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Russia: Broadcasts From The West Undermined Communism

  • Stuart Parrott

London, 13 January 1998(RFE/RL) -- Former KGB colonel Oleg Gordievsky says that western radio broadcasts to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe "played the central part in the exposure and undermining of the communist empire."

Gordievsky, who spent 11 years as a secret agent for British intelligence before escaping from the Soviet Union in 1985, praises the role of RFE, Radio Liberty, the VOA and the BBC in a book review published in the British monthly Literary Review.

The book, War of the Black Heavens, The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War, is by former Reuters general manager Michael Nelson. It was published in London last month.

In the four-page review, Gordievsky says that the role of RFE in Eastern Europe is "legendary" while Radio Liberty made a "gigantic contribution" to democratization in the former Soviet Union. Both U.S.-funded stations were based in Munich (now Prague).

Gordievsky says that ever since the end of the Cold War, 'Sovietologists' have been arguing over the main reason for the collapse of the communist system. Some claim it was the inherent lack of socio-economic viability in the system; others, the military, diplomatic, economic and intelligence superiority of the West; and some, Western broadcasting to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Gordievsky says that he himself, after spending "more than a quarter of a century at the heart of the Soviet state apparatus, has no doubts: Western radio played the central part in the exposure and undermining of the communist empire."

Gordievsky says the chief purposes of the Western radio stations was to counter Soviet propaganda, break the isolation of people in the East, and bring them the truth about life outside. The approach varied. The BBC valued its relatively unbiased character and accuracy; the VOA "sounded like the news service of one of the great protagonists of the Cold War"; while RFE, conceived as a surrogate domestic broadcaster, was designed to be like local radio stations of the target countries with lots of local news.

"The success of RFE in East European countries was phenomenal, although there was sometimes criticism of RFE in the West for lacking objectivity, speaking in an exaggerated or immoderate tone, raising false hopes, or reporting inaccurately on internal affairs."

Gordievsky also refers to RFE's sister station, Radio Liberty, set up by the U.S. in 1953, just before the death of Stalin. He says: "Its gigantic contribution to the liberal and democratic enlightenment of the people of the Soviet Union cannot be overestimated."

Gordievsky, KGB Resident-designate in the Soviet embassy in London at the time of his defection to Britain, says the communist apparat in the East thought that Western radio propaganda was the most effective weapon for ideological intervention in the USSR.

But the political home base of the radio stations broadcasting to the East was not always strong. In fact, as Lenin wrote, the West was ready to prepare the rope by which it would be hanged.

Thus, the big U.S. news agencies, Associated Press and United Press, attacked the VOA for many years. As the author, Nelson, writes: "They were supporters of 'freedom of information but paradoxically hindered the attempts of government to impart the principles of the freedom of information to totalitarian states."

And the U.S. State Department did not recognize the importance of VOA or RFE for a long time. When the U.S. Senate created a committee "to decide" on who should be accredited to the Senate press gallery, they accredited Tass, Pravda, Izvestia and Radio Moscow, but not U.S. government "propaganda organizations."

KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov was one of many who under-estimated the power of the broadcasters Kryuchkov was scornful of western broadcasters for their naivety in hoping for freedom of information in the Soviet Union after the 1975 Helsinki accords. He said: "Poor fools! It will take years for them to understand. We will sell their books, magazines and newspapers to foreigners in hotels reserved for foreigners and we will burn the rest...."

In fact, it took him 16 years to understand, as the author notes. In August 1991, he was arrested for his part in the coup against Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

Gordievsky now lives at a secret location in England and has written four books on his experiences, three of them in partnership with British historian Christopher Andrew.