by Mark G. Pomar
U.S. government broadcasters—Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)—have always faced challenges in reaching Russian audiences, both during the Cold War and today. Just as we did during the Cold War, today’s VOA and RFE/RL must give exiled Russians the opportunity to speak directly to their compatriots and to challenge the lies and distortions in Russian media.
Shortly after joining RFE/RL in 1982 as the Assistant Director of the Russian Service, I met with senior RL editors and visiting former dissidents to discuss the most effective ways of reaching Soviet citizens during the coldest years of the Cold War. I began by laying out several key points of the Reagan administration’s approach to public diplomacy, primarily the need to treat Russians as victims of Soviet communism and encourage them to take pride in the major accomplishments of Russian culture, philosophy, and religious traditions that had been ignored or distorted by the Soviet regime.
As I cited examples of Soviet suppression of religion, the banning of conservative philosophers, and the exiling of nationalist writers such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, I could tell by the quizzical expressions on the faces of my interlocutors that my passionate advocacy for a new form of public diplomacy was falling on deaf ears. Finally, one of the older editors who had spent time in the gulag said: “Look, we understand the need to present Russian culture that has been suppressed by the Soviet authorities and, yes, we know that Russians have suffered under Soviet repression, but Russians cannot be seen strictly as victims nor can their political culture be treated in the same way that we would treat Ukrainian, Georgian, Baltic or other national cultures of the USSR.”
He stressed that Communism was a dying ideology, but an aggressive form of Russian nationalism was rapidly gaining strength, especially in the KGB and miliary services, and the West would rue the day when that surging Russian imperialism would merge with brutal Soviet practice. Quite presciently, he predicted an evolving Russian State that would assert its dominance over the other nationalities of the USSR in the name of imperial greatness, and not communism.
Finding a Balance
Although at the time I thought that the views expressed by the editors at Radio Liberty were bleak and that Russia had the potential to evolve into a peaceful, even democratic European country, I appreciated their deep insights into late Soviet politics and understood that our broadcasts and other public diplomacy programs had to be mindful of the fact that for many Russians their national identity was inextricably tied to the state’s imperialist past and nationalist ambitions. For this reason, in my years at RFE/RL and VOA in the 1980s and early 1990s, I tried to develop a strategy that would balance the presentation of a wide range of political philosophies, including the works of Solzhenitsyn, with critical examinations of Russian imperialist thinking and the fundamental rights of countries and nationalities living under Soviet domination. That strategy was based on three key points.
The first challenge was to pierce Soviet censorship by giving voice to Russians, both inside the USSR and in emigration, who were arbitrarily cut off from their own country and people. This meant inviting a wide range of artists, writers, philosophers, historians, and human rights activists whose names had been excised from Soviet publications to participate in our programs and speak directly to their compatriots. We would often begin our weekly strategy meetings by analyzing the latest Soviet attacks on individual Russians and then discuss how best to present their stories in our programming.
Our intention was to give voice to the voiceless and fill the glaring lacunae in Soviet coverage of Russian culture writ large. For that reason, broadcasting the works of Solzhenitsyn on VOA or the works of virtually every contemporary writer on Radio Liberty was fundamental to our overall mission. We wanted to present many different critical views, including those that challenged Russian imperial designs, in the belief that by overcoming Soviet censorship we were expressing the core values of democracy and freedom and contributing to an open Russian society.
The second challenge was to present American life in a way that our Soviet listeners could understand and appreciate. We were aware that presenting problems and scandals in the United States the way American media painted them was to reinforce the anti-American propaganda that our listeners were already subjected to every day. Yet we understood that we had to present U.S. policies and American life in a critical way, ensuring that all responsible views were aired and that the injustices in Western society were not glossed over. This required nuance and context. For this reason, merely translating or adapting an article from the New York Times, the Washington Post, or even the VOA Central News Desk could not convey the texture of Western life that would be understandable to our listeners.
Providing a Russian Cultural Context
Whenever possible, we tried to include Russians (or Westerners deeply steeped in Russian culture) in our programs who could serve as cultural translators. I would often explain to VOA management that what American journalists thought was a great story could easily fall on deaf ears in the Soviet Union or, worse, paint a distorted picture of the United States. For this reason, VOA features, often dubbed “Americana,” without a Russian cultural context, were at best a waste of airtime. Whenever possible, I would seek out Russians capable of explaining American life in a way that made sense to our listeners. In 1984, for example, I invited the well-known Russian writer, Vasily Aksyonov, who was living in Washington at the time, to be the color commentator for the Democratic and Republican Party conventions and the presidential election, knowing that his remarks not only would be highly entertaining but also would give Russian listeners a deeper understanding of the American political process and how it protected basic American freedom. We believed that communicating how American society functioned and the ways we resolved political problems was critical for helping Soviet citizens to develop the skills needed to critique and reform their own country.
The third challenge, and the most important during the Cold War, was to confront the Soviet Union by exposing its distortions of Russian history and culture; rejection of religion; subjugation of Ukraine, Georgia, and other nations within its empire; and its worldwide disinformation campaigns. During my years at RFE/RL and VOA, we spent most of our time discussing and debating how we could fashion programs that would be fair in judgment, scrupulously researched, and, at the same time, Illustrate the darker side of Russian imperialist policies. At RL, every feature program challenged the governing principles of the Soviet Union, whether they were about human rights, Orthodoxy, Judaism, nationality issues, or the crimes of Stalin’s regime. Every day, RL and VOA programs offered listeners new ways of seeing their own political culture and understanding their country’s role in the world.
The challenges facing U.S. broadcasters today are more daunting than those we dealt with during the Cold War. In the 1980s, we saw a dying Communist ideology, a stagnating economy, and a restive Soviet society, eager to connect to the Western world. For many Soviet citizens, especially the youth, the West was the forbidden fruit that they eagerly sought out. I remember vividly how in 1981, when I was a senior IREX-Fulbright scholar in Leningrad, ordinary Soviet citizens would pepper me with questions about life in the U.S., ask for U.S. books and magazines, and relate to me the latest programs they had heard on VOA, BBC, or RL. Despite Soviet censorship and official government anti-Americanism, we were interacting with a basically friendly and open Russian society.
Facing New Challenges Today
Now the situation is radically different. As the RL editors predicted 40 years ago, we are dealing with an aggressive, nationalist Russia waging a brutal war against Ukraine. And what is most problematic is that a significant percentage of the Russian population has bought into a narrative based on grievances, distortion of historical events, and outright imperial ambition. Russian media, completely controlled by the Kremlin, feeds that nationalist narrative every day and tries to inoculate its listeners against foreign voices coming from the West.
In these dire times, U.S. public diplomacy programs, including VOA and RFE/RL, must gird themselves for the long term. Only by maintaining the highest journalistic standards, including scrupulously researched reports about the war in Ukraine, can U.S. efforts succeed in winning over most Russian citizens. It will also be important to give Russians who oppose the war in Ukraine the opportunity to confront the outright lies and distortions in Russian media. But the most important way to win the respect of Russian listeners would be to showcase how democracy works in the West, not shying away from historical injustices. Above all, we need to remain wedded to fact-based programming. As John F. Kennedy said on the 20th anniversary of VOA, our public diplomacy effort “as part of the cause of freedom, and the arm of freedom, is obliged to tell our story in a truthful way, painting us with all our blemishes and warts.”
Mark G. Pomar is Senior Fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at University of Texas, Austin and the author of Cold War Radio. Pomar served as the Assistant Director of the Russian Service at RFE/RL, Director of the USSR Division at VOA, and Executive Director of the Board for International Broadcasting.