BBC Russian radio hits the off switch after 65 years

BBC Russian broadcast from 1950s Anatol Goldberg, who ran the service (second from the left), was removed in 1958 after a public campaign to discredit him by parts of the British Establishment and a right-wing magazine

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At the end of this week, the BBC's Russian Service will close its radio frequencies for good.

The Russian Service began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in 1946 and quickly established a reputation with Soviet listeners, in the brief period before the onset of the Cold War.

From 1949 until 1987, the jamming of the signal by the Soviet authorities consumed vast amounts of money and technical expertise. For many years, a significant part of the USSR's entire radio broadcasting system was devoted to blocking transmissions from abroad.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn Alexander Solzhenitsyn insisted the BBC should not endow the Kremlin with a sense of legitimacy

The BBC's Russian Service was blocked selectively and varyingly. However, jamming was never totally effective, and listening to the Russian Service as well as other western broadcasters had, by the 1970s, become a ubiquitous phenomenon among the Soviet urban intelligentsia.

'Soft' on Kremlin

This week, the Russian Service is playing out audio postcards from listeners, revealing how they listened, and what it meant to them. One especially memorable episode comes from a listener in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, explaining how her family learned of the assassination of President Kennedy from the Russian Service's news broadcasts.

The Soviet authorities had started broadcasting in foreign languages earlier - in 1929. There was never any ambiguity about its purpose. Indeed, the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia states it "serves as a powerful weapon in the propaganda of Communist ideology, a highly effective way to speedily inform the toilers in foreign countries about life in the Soviet Union".

BBC Russian Service

  • Began broadcasting 26 March 1946
  • Jamming starts April 1949
  • During Cold War, millions of Russians listened by shortwave despite Soviet jamming
  • From 1992, Radio Russia broadcast several BBC programmes every week
  • By 1999, audience of 6m
  • FM broadcasts Nov 2006 halted following political pressure
  • Broadcasts continue on medium wave in major cities, shortwave and via satellite
  • End of radio frequencies 26 March 2011

There was no pretence that the output of foreign language broadcasting - Inoveshchaniye - was an honest or necessarily accurate reflection of Soviet life.

The ideological conflict between East and West had a direct impact on the BBC Russian Service. On several occasions, over the decades, it was accused of being too soft on the Kremlin.

The persecuted dissident writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, insisted over the years that it should not endow the Soviet regime with a sense of legitimacy.

The respected Anatol Goldberg, who ran the service, was removed in 1958 after a public campaign to discredit him by parts of the British Establishment and a right-wing magazine. Decades later, in the aftermath of the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the service again faced accusations that it was soft on Russian official statements and positions. It strongly denied the accusations, citing the need to work to the BBC's editorial standards.

Media personality
Seva Novgorodtsev Many BBC presenters, like Seva Novgorodtsev, were household names in Russia

The BBC's Russian radio programmes evolved over time, but it was the opening up of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost that provided a massive leap forward. Mr Gorbachev said he had been a long-term listener. Suddenly, there was access to interviews and opinions from Russia itself.

Many of the Russian Service's presenters were household names in Russia and the countries once part of the USSR. In particular, Seva Novgorodtsev, who was one of the Soviet Union's first rock DJs and who opened up the western music scene to Russian listeners, remains a much-loved media personality in Russia.

The service recently celebrated his 70th birthday with a memorable evening hosted by him in St Petersburg. It attracted a great deal of local media attention.

In its heyday, the Russian Service provided a full range of news and current affairs, analysis, musical, medical, scientific, cultural and religious programmes. In the past week, the Russian Service has revived some outstanding material from the archives: an interview with Paul McCartney and a ground-breaking hour-long, live studio interview with Margaret Thatcher, answering questions from listeners across the Soviet Union.

It was an early, highly successful example of interactivity. A much more recent example was a live broadcast with students at Moscow State University, looking at the legacy of the USSR's collapse 20 years later.

One memorable quote came from the famous TV presenter, Vladimir Molchanov, telling us that such a debate would have been impossible in Soviet times - and it would also be impossible on state-controlled national television today, even if the Russian internet remains uncensored.

Cooling relations

In post-Soviet Russia, as Russia's own media blossomed and modernised, partnerships were sealed with Russian stations, some of them with nationwide FM networks.

The BBC hoped to access a much wider radio audience with its mix of BBC standards and expertise. However, with the cooling of British-Russian political links in recent years, the strategy was revealed to be vulnerable. One after another, often without explanation, partner stations in Russia announced they would no longer collaborate. This cut off a big chunk of the audience, in a country where people will not return to the culture of short-wave listening.

Over recent years, the Russian Service has invested heavily in bbcrussian.com, boosting its audio-visual content, interactivity, as well as its presence in international and Russian social media.

The context and depth of BBC material will continue to boost the service's coverage of key regional and global stories.

The BBC Russian Service goes on air for the last time on 26th March. However, the BBC's Russian output will continue on bbcrussian.com, where two radio programmes will be broadcast every Monday to Friday and one will be broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays.

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