Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were among the half dozen major broadcast information sources for the Soviet bloc from soon after World War II until the final collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. The two shortwave stations were covertly founded in 1950 (Radio Free Europe) and 1953 (Radio Liberation from Bolshevism, its initial title) by the US Central Intelligence Agency. Radio Liberty broadcast to the citizens of the Soviet Union, and Radio Free Europe to most of the sovietized eastern and central Europe, including the Balkan states. Radio Liberty’s signal began to reach the USSR with any strength only in 1960.
The Stations’ History And Goals
There were exceptions to the coverage. One was the German Democratic Republic, which was covered by RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) broadcasting out of West Berlin, and another was Albania, where the absence of shortwave sets in the country and the scarcity of Albanian speakers in the USA rendered the project impracticable. Yugoslavia was defined, after the 1948 Stalin–Tito break, as a halfway house of sorts between the Soviet bloc and the west, and began to receive a multilingual “South Slav” broadcast service only in 1993 as the federal Yugoslav republic disintegrated into its constituent elements. The three Baltic republics, for a complex variety of reasons, were not fully covered until the 1980s, while the USSR’s non-Russophones received very little attention.
Officially, both stations’ funding was provided at the outset by an ongoing nationwide campaign within the USA to protect citizens in both zones from the effects of monopoly Communist Party control over the flow of information. Ostensibly, the Crusade for Freedom (the campaign’s title), inaugurated by President Eisenhower, collected annually a host of small contributions from around the USA, referred to as “truth dollars,” which provided the stations with their financial base. In reality, at most only around 20 percent of RFE’s funding was procured from the Crusade, and none for RL.
This reality was unknown to a large proportion of the stations’ staff, and came as a bitter shock to some who, when the truth finally emerged in 1967, felt they had been lied to. Their sentiments were shared by a number of public figures, who were less disturbed at the truth itself than that the Crusade’s everyday barrage of appeals and advertising had misled the public into subsidizing a government spying agency. Other longstanding critics of the stations – some of whom objected to their trenchantly anti-Soviet tone, others who wanted them to instigate armed revolt in Soviet bloc countries – found in the revelation supporting evidence for their views.
Turbulences And Changes Of Site
This episode led to a period of some turbulence in the stations’ life which eventually, after a series of congressional and presidential inquiries and reports, led to the removal of the CIA’s control over the stations. The Agency was replaced in 1974 by the Board for International Broadcasting, whose initial two top figures were a former assistant secretary of state and a former director of news at CBS. In 1976 the two stations were administratively merged as RFE/RL, Inc., and in 1978 almost all operations shifted to Munich in Germany. Paradoxically, many of the staff found the new management considerably more intrusive and heavy-handed than the CIA, which had largely followed the pattern of the British Foreign Office’s fairly light touch in managing the BBC’s overseas service.
In 1981 the headquarters in Munich were bombed, causing four people to be injured and US$2 million worth of damage. Stasi files secured from the GDR after 1989 indicate that the money and equipment were supplied by Romania’s Ceaucescu regime, but that the wreckers were from a variety of nations, led by Ilyich Ramírez Sánchez, better known to the tabloid press as the professional terrorist “Carlos the Jackal.”
In 1993, following the final collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Clinton administration moved the operation to Prague, where President Havel offered a site rent-free in the city center. The services were considerably reduced, with the Hungarian service being cut out altogether. In 1998, the US Congress placed the new Radio Free Iran and Radio Free Iraq under RFE/RL control, and in 2002 Radio Free Afghanistan.
As of 2007, RFE/RL was broadcasting nearly 1,000 hours a week to its traditional target zones and to southwestern Asia, and had bureaus in 19 countries. Since 1996 RFE/ RL has built over 500 transmitter sites to enable AM and FM broadcasts as well as its traditional shortwave service. The languages in which it broadcast were Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Avar, Azerbaijani, Bashkir, Belarusian, Bosnian, Chechen, Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Croatian, Dari, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Pashto, Persian, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Tajik, Tatar, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Uzbek. RFE/ RL has also built up an electronic information service more recently, which according to its website has been receiving over 20 million hits a day.
