Bubbles do not burst. Efim Fistein – about the traditions of “Svoboda”

Bubbles do not burst.  Efim Fistein – about the traditions of “Svoboda”

They say that a person does not live in a country, in a nation, in a society. He lives in a social bubble. Over time, his circle of communication narrows, becomes boring, only those who share his basic political and everyday views, interests, customs and rituals remain inside. There is no sense in wasting energy and time on others. The bubble inflates, as it were, by itself, making life easier and simpler, while going out into the open social space is always tiring and associated with considerable mental costs.

The community of listeners of Radio Liberty was, most likely, the most gigantic social bubble of all times and nations. Radio Liberty gave spiritually hungry people food for thought and topics for non-public conversations. Those living inside this bubble always knew more than others. They recognized each other by small signs, revealing a wide horizon that could not be acquired by drawing information about the world exclusively from the Soviet press. The names of radio journalists – presenters, commentators and announcers – became a kind of password by which it was possible to separate the dedicated from other mortals.

Never and no one could tell anything that would be stronger than the truth

I was lucky: in my youth I listened to Radio Svoboda. I remember this feeling of initiation, of communion, when I tuned the old Riga-made receiver to the forbidden wave. Through the howl of the mufflers, as if from another universe, broke through the perfectly staged voice of the announcer, who, after a properly sustained theatrical pause, uttered the murderous words: “You are under arrest!” This is Yulian Panych reading “In the First Circle” by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I wanted to get up immediately and run somewhere, do something, somehow fight injustice, the personification of which was the bastard Soviet power, popularly called Sofya Vlasyevna. Of course, you stayed in your seat, caught the hissing sounds of “Spidola”, but the job is done: you are already poisoned by the knowledge of the truth. The next day, when you met a friend in trauma, you could throw an incomprehensible remark: “Did you hear yesterday?” and receive a nod in response: “Well, bastards!” Everything is clear, you are in the same bubble.

It cannot be said that the authorities did not try to puncture the invisible bubble. They jammed as much as they could, but what could they do? There was always a corner, often on the balcony or on the closet, at the junction of the wall and the ceiling, where the wave amplified and made it possible to distinguish sounds. High-pitched female voices were especially appreciated on the radio. It was believed that there were no mufflers of such power that could suppress Natalya Urbanskaya’s voice, a sharp, cutting ear, as if a diamond were cutting glass. The KGB tried to send the “Cossacks”, but fate played a trick on us. When the Moscow radio reported on the upcoming press conference of Oleg Tumanov, who at one time held managerial responsibilities in the editorial office, it seemed: that’s all, now he will surely expose something like that, open up the underbelly. It was not for nothing that he suffered for 20 years in the West, in the very den of the enemy, risking falling into white fever with too much drinking. He will tell you! He carried about the same cheap nonsense like a bomb in his pocket and who is with whom, which even today the Russian skrepniks willingly carry, for some reason only mentioning the names of the deceased from among the former employees of the Radio, but what interest could there be in old kitchen gossip when a little Isn’t it on the same day that the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded! Yes, April 1986 is still in the yard, a premonition of imminent perestroika!

It is a false impression that we worked in complete isolation from the Soviet reality, we were boiling in our own juices. The technical departments of Radio Liberty sorted the realities of the world, in the mornings we received a picture of Soviet life, political and economic. Radio monitoring provided us with a stream of information, the feeds of the main news agencies were sorted by interests, topics and names. At that time, rare tourists and businessmen considered it an obligation to write a letter to the editorial office, and to visit perestroika and get to know each other in person. There were few people whom we did not know in person, with whom we did not eat a pinch of salt and did not miss a glass of tea.

And in more recent times, when it became clear that the time of communism has expired, our connection with living history has become even more material. The former heroes of the programs became their authors. It was difficult to understand where reality ends and Radio Liberty begins. Here is an example from life: I then hosted the temporary program “Eastern European Options”, something like an almanac about changes in the camp of peace and socialism. At the end of 1989, this camp was actively disintegrating, the Berlin Wall was tottering, the “Velvet Revolution” was unfolding in Prague, a coup was brewing in Romania with the execution of the couple Nicholas and Elena Ceausescu. In some places in the region, a new government has already ruled as a result of “round tables”.

In Czechoslovakia at that time, mass demonstrations took place every day, which were still dispersed by the police due to inertia. Mobile phones did not yet exist, and in the course of the broadcast, the sound engineer dialed the number of the city telephone booth, at the upper end of Wenceslas Square, 50 meters from the monument to St. Wenceslas. According to the Czech tradition, whoever holds the platform around Prince Vaclav, the patron saint of the Czechs, will certainly be the winner of history. In a wooden booth, in the middle of a street battle, a bell rang, and our local correspondent, dissident journalist Yan Urban, picked up the phone. He described police arbitrariness in Russian, estimating at a glance the number of people tied up and thrown into “funnels”. Through the glass of the phone booth, a panorama of the square opened before him. From time to time, the report had to be interrupted if the jet of the water cannon hit the booth and the water flowed down the glass in a continuous veil.

Then it was easier for us than now: it was enough to give the facts. The informational picture of the world offered by Soviet writers was as leaky as Dutch cheese. It was easy and pleasant to fill in the blanks. Kak, you don’t know what happened in the sublunary world? You do not know the details of the Tashkent or Spitak earthquakes? Haven’t you heard about how Soviet fighters shot down a Korean passenger plane? Didn’t they tell you that there is a great drought in the Volga region, and in Transbaikalia, on the contrary, there was a thousand-year flood that destroyed the entire crop of root crops? It was not reported with such joy that Yuri Andropov, not Mikhail Suslov, stood next to Leonid Brezhnev at the Mausoleum for some reason? Then listen to Radio Svoboda, we will tell you.

Never and no one could tell anything that would be stronger than the truth. Moreover, the very concept of truth was not yet in doubt at that time. Today there is no confidence in this. Today, interpretation sometimes becomes more important than the fact itself. It is no longer enough to simply state a fact, it is important to determine what this fact serves. It is not enough to prove that the event took place. Whether the event took place in the interests of progress or, on the contrary, produced a retrograde action that objectively inhibited progress – that is what determines the truth of the fact. In the second case, the event, although it took place, would be better if it did not happen at all. Since the concept of progress is characterized by exceptional flexibility, elasticity, the truth, understood as its official function, ceases to be something rigidly defined, for which one can be sent to prison or to the stake. A lie in the name of progress becomes a variant of a lie for salvation. Doing journalism in these new conditions becomes easy and meaningless. For 70 years, our radio has avoided this trap.

Yefim Fishtein is a foreign political commentator for “Svobody”, an employee of the Russian Service of Radio Liberty since 1981, in 2009–2012 the director of the Russian Service

The opinions expressed in the “Author’s right” section may not reflect the point of view of the editors

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