BBC Russian’s Seva Novgorodsev: my method was compassion

Seva Novgorodsev: "I was told on numerous occasions that I was the one who brought [the Soviet Union] down".Seva Novgorodsev: "I was told on numerous occasions that I was the one who brought [the Soviet Union] down". (Source: Seva Novgorodsev)

“I suppose it started in 1956 with ‘Rock around the Clock’,” says Seva Novogorodsev MBE, chuckling in a bout of reminiscence. The 74-year-old BBC Russian presenter sits across from me in a studio at BBC New Broadcasting House in London. It is the day of our interview for The Cambridge Globalist and I am, expectedly, overcome by emotion. What an honour it is to be hearing the story of one of the most formidable journalists of the Cold War.

Foreign radiobroadcasters began operating clandestinely within the Soviet Union as early as the late 1940s to counteract the influence of what historian Peter Kenez has astutely called the “propaganda state”. BBC Russian was one of the most important, and Novgorodsev was amongst its brightest jewels.

As always, Novgorodsev is immaculately dressed. He smiles, laughs and reflects on his experience, recounting anecdotes with such vivacity that I feel as if I am in the midst of each event he speaks of. It is no wonder that Soviet audiences were captivated by this well-spoken, charismatic and passionate individual.

Counter-intuitively, Novgorodsev, who continues to receive letters from devotees throughout the world, from Tasmania to Canada, never considered himself a Soviet dissident, at least not in political terms. “I detested everything about the Soviet style [and], obviously, did not care much for Soviet popular music. We did not recognise anything the government was trying to stuff us with culturally. We played jazz … We were cultural dissidents,” he tells me.

As a journalist, I am profoundly grateful to Novgorodsev for his services to the public. Over the course of his career, he has been a naval officer, a professional jazz musician, a radio presenter, an editor, a creative consultant, an actor, a writer, a cook and arguably the most famous DJ of Soviet times.

Novgorodsev’s greatest accomplishments, however, stem from his humanity and his compassion, both of which enabled him to give hope to the millions of Soviet listeners who turned to him to escape the darkness of totalitarianism.

Early life

Novgorodstev was born Vsevolod Borisovich Levenstein on 9 July 1940 in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to a Russian mother and a Jewish father, a sea captain. In September 1941, Leningrad was besieged by the Germans. Studies have placed the death toll of the 872-day Siege of Leningrad at 700,000-1.5 million citizens: more than combined British and American deaths, both military and civilian, in the entire War. Seva’s father remained in Leningrad to manage supplies for the front; the young boy and his mother were sent to Siberia. The family was reunited in June 1945.

In the summer of 1949, they moved to Estonia. Novgorodsev finished his schooling in 1957 and decided to pursue an acting career in Moscow. “There were 17 openings and over 5,000 people trying to get in. I did not succeed and was absolutely heartbroken,” he says.

Seeing his son distraught, Levenstein encouraged him to enrol in the Leningrad Higher Naval Engineering School. The school had its own brass band, which he joined. “They gave me a clarinet and a saxophone. By the time I graduated, I was semi-professional in those instruments,” he tells me.

Having worked as a naval officer for 18 months in Estonia, Novgorodsev was persuaded to join his jazz friends back in Leningrad. In 1965, he became a member of the famous jazz orchestra of Joseph Weinstein, one of the founders and brightest stars of the Soviet jazz scene. By 1972, Novgorodsev was leading the jazz ensemble «Добры Молодцы» (Dobry Molodtsy, the Fine Young Men). His band garnered much success and toured the Soviet Union.

The birth of a dissident

In November 1975, Novgorodsev’s then wife persuaded him that they should leave the Soviet Union. Through the assistance of the International Rescue Committee, the couple and their young son Renat emigrated to Italy as refugees. During a trip to Italy, BBC World Service jazz presenter Leo Feigin (professional pseudonym: Aleksey Leonidov) encouraged Novgorodsev to join BBC Russian and arranged all the necessary entrance exams. Having taken a two-year correspondence course, Novgorodsev was a certified translator and interpreter. “Back then, it was relatively easy for us to get into the BBC. I passed the basic tests,” he recalls. Upon his arrival in London, he was sent on a ten-day beginners’ journalism course.

In the mid-1970s, the BBC needed Russian-speaking staff, but there were none around. “There were probably around 40 Russians in London, mostly from the previous waves of immigration, and they were not qualified. So the BBC hired people in Israel,” says Novgorodsev. This “merry bunch” was composed not of journalists, but specialists in various fields. Among them was an engineer, a doctor, a museum worker, and, of course, a navigator and former saxophonist: Novgorodsev himself.

