Unusual news is arriving from the former Soviet Union: leading democrats such as Yuri Afanasyev, Yelena Bonner, and many others are publicly protesting against the management of Radio Liberty. The immediate cause of their protest is Radio Liberty’s decision to drop one of its most popular programs, “In the Country and in the World,” whose very title was a reference to Andrei Sakharov. The program provided a forum for thought-provoking consideration of important issues, the issues with which Russia’s intelligentsia has occupied itself in its long struggle for the liberation it is now beginning to enjoy. But the show has been replaced by a more conventional collection of news reports. This turn of events is not without importance, symbolic and real. Until a few years ago, Radio Liberty’s reputation was secure because it was vilified by the Soviet authorities while loved and praised by the creative intelligentsia, the most important segment of its audience. Today the situation is different.
Radio Liberty has recently opened an office in Moscow. There was even an official decree from President Yeltsin, thanking it for help during the coup attempt and instructing authorities to provide it with office space and to facilitate its operations in every way. Last year. Radio Free Europe offices were opened in all the capitals of Eastern Europe. Russian television and newspapers now quote almost daily from the Radios’ broadcasts.
Gorbachev, during a recent visit to Germany, stated that broadcasting by Radio Liberty is important for continued democratic development in his country. The same view of Radio Free Europe was earlier expressed by heads of state Havel, Wilesa, and Antall of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary, respectively. REE and RL were nominated by the Foreign Minister of Estonia as candidates for the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. Walesa and others supported the nomination.
To understand the shift from praise to criticism, it is necessary to examine two recent events. The first was the Report of a Presidential Task Force on U. S. Government International Broadcasting, which appeared in December 1991. The second was the publication in Moscow, at about the same time, of a book by Anatoly Gladilin, a well-known novelist and dissident and former editor of one of Radio Liberty’s cultural programs. The title of the book—I Was Murdered by Pell, the Beast—is meaningless to most Americans, but quite easily understood by anyone associated with the Radios; “Pell” happens to be the name of the man who has been president of the Radios since 1985.
George Bush probably established the task force with an eve to budgetary savings through a merger of the Radios and the official Voice of America. Despite this, the bipartisan task force argued against merger and in favor of continued support for the Radios. It warmly praised their role in helping to win the Cold War. Indeed, it stated that monies spent on international broadcasting were “among the most useful national security dollars well spent during this century. They sent out words not bullets, ideas not bombs—and they broke down a wall and helped break up an empire.” It advised continued financing of RFE until the end of the century and of RL into the 21st century. At the same time, it repeatedly pointed out a need to redirect and revitalize the Radios by changing their mission from that of a surrogate medium—a substitute for the free media and sources of accurate information that peoples under totalitarianism lacked—into an alternative medium, an alternative to formerly communist media or to new media that have yet to establish traditions of discipline or integrity.
In contrast to the presidential report, Gladilin’s book was half-fiction, half-autobiography. It presented the story of a writer, famous in the Soviet Union, who was fired from RL’s Paris office in 1987. In a move to reduce the intellectual content of the Radios, management declared that it had to cut back the staff in Paris in order to save money and followed the principle “last hired, first fired.” The issues in the book, from that devious move to all the other problems of recent years, are very much the issues that are now generating most of the protest in Russia against RL management.
A large part of Gladilin’s book is devoted to depicting the bureaucracy of the Radios, which he compares to the Soviet nomenklatura. If the Radios were once staffed by creative professionals, journalists and philosophers, commentators and announcers, with a small layer of American management on top, today the layers of management have piled one atop the other while the number of writers beneath them grows smaller and smaller. For each journalist, Gladilin mentions with regret, there is a nachalnik—a boss (usually titled director or deputy director or assistant director)—who knows less but has more authority, so that there is even more supervision than in the old Soviet ideological enterprises. The basic goal of the bureaucracy is to increase its numbers—elevate its ranks, provide itself with privileges while explaining to the creative staff that there are no funds—and preserve its own positions. It is not dependent on the market; it is appointed and supported according to other criteria. The management behaves like feudal lords in its treatment of the journalists. It seems to be trying to dismantle everything that made the Radios great. In Gladilin’s opinion, the main concern of the management is to not broadcast anything that might draw unwanted attention, and that means not broadcasting anything too controversial, too interesting, too useful. The result is the exact opposite of the kind of seminal presentations that made the Radios so important a part of developments in the countries to which they broadcast.
