 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 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.”

To visit the VOA in Washington today is to encounter people from all over the world: people who have come to America in search of a better, 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. Sure, they have gripes about their work, like everyone else. But they are conscious of doing something vital and good.

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

She was born Myroslava Petryshyn in 1972. Her birthplace was Berezhany, in western Ukraine. She 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. Yet 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. In September 2000, Georgiy went missing. His wife swung into action. Journalists had been killed in Ukraine before, and so had opposition politicians. But quietly. Myroslava determined to make noise.

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. 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 Georgiy’s murder. And wondering what to do about the 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.” She trusted her instincts. In 2001, she and her daughters were granted political asylum by the United States.

She worked as a freelance journalist. She received a fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy. She did a variety of things. 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 went everywhere she could. She would not let it go.

“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.

In the summer of 2004, she went to work at the VOA. In late November, the Orange Revolution began. This was the spectacular democracy movement in Ukraine. Myroslava can be said to have had a role in this revolution, in two ways. First, her campaign for justice in Georgiy’s case helped establish a tradition of protest in Ukraine. Second, she was a trusted and inspiring voice to Ukrainian democrats, as she broadcast from the VOA studio in Washington.

January 2006 was an interesting month. A trial began in the Gongadze case. Three policemen were charged with the murder. Later, a police general would be charged as well. All four were convicted. But the higher-ups — primarily Leonid Kuchma — have avoided justice. Kuchma is now in his late seventies and has been out of power since 2005. But he still plays a role for Ukraine in the diplomatic arena.

Myroslava Gongadze and I are having lunch at a Washington restaurant, and she casually makes a statement I am completely unprepared for: “I buried my husband last week.” I knew she had been in Ukraine; I did not know why. How is it that her husband was buried more than 15 years after his murder? Well, the investigation was drawn out, and the body was needed, and they had decapitated Georgiy, so the head was separate, and . . . “It’s horrible,” says Myroslava, in an understatement. “It’s horrible.”

I have a thought, and express it. For 70 years, Ukraine endured life as part of the USSR. Then came the glorious rebirth. Soon after came the Kuchma government: a native, homegrown tyranny. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow. It was, Myroslava confirms. “We didn’t want to believe it.” But it was true.

Today, she hosts two television programs: a daily 15-minute news program and a weekly half-hour interview show. VOA programs tend to introduce journalistic standards into countries that need them. So it is in Ukraine. The VOA audience there is at least 7 million, weekly. (The country’s population is 45 million.) Myroslava Gongadze is a household name.

In 2014, she moderated a series of debates between parliamentary candidates. That same year, she received a Ukrainian civil decoration: the Order of Princess Olga. The lady was the wife of Igor I, Prince of Kiev, in the tenth century. He was murdered by Drevlians. His wife took repeated and terrible revenge on those people. In her Olga award, Myroslava feels a certain symbolism.

I imagine that people have asked her to run for office in Ukraine. Yes, says Myroslava. Will she ever return? “That’s a hard question,” she says. Her twins are now 18 and bound for college. They are American girls. Their mother is an American citizen. Does she feel American or Ukrainian? That’s another hard question.

“I feel in between, unfortunately. I’m straddling a river, with a foot on each bank. I don’t know where to jump. I feel at home here in America. I love this country. At the same time, I want to be useful to Ukraine. But I don’t know what can be accomplished there.”

Myroslava then says something I have heard from many immigrants, and many foreigners: In America, things are predictable. There is a rule of law. What’s true on Tuesday is true on Thursday. If you work hard, you can get somewhere. If you sign a contract, it will stick. In other countries, however, everything depends on the whim of the government or of other power centers. “Ukrainian society is very unpredictable,” says Myroslava.

At the outset of this interview, by the way, she emphasized that she would speak for herself, not for her employer, the Voice of America.

I ask her what she thinks of the Russian strongman, Putin. She looks at me incredulously and laughs a little. “He’s a criminal. He’s an international criminal.” She then elaborates his crimes over the last many years. I ask, “Should Ukraine be in NATO?” “Absolutely,” she answers quickly. “It should be in NATO yesterday.” “Will the country survive as an independent nation?” I ask. She says, “I cannot even think about its not surviving. I cannot even let myself question that.”

Near the end of our lunch, I ask, bluntly, “Does the VOA do any good?” She fixes me with a look and speaks in firm tones.

“The VOA is part of the American government, and I think that even the government doesn’t realize the power of the VOA. Millions and millions of people are listening to the anchors who go to work on Independence Avenue. The knowledge that we bring to the world is enormous. I would like Americans to realize the power that we have in that building — people like me, who have stories, and the trust of the people they speak to on behalf of the United States.”

She continues, “We are doing this job because we believe both in America and in our native countries. We are passionate about building democracies in the countries that we left owing to different reasons, and we care about America very much, because this country gave us a chance for a new life. So we can help unite our native countries and the United States.”

The VOA is “not perfect,” she says. “It’s still the government.” (I love that line.) “It’s bureaucratic, it’s difficult. We don’t have nearly enough support. But the job we do, despite all that, is fantastic.”

I don’t doubt her.

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