“We did not have an agenda at all,” Novgorodsev says of himself and his fellow recruits. “But, obviously, when people decided to leave the Soviet Union and to emigrate, they took a stand. So, from that point of view, I had met my soulmates. They went through the same thing as I did. It was easy to socialise with them.”

Novgorodsev says he experienced little difficulty in acclimatising to a new society in the UK, attributing his facile transition to his state of mind while within the Soviet system. “I was living in Russia in a virtual reality which was Western. Bodily I was there, but in my mind I was elsewhere. So when I came to be in the West, my reality and my virtual reality became one,” he tells me.

 

Novgorodsev in the studio

Novgorodsev in the studio (Source: BBC)

Humour on the verge of satire

When Novgorodsev joined the BBC Russian Service in March 1977, the team consisted of 12-15 people. “We were called programme assistants and were not given much room in creative terms … Our job was to translate news and dispatches from English to Russian and read them on air,” he recalls. The news was centrally fed to them from the third to the fifth floor of Bush House, the former home of the BBC World Service. After two and a half years, the Service was gradually given some projects of its own. By contrast, BBC Russian now generates 95% of its own content, says the journalist.

“I could not be a run-of-the-mill journalist. I tried to stay away from politics in the Soviet Union and was not going to embrace it in Britain, either,” Novgorodsev tells me. The broadcaster became a music programme presenter in the summer of 1977. The times, he recalls, were “terribly naive and twee”. His predecessor played popular music and endeavoured to entertain listeners by teaching dances, such as the cha cha cha, over the radio. Novgorodsev decided that such programming was far too “innocent” and began inserting jokes into his broadcasts. Gradually, these jokes made their way back to the BBC World Service through fan letters and, by 1980, the BBC editorial board was requesting to see Novgorodsev’s scripts.

“They did not always agree with me and would make changes,” he says. “I had to say what I felt was important for the audience and would try to bypass what I saw then as rigid standards of editorial censorship. [The managers] were right as they saw it, but I tried to push the envelope a little bit.”

He often relied on literary techniques and rhetorical ingenuity to subtly reinforce his observations, as evidenced even by the wordplay in the titles of his programmes, including «Рок-посевы» (Rockposevy; “The Sowing of Rock” or “Rock in the Style of Seva”), «Севаоборот» (Sevaoborot; a pun on the Russia word for crop rotation – «севооборот»), and «БибиСева» (BBSeva), all of which contain the name Seva.

“At that time, the Russian language was full of linguistic garbage: ‘newspeak’ invented by the socialist system … My main idea was to debunk socialist jargon and to show that it was ludicrous, but to do so gently,” he says.

The broadcaster considered his jokes to be apolitical, but Soviet authorities did not share this sentiment. The effectiveness of his humour resulted in considerable suspicion on the part of Soviet media. “There was a series of articles in Soviet newspapers speculating that I was not working on my own and had a whole group of MI5 officers helping me to create anti-Soviet jokes.”

Persuasion through compassion

The Soviet Union had been jamming the broadcasts of the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) since 1948 and gradually expanded to interfering with dozens of other foreign organisations. Novgorodsev’s work was no exception. In “Cold War Radio Jamming”, historian George W. Woodard claims that the USSR annually spent $48 million worth of electricity on jamming, a figure that excludes operational and labour costs. According to Novgorodsev, at least one frequency always remained untouched, because the KGB needed to record foreign broadcasts, transcribe them and distribute them among officials to keep track of the “enemy’s” use of soft power. “Copies of my broadcasts went as high as the Central Committee,” Novgorodsev says. Jamming continued until 1987.

Though BBC Russian was not the only foreign radiobroadcaster operating in the USSR, it was among the most successful. Novgorodsev’s programmes were so popular that Soviet television channels conspired to draw away his audiences. “They did succeed [to some extent] … If you have a TV station covering the whole of Russia, it is no competition. Still, we kept our people for a while.”

Novgorodsev attributes the receptiveness of his listeners to his ability to understand them on a tangibly humane level. In contrast to Soviet broadcasters, he offered his audiences an intimate listening experience, as evidenced even by the vocal fluctuations, occasional sighs and humour that can be heard in recordings of his programmes. Seen as a benevolent sage of rock and roll, Novgorodsev always chose truthfulness and sincerity over fraudulence and deception.