The main difference between the RFE/RL stations and the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, or Radio France Internationale was that while the latter aimed to provide an international news service, RFE/RL endeavored to be the honest domestic news service – not without international coverage, to be sure – that the nations and republics in the Soviet zone were lacking. They were staffed to a great extent by refugees and expatriates from the various Soviet bloc nations, who set themselves the task very often of diffusing samizdat publications that would otherwise have reached rather few people in major cities. In this way, they could amplify muzzled public opinion and maintain some semblance of internal debate within each of the nations independent of the regimes. However, especially in the early years, their form of address was sometimes very local and specific, for example naming a factory manager who was a sexual predator and warning him that justice would await him once the regime collapsed.
Reactions to these stations varied sharply across the political spectrum, as well as within the Soviet zone itself (aside from the political leadership, whose views may easily be deduced). For VoA and BBC adherents, the two stations were often seen as very aggressive in style to the point of being counter-productive. For the West German government, where the Munich office was located, this sharp style ran counter to their drive to develop an effective working relationship with the Eastern bloc (Ostpolitik), in the interests both of keeping the two parts of Germany in communication, and in terms of national economic opportunities for business and trade with Moscow. For others on the political right, the stations repeatedly failed to deliver the real goods, in other words. stimulating uprising against the Soviet yoke.
Within the stations themselves, there was an almost equally wide spectrum of political opinions, some of which surfaced directly in broadcasts and some of which did not. In Radio Liberty, for example, the sudden new rush of Jewish Russian émigré professionals beginning in the late 1970s led to frequent tension between the newer arrivals and the older generation of gentile Russians, some of them racist nationalists, intuitively skeptical that a Jewish person could be a true Russian. It was also widely recognized both that the Soviet regimes infiltrated their own people into RFE/RL, and that some station staff had a pro-fascist background and present.
The Politics Of Broadcast Jamming
The Soviet bloc regimes routinely sought to jam RFE/RL broadcasting. Estimates and reports vary, but as of 1961 there were approximately 1,400 local and long-distance jamming stations altogether. Different regimes operated jamming at different times, with Poland largely ceasing from 1956 onwards, though the Russians continued to jam broadcasts in Polish. According to one Polish spokesperson at the time, the energy needed would have supplied electric power to a medium-sized town. In 1981 the BBC World Service estimated that four days of jamming cost Soviet Russia as much as the BBC’s Russian Service for a whole year. On the other hand, especially in large cities, it was generally all too effective, though the determined could sometimes still hear the broadcasts by listening at twilight or in the evening, when the signal was at its clearest, or in the countryside.
However, jamming also interfered with some local broadcasting. Counter-jamming measures were undertaken at different times by the western stations. From time to time, in response to negotiations between the Soviet bloc and the west, the Soviets would reduce or pause their jamming, but these windows rarely lasted very long. In late November 1988, however, the Soviet Union suddenly and without fanfare stopped jamming. This proved to be of particular importance during the attempted coup against President Gorbachev in August 1991 by those determined to reinstate the old Soviet system. Because jamming was not in place, western news services, in particular CNN, were able both to broadcast what was happening and to be seen in the major Soviet cities. This most likely had a powerful impact on consolidating the opposition to the coup, which rapidly and boldly expressed itself across the USSR, and thus led to the coup’s failure, almost without bloodshed.
Role Of The Stations In Political Upheavals
As the determined Hungarian revolution against Soviet colonization developed in late 1956, RFE was caught in an extreme dilemma. Should it simply report events as they transpired, or encourage people to take their rebellion to new heights? The situation was further complicated by the fact that some informed global opinion judged that the Soviets, having withdrawn militarily, would not return, while others suspected the worst. Some RFE staff, with the interim premier Imre Nagy’s past in mind, were skeptical that he had become a nationalist leader, while others were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. In the event, some very ugly street murders of unarmed party officials in Budapest gave the Soviet Politburo members in favor of military action the rationale they needed to press for intervention. The situation was uncertain from day to day.