The “Pell” in the title of Gladilin’s book stands not so much for the Radios’ president as it does their entire management. The book gives the impression that the American bureaucracy at the Radios has become, for many of the dissidents and émigrés working for them, a bizarre replica of the bureaucratic apparatus of their former countries. The picture of America that this bureaucracy presents—overbearing and undereducated—has not helped to build respect for this country. While many praise America’s decision to create the broadcasts in the first place, when they see how the Radios are actually run, they nevertheless end up appalled. Gladilin, along with his Russian countrymen, has long experienced bureaucracies that preach one thing while practicing another. And if there is one thing that could destroy the Radios’ effectiveness, he shows, this is it.
The bureaucracy has typically responded to this kind of criticism by writing off all dissidents as troublemakers. The grain of truth in this easily obscures the broader issues, especially for the bureaucrat; whether regimentation of the creative works of the dissidents is in fact necessary or justified and whether ideas are now discussed timidly for professional reasons or for fear of even more timid people higher up. People who accomplished heroic acts against the genuinely fearsome bureaucracy of the old communist dictatorships can hardly be expected to bend in fear to the social pressures of a Western bureaucracy.
With the arrival of glasnost, Gladilin points out, people who had previously praised the Radios and who continued to admire what they represent, began to get the impression that they were more heavily censored than the Soviet press. Meanwhile, at the Radios, the censors, or self-censors, leaked to the press their view that they were “professionals” locked in a struggle against the “Cold War ideologues” at the Radios, who were trying to get the Radios to broadcast what the censors considered to be a ridiculous proposition: that the Soviet Union and its economy were coming apart at the seams. True professionalism is valuable indeed, but the Gladilin book raises the question of whether in this case the slogan of professionalism was not being used in a self-deceiving way by the supervisory community.
The way to make a career at the Radios, in Gladilin’s portrayal, is by blindly following orders, no matter how badly served the Radios may be, and by not disagreeing with superiors, no matter how desperately they might need improved insight. This may help explain why communist spies often had so much success in rising to high positions at the Radios, the last ease being Oleg Tumanov, Acting Chief Editor of the Russian Language Service—the biggest and most important section of both Radios—who returned to the Soviet Union in 1986 and made anti-American, anti-Radio propaganda for the KGB on Soviet TV. For years, there was a joke at the Radios that they were under the direction of American bureaucrats who do not understand anything about communist countries and spies who understand everything only too well.
If Gladilin is right, then one would have to say that the wrong people—the managers attacked in the novel, not the author and others like him—have received the applause for the Radios in the last several years and the glory for their role in the fall of communism. And in fact, the most important dissident writers either were fired from the Radios, as Gladilin was, or were, like the poet Alexander Galich, in constant conflict with their management.
If Gladilin’s thesis is correct, then the glory of the Radios has not come from broadcasting news and “news features,” which were possible to get in almost identical form from the BBC, the VC)A, and Deutsche Welle—all of which had periods when they were not jammed at all. It came instead from the famous writers and dissidents, such as Galich and Gladilin, who staffed the Radios; from Nekrasov, Aksyonov and Voinovich, who freelanced for the Radios; and from dissidents like Yelena Bonner, wife and widow of Sakharov, who did not hesitate to cooperate with the Radios long before they were legalized in the Soviet Union at the end of 1988.
It seemed, to many observers, that from the very beginning of the Radios there was an ongoing conflict within them between two philosophies: one, that they were supposed to be primarily a source of free and accurate information; the other, that they were also to be a source of new and creative ideas in the sphere of politics and culture—a surrogate means of communication within communist societies about their politics and culture. The legislation that originally established the Radios and the repeated decisions to fund them all contain references to “ideas and information” and almost invariably refer to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or to the connection between freedom and the free flow of ideas. During most of the history of the Radios, much of the management supported that concept. But, Gladilin suggests, with the present rise of a “class” of managers, committed to their careers and not to ideas, those who respected the minds of the broadcasters have left. It was only natural that the new management “class” would support the substitution of “news and information” for “ideas and information.” This is something they can more readily quantify and thus understand. It does not involve quality, something which they find difficult to discuss; it is easier to manage a flow of information than a flow of ideas. Even the Soviet leadership understood this more than a quarter of a century ago and was far more ready to allow “news” than discussion of ideas. There has been a widespread misunderstanding in America that the dead hand of Stalin continued to keep all information out of the Soviet Union until the arrival of glasnost. In fact, it is not information but rather what thinking people will do with information that frightens oppressors. They are not afraid that information will change the world, but they know that ideas do. They fear debates, discussions, philosophy, argument, anything controversial, unproved, unquantified. The demand for a purely informational role was always in conflict with the need for talented commentary. Management has increasingly come to prefer “news features,” that is, translations of articles from the Western press, over genuine commentaries.
