Viktor Shenderovich on the Recent Changes at Radio Liberty

On September 20-21, 2012, it was announced that almost the entire staff of the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty (funded by the US Congress and broadcasting to Russia since 1953) had been fired and that a new head, a well-known journalist called Masha Gessen, was bringing in a new team to work on a revamped station. At least some members of the new team were due to come from the ‘Vokrug sveta’ [‘Around the World’] journal, which had been edited by Ms. Gessen until she recently lost her job there, apparently because of her refusal to send a colleague to cover Putin’s flight with some Siberian cranes. The idea of the revamp, however, belongs to the American management. Strangely, the long-planned changes coincided with a recent Russian law which prohibits foreign-owned media from broadcasting in Russia; from November 10 the station is going to end its medium-wave service. – Tr. 

Viktor Shenderovich: ‘Landscape With Details’, Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal, 25 September, 2012

The entire staff of the USSR’s KGB and the Russian Federation’s FSB, all the Ideological Departments of the Central Committee of the CPSU, all the anti-Western cartoonists working for Pravda and all the [virulent – tr.] Russian nationalists working in the mass media – all of them taken together failed to do as much damage to the prestige of the USA in Russia as a few unknown American bureaucrats who managed within the space of an hour to finish off the Moscow bureau of Radio Liberty. 

Over many years I had the honour and good fortune to go there, to Staropimenovsky Lane. I didn’t have much luck with the foreign bosses, but it was a real pleasure to have dealings with the locals, including the technicians. For all these people – journalists, producers, reviewers and editors – work at Liberty wasn’t just a way to earn money: for these people the word ‘Liberty’ itself meant more than it does to the average person. Life itself selected, one by one, individually, the people who came to work here. 

A few days ago they – nearly everyone from A to Z - were suddenly thrown out onto the street, including the entire staff responsible for the web-site. Even a Russian nationalist like Pushkov couldn’t have done anything on this scale! You should just listen to what people who have been carrying the torch of freedom – the logo of this foreign radio station - for years on end (and believe me, their salaries were not all that great) are now saying about the American administration… 

Needless to say, the ideals of freedom are not all that likely to find another home close by: people who have been thrown out of Staropimenovsky Lane are hardly going to look for jobs at any of the state-controlled radio stations. But how could those responsible have had the wit(lessness) to deal such a blow to a legendary institution? 

Yes, changes, re-profiling, going on-line, a new transmission strategy - who’s against that? But the very idea that Radio Liberty can suddenly, without endangering its very existence, completely replace its staff, as though it were a Macdonalds, reveals that its managers across the ocean must be really great thinkers and experts in how this profession actually works. 

Personnel decisions like this might indeed more or less work in the car industry – say by bringing in a couple of thousand Japanese with their own assembly line. But when so much depends on individual names and we’re dealing with matters relating to ethics, capitalisation is directly dependent on reputation, and swinish behaviour by the administration can’t be offset by anything. 

It looks as though everyone has now realised what the [once independent – Tr.] NTV television station and the weekly magazine ‘Itogi’ [‘Summing Up’ – Tr.] have been turned into… But in those cases there was a basic change in their ownership, whereas here we have an example of the same proprietors committing hara-kiri! 

A good project doesn’t start when the first step involves brutally clearing out the previous team by force majeure. I have nothing against the employees of the journal ‘Vokrug sveta’ who have already been offered jobs that are now available [at Radio Liberty – Tr.], but I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes today… 

But I’m not in the least bit worried about Masha Gessen. She has proved to be a lady without the complexes typical of the Russian intelligentsia. After having received a remunerative offer from ‘Liberty’ she put on a fit of professional integrity and set off a resounding liberal rebellion in the journal, which she was planning to leave anyway. 

So this was a ‘two in one’ deal, like a shampoo. 

Let’s wish her luck in her new career. 

Anyway, these are merely personal details in the new landscape. And this new landscape, which has been drawn up – I’m not kidding you - by the US State Department working together with Putin + Co., looks like this: there’s now an administrative ‘waste land’ occupying the place where the legendary ‘Liberty’ once stood, against a background of incoming information about the long-term, trouble-free financing by the US government of the ‘United Russia’ political Party – the very Party which has recently forbidden the US government to broadcast in Russia! 

All this must be very much to the liking of the American taxpayers, who might have the justified sensation that their own country, using their taxes, is playing the role of a complete idiot. 

Introduction and translation by Martin Dewhirst