Nonetheless, a review of broadcasting output subsequently determined that a considerable amount of the tone of broadcasts had been highly emotional in a way that would easily encourage Hungarian listeners to think the west would intervene to protect the revolutionaries. Thus, while no evidence was available that any direct message had been broadcast urging listeners to expect western action, the impression lingered for many decades that RFE in particular had whipped up expectations in Hungary to the point of getting people killed, or later executed, in the name of help that was never going to be forthcoming. Domestic criticism of the station within the USA repeatedly harked back to this episode.
The Prague Spring, 1968
With this in mind, the Czech and Slovak broadcasters in the station found themselves in a paradoxical position during the Prague Spring. When the gradual cultural thaw in intellectual and literary circles – symbolized by the first republishing of Kafka since the 1948 communist coup – came very rapidly to galvanize the entire Czech and Slovak publics, the RFE Czechoslovakia service found itself compelled by management, as well as its own political inhibitions, to tread with the greatest caution. No one wanted to be accused a second time of stimulating a revolt whose consequences would be borne exclusively on the spot. Nor did the staff want to propose or even endorse any actions that could be used by Soviet hardliners as a rationale for armed intervention.
Thus with the temporary explosion of freedom in media within Czechoslovakia itself, RFE found itself constantly behind the times, since it would have been direct anti-Soviet provocation to install any of its own reporters in the country. Indeed, at one point the station found itself urging moderation and caution on the reformers, who seemed to be overly insouciant of the temptation they were presenting to Soviet hawks. When the Soviet invasion came, they were assiduous in urging Czechs and Slovaks to stay calm and not to engage in any pointless heroics.
Polish Solidarity, Perestroika, And The Soviet System’s Collapse
The emergence of Poland’s huge Solidarity labor movement in 1979–1980, the 1981 imposition of martial law in Poland to avoid Soviet intervention, the collapse from within of the Polish regime, and the emergence of Gorbachev as reformist Soviet leader bent on the reconstruction (perestroika) of Soviet life, all presented RFE/RL with unparalleled new opportunities. It was unexpected that RFE would add to its critiques of the regimes’ failures critical commentary on the timidity of the Polish Catholic hierarchy, which until then had constituted something of a sacred cow, but it was a sign both of the times and of RFE’s maturity that this was possible. RFE also expanded its pop music programs, highly popular with Soviet bloc youth. RL’s new Russian director concluded that Gorbachev’s policies were more of a threat to the old Soviet system than to the west, and so steered away from the knee-jerk suspicion of many of the old guard staff regarding the changes underway.
In the few days following the nuclear power plant disaster in Chernobyl in 1986 the Soviet response – or rather nonresponse – confirmed the old guard in their skepticism, until the Kremlin’s sudden switch to acknowledging the disaster some 72 hours after the event. In contrast, President Gorbachev’s frankness in publicly recognizing the mess the USSR had gotten itself into by invading Afghanistan (our “bleeding wound”) was a sign of change. Not only however did RL involve itself constructively with the new direction the USSR was taking, but for the first time it also began seriously to engage with broadcasting to the non-Russophone republics of the Soviet Union.
The trajectory of these two stations is an absorbing one. Inevitably, after 1991, voices called for their closure, since their ultimate mission had been achieved. The counterargument was that their service was still needed as nations long deprived of a vigorous news market struggled to develop democratic broadcasting. In some ways slimmed down, but also with some new projects, RFE/RL has continued up to the present to be actively engaged in producing quality international news (see website at www.rferl.org).
- Nelson, M. (1997). War of the black heavens: The battles of western broadcasting in the Cold War. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
- Puddington, A. (2000). Broadcasting freedom: The Cold War triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
- Semelin, J. (1997). La liberté aux bouts des ondes: Du coup de Prague à la chute du Mur de Berlin. Paris: Belfond.