Today the Radios are at a crossroads. Their future mission, indeed their future existence, is in question. Yet the report of the President’s task force already contains the seed of the solution. Its central recommendation—to change the role of the Radios from a surrogate medium of facts to an alternative medium for the exchange and enrichment of ideas—is exactly what is needed. It is at heart the same thing for which creative journalists, commentators, writers, and dissidents at the Radios have fought for decades. But the Radios do not have a future if they are limited to being a surrogate source of information, and this is becoming the dominant activity at the Radios. Even with the new offices in the formerly communist countries and with the dozens of stringers who are working for them, the domestic media can generally do this job no worse than the Radios. The reason is simple: freedom of the press has led to numerous new independent newspapers and radio stations throughout the formerly communist world. They have real advantages over the Radios; it will be impossible and unnecessary to compete with them in the sphere of mere news.
To be sure, the predominantly informational role was important during the attempted August coup: for three days out of 365, the Radios basked in their old glory of being a surrogate source of information. This vital role should be enough to justify continuation of the Radios as a defense against any backsliding.
Were there to be another coup attempt, one suspects there would be a better effort by the putschists to control the flow of information. In the August coup all they could do was control central television; they did not break RL’s links. Since then, however, the Radios’ management has decided to shut down the monitoring unit that, by recording and transcribing what Soviet and post-Soviet radio, TV, and electronic media had to say, has kept the Radios abreast of events in a way that no other radio broadcast from abroad could match, in a way that compensated in significant degree for the immediate presence of domestic media. Once that monitoring capability is gone it will not be easy to restore. Those who plan the next coup, and there will be such plans, will only have to cut telephone lines to the Radios’ bureaus and stringers to slice through the bonds that tie the Radios inextricably into the fabric of the countries to which they broadcast.
Gene Pell, president of the Radios, has argued that the most important role for the Western Radios should be that of providing a “Marshall Plan for ideas.” This very formulation shows how, even when management is trying to spread ideas, it finds ideas hard to cope with. It is moderately useful, but dangerously insufficient, if the Radios see their role as providing listeners with translations of articles from the Western press. Lessons in American democracy are welcome, but it is necessary to keep in mind that the Radios’ listeners are also inheritors of a great historical culture, that much of America’s experience is peculiar and not universal, that there is no need to borrow from another culture what one can find in his own history. It is necessary to be “interactive” with the great cultures of the people to whom we broadcast and to communicate in the “language” of these cultures, not just, e.g., in the Russian language. In any dialogue, in any culture, or between any cultures, acceptance is the key, making something one’s own. The American example of the Western experience can be inspected and adapted, but it cannot be transplanted. It can contribute to what happens elsewhere only after someone else has incorporated what he wants, modified, tested, rejected, fitted together with other ideas from his own traditions. Above all, it cannot be packaged, counted, and delivered like foreign aid. If the Radios’ management cannot practice tolerance and encouragement of intellectual curiosity, they cannot teach it.
It is sad that an enterprise created by Americans—the Radios—functions in a style so similar to the Soviet’s. Perhaps the style is similar because the Radios are government based and do not have to satisfy the marketplace—the audience. At the same time this suggests that institutional structure rather than human nature creates the mindless processing and calculating of quantifiable bits of information that used to characterize Soviet society. It gives, then, some reason for hope that, if Russians find themselves in different, market circumstances, their bureaucratic overhang will wither away.
In a sense, the problem facing the Radios is similar to the problem always facing the world: the opposition between the easiest management criterion, quantity, and the more difficult criteria of creativity and responsiveness to individual situations. Is the President’s task force correct in viewing the Radios as needed in the future? To be sure, yes it is. The Radios are the strongest single instrument of American influence inside the formerly communist states. It is also correct in pointing out that the future is unpredictable. Reactionary turns can recur. Nationalists can create an unstable situation. The Radios should continue to exist. I would go even further and say that all the reasons that existed in the early 50’s to establish the Radios today provide justification for initiating broadcasting to the peoples of the former Yugoslavia and of China and East Asia.
All of this can happen, if the Radios will change their structure and adapt their programmatic focus as advised by the task force. Employees at the Radios often jokingly ask, “When will glasnost and perestroika come to RFE and RL?” The dream of the cultural staff at the Radios is that this day will finally dawn. As if to express their dream, the Gladilin novel has the president of the Radios going to Moscow to receive a decoration for having fought together with Gorbachev for glasnost. Perhaps the decades-old criticisms of the Radios can finally help them. If the changes are ever to come, they must come now.