"What did you say? They're going to shut down the Voice of
America?" Volodya was stunned. "How is this possible? Don't they
realize that Western radio, and notably the Voice of America, was our only
reliable and prompt source of news during the 1991 coup?" As my friends
voiced their amazement, I wondered where they will get their vital
information, the next time the fragile Russian democracy is put to a severe
test. What, for that matter, would have been the results four years ago, had
the Voice been silent?
All this came to my mind just last night as my Northland College students
and I chatted with our Russian colleagues around the dining room table at
their laboratory at Valaam Island, Lake Ladoga.
I asked them if the Russian media, now that it was free of government
control, was not capable of carrying on the functions formerly performed by
foreign broadcasts. "Not really," Lara replied (as with the others,
not her real name). "You see, the Russian media are evolving. They have
no experience in independent and accurate reporting -- in fact, quite the
contrary is the case." "Just ask the families of Dmitri Kholodov and
Vladislav Listev," Yuri added. "The attempts of these journalists to
accurately report the news, cost them their lives."
"The media in Russia, not under the control of the government, are
influenced by the same market forces at work in the States, and they are
moving toward the same result." Ivan knew whereof he spoke. When he was
in the United States last year he had an ear and eyeful of American media.
"All I seem to hear on the news is that 'Whitewater' business!" he
recalled. "Wasn't there anything else of importance happening in
America?" I could only wonder what he would make of the O.J. obsession
The new conservative majority in Congress tells us that CNN and other
commercial enterprises will now do the work of the Voice of America. And so I
asked: how many had seen CNN? Two of the seven at the table volunteered that
they had. "Not very interesting, "they said. "CNN International
is just that, international." With news offered from around the world,
the Russian share is quite small, they complained. The Russian service of the
Voice of America, on the other hand, is directed at Russia.
Galya observed, "I rather doubt that many Americans appreciate the
cultural differences between us. What seems important to you often strikes us
as strange and even funny -- that OJ business, again. And I suppose that many
things about us seem strange to you too. But I felt that the Voice was
sensitive to such things. We heard Russian voices, speaking from shared
culture and experience. We felt that these were professionals, whose job it
was to communicate, and not to sell."
"And that's important," added Leonid. "Sure, we enjoyed
hearing your music -- jazz, folk, rock, and that sort of thing. But Russians
want most of all to hear about Russia. The Voice of American had that
function. Without this, the Russians would not take your media very
"Without the Voice, we can expect that the American mass media, as
they come over here, will feed the Russian masses, just as they feed yours,
with what the masses ask for," Volodya observed. "Our media are
doing the same. Even now, when it comes to thoughtful and scholarly analysis,
the Russian media don't offer very much. You gave us that commentary. We will
What view of America might you get without the Voice, I asked. "Oh,
pretty much what the Soviet media was telling us: decadent popular culture,
crime, violence, poverty for the masses, opulence for the few. Trouble is, we
all knew that the Soviets were lying to us. But when you tell the same story
about yourselves, what are we to believe?"
Did the Voice give you a different picture? "Oh certainly! There was
always something a bit strange and, well, 'foreign' about it, but it had an
air of authenticity. It was willing to report social and political problems in
America, and its reporting about Russia had the ring of truth to it."
I listened to it all with fascination and with a profound sadness.
I have seen the results here of unconstrained American private enterprise,
and I am not encouraged. In five trips to Russia over the past six years, the
growing presence and influence of our popular culture has become ever more
apparent. Rock and Rap music everywhere. Badly dubbed American gangster films
on TV, too campy even for our audiences who retire before 2 AM. Russian youth
wearing t-shirts that celebrate American media heroes, and American tourists
wearing t-shirts that mock Russian culture and history. But what do these
Russians know about Independence Hall, the Gettysburg Address, the melting
pot, the Freedom Rides, native American art and religion, Carl Sandburg, Duke
Ellington, Rachel Carson, and those transplanted Russians, George Gershwin,
Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland? How will they learn?
Absent a bond of mutual respect, how much will we learn from this great
people? Not much, I fear. On one flight back to the States, I sat next to a
senior officer of a conservative "think tank." For hours, he told me
what he and his "seminar" had taught the Russians about free
enterprise. I doubt that I heard a word from him about what he had learned
from the Russians. And these are the people who are bringing our culture to
Do we care at all what the world thinks of us? Should we? Should we be
content with the picture of America that is emerging as we go about our
private business? Is our global reputation worth the dollar a year each of us
pays to operate the Voice of America?
What on Earth were those congressmen thinking when they voted to silence