Sunday, November 02, 2008

Russian radio and freedom of speech in the time of Putin

"...the leading instrument of enculturation and inundation under Joseph Stalin was a broadcast technology called radio-tochka, literally “radio point,” a primitive receiver with no dial and no choice. These cheap wood-framed devices were installed in apartments and hallways, on factory floors, in train stations and bus depots; they played in hospitals, nursing homes, and military barracks; they were nailed to poles in the fields of collective farms and blared along the beaches from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotsk. ...

"In 1990, a few refugees from Soviet radio decided to start a station in the capital that would combine straightforward news, discussion, and even call-in shows that allowed people to say precisely what they wanted—a plan that might seem a banality elsewhere. The founders called the station Ekho Moskvy, Echo of Moscow, and they set up shop in a tiny, overheated single-room studio situated just a couple of blocks from Red Square. Echo went on the air on August 22, 1990, with an extended news program, including an interview with one of the young leaders of the Moscow reformers, Sergei Stankevich, and then played the Beatles song “All My Loving.”

"At the time, Echo of Moscow seemed merely part of the greater phenomenon of expanding press freedoms, the logical outgrowth of a movement spurred by the Kremlin leadership. Now, eighteen years later, in the authoritarian ecosystem of Vladimir Putin, Echo of Moscow is one of the last of an endangered species, a dodo that still roams the earth....

"Venediktov is a standard-issue type of the Russian intelligentsia, with thick glasses, a wry, knowing manner, and frizzy Bozo the Clown hair. As an interviewer, he is as aggressive as the young Mike Wallace, but a great deal more cerebral. As an analyst, he is incisive and cocky, well satisfied that all his predictions will, or have, come true. More important, he has been an extremely adept politician when it comes to fending off the complaints and demands of the Kremlin and protecting his reporters. The walls of the Echo studios are covered with photographs of the dignitaries who have come to be interviewed, and Venediktov seems undaunted by all of them. Many of his questions begin with chesty prodding: “Kak eto mozhet byt’ ”—“How can it possibly be . . . ?” When Bill Clinton went on too long with an answer, Venediktov kicked him under the table."

Read the rest of "Echo in the Dark" at the New Yorker website.

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