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VOA’s Russian Service Marks 75 Years of Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

VOA Russian Service celebrates its 75th year.
VOA Russian Service celebrates its 75th year.

“This is New York calling. You are listening to the first radio broadcast of Voice of America.”

With these words, on February 17, 1947, Voice of America’s Russian service embarked on a mission to share America’s experience and serve as a vital source of accurate, objective and comprehensive news and information for Russian-speaking audiences behind the Iron Curtain.

Despite being jammed or obstructed by Soviet authorities for decades during the Cold War, VOA Russian radio broadcasts, featuring objective reporting of the news, uncensored literary programs and music shows, such as the Jazz Hour with Willis Conover, found their way to Russian households and served as a beacon of hope and freedom for the people dominated by Soviet rule. Many of them secretly, yet regularly, tuned into VOA’s shortwave broadcasts to learn not only about America and its society and institutions, but also to hear the news on developments around the world, including in Russia and the Soviet space itself.

“We gave voice to the voiceless, the people who have been denied a voice in the Soviet Union. We were nurturing, supporting, telling Russians who may be very unhappy or miserable in the Soviet Union – you’re not alone,” said Mark Pomar, former director of VOA’s Russian service.

Millions of people behind the Iron Curtain, especially younger generations and intellectuals, regularly listened to the Voice of America and the other Western radio stations, such as the BBC and Radio Liberty, which Soviet authorities at the time labeled “the enemy voices.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladimir Nabokov, Ludmila Alexeyeva, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vasily Aksenov, Vladimir Voinovich, Yelena Bonner and other well-respected dissidents and human rights activists were permanent fixtures in VOA’s programs addressing the information-deprived Russian audiences and debunking Soviet propaganda that was trying to discredit their work and repress dissenters.

VOA’s Russian service has played a historic role explaining and discussing U.S. policy and perspectives towards the region. The “picture of American life” that was promised to listeners in the first broadcast became clearer and closer to the audience with the advance of Perestroika through the 1980s, as the Cold War was nearing its end.

Unfortunately, more than 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s media space is again almost as constricted and closed as it was decades ago. The challenges of distributing good journalism and truth to Russians remain fundamentally the same.

The government in Moscow, according to Freedom House, controls all the national television networks and many radio and print outlets, as well as most of the media advertising market. A handful of independent outlets still operate, most of them online and some headquartered abroad. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing, repressive campaign to silence independent press has also targeted U.S. international broadcasters – VOA, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and their joint venture, the Current Time Network, launched in 2017.

“VOA has a track record of consistently providing accurate and unbiased reporting to its Russian-speaking audiences across Eurasia in support of freedom and democracy,” says Elez Biberaj, director of VOA’s Eurasia Division. “The impactful, exceptional and empowering news and information that the Russian service provides is more critical now than ever before.”

Voice of America ended radio programs in Russian in 2008 but continued to provide content across platforms and formats to a growing audience across the VOA and Current Time brands.

On TV and digital properties, VOA Russian has put hours of live news coverage, including simultaneously translated news events, press conferences and congressional hearings, to allow skeptical audiences targeted by propaganda and the Kremlin narratives to judge events on the ground for themselves. VOA has delivered factual, on-location reporting covering U.S. elections, political summits, protests and other major stories, serving as a reality check on the disinformation that fans anti-Western sentiments and drives conflict in the region. VOA has also contributed documentary films that are otherwise unavailable inside Russia.

“As the first American media outlet to start daily broadcasts in Russian three-quarters of a century ago, VOA has lots to offer to audiences looking for accurate, unbiased content,” says Irina Van Dusen, chief of VOA’s Russian Service. In her words, it is essential that VOA offers its audience a platform to engage with America and its people on issues that are similar or relevant to those they face in Russia, where public space is often fenced in by the Kremlin’s anti-American framework that tends to put Russia in conflict with the West.