“I had toured so much and had seen so many people. I knew who I was talking to. They were mostly dispossessed youth from working-class backgrounds. They were shouted at by their parents, by their teachers, at work. I wanted to talk to them on human terms, encourage them and offer moral support … to give them something to be interested in, to hope for. My method was general compassion. And it worked. This is why it all became popular,” he said.

At the peak of his popularity, which he retrospectively identifies as 1980-1990, Novgorodsev estimates he had over 25 million listeners. He hoped to enable his audiences to move beyond the status of working-class adolescents and to realise that the world was not as black and white as they had been led to believe by the authorities. The resonance of his broadcasts is evidenced by the sheer level of audience retention and responsiveness. The Hoover Institution at Stanford University has about 120 kilograms worth of letters sent to Novgorodsev by fans. They occupy 6.5 metres of shelf space.

Fan mail

Most of these letters spoke of music and culture, which has led some researchers to speculate that the majority of listeners were not politically-motivated and tuned in mainly for the music. Novgorodsev, however, is sceptical. “Only a suicidal person would write a political letter to me. They were all immediately opened up and read,” he says.

Letters sent abroad were opened with special steam apparatuses at the Главпочтамт (Glavpochtamt, the Central Post Office in Moscow). Those letters that the KGB deemed innocent would be resealed with glue. “We played a game with audiences. When I received a letter, I looked at it at high magnification to see if there was any gum arabic seeping at the sides. So we invented technical phrases such as «клееподтёк с верхнего клапана» (glue leakage from under the flap) and then created acronyms, which I would say on air so that listeners knew that a particular letter had been opened.”

Some letters even arrived through third countries, such as Cuba, Syria or Albania, largely because foreign students studying in the Soviet Union would be asked to post letters from their home countries. There was even a letter in a bottle, which had been thrown into the English Channel with a Russian inscription that read “Seva Novgorodsev BBC”.

“I pay my highest compliments to the British Postal Service. They did find me,” he recalls.

There were even letters written in Braille. They had been transcribed into Russian letters at the Royal National Institute of Blind People and sent to the BBC. “I remember that I was terribly touched. I wept over those letters. And I did something to help these people, who have since grown up and started their own radio station called Radio VOS (Russian: Радио ВОС). I gave them an interview three or four months ago,” he says.

One of Novgorodsev’s most memorable interactions with fans occurred during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when the Soviets were concerned about a potential US cruise missile attack. An open letter addressed to Reagan was printed in a handwritten style in Soviet newspaper Комсомольская Правда (Komsomol’skaya Pravda; The Komsomol’s Truth). The letter, communicating the concerns of Soviet youth regarding the Star Wars programme, was a “prefabricated protest letter” of sorts that was supposed to be cut out from the newspaper, signed and sent to the White House.

“So a 14-year-old chap who was trying to get in touch with me actually copied the letter exactly. He started ‘Dear Mr. President’ and then wrote ‘Hello Seva, there is no time for jokes. Play this track for me.’ Because it looked exactly like the thousands of other letters, they automatically let it through. When I read it on air, it went viral. Everyone else started to do the same … it was a wonderful time,” says Novgorodsev, who read letters aloud on the radio often.

“I would name my fans on the radio if they allowed me to. But, I would never read their surnames,” he tells me. “When I sent them prizes or records, I would obviously use their full names and addresses. Sometimes, they got into trouble.”

He spoke of one of his fans who now runs the local television station in the Russian city of Severouralsk. Several decades ago, the local KGB found out that the young man, a student of journalism, was in correspondence with Novgorodsev. “They threw him out of university and sent him to do two to three years of military service somewhere in the Arctic. But he survived … We remain in close contact. He did a number of documentaries on me.”

In 1990, Novgorodsev went to Kiev as part of the BBC production team. There, he met a fan who had been imprisoned for 18 months for writing to the broadcaster. “I said: ‘I am very sorry.’ He said: ‘Don’t be. I’ve got preferential treatment now and am immigrating to the United States in ten days’ time’,” recalls Novgorodsev.

Behind the scenes at BBC Russian

Histories and memoires of foreign radiobroadcasters operating within the Soviet Union, such as Arch Puddington’s Broadcasting Freedom and Gene Sosin’s Sparks of Liberty, have largely been written by former bosses and tend to depict these organisations as unified fronts of journalists striving to destroy the socialist system from the inside in favour of Western ideals and democracy. In reality, however, human beings are all individuals, with whims and personal convictions, and the dynamics within these organisations were, undoubtedly, far more complex than people often suppose.

“It takes a long time for a Russian dissident to learn the BBC rules. You are not supposed to let your feelings or your judgement overflow into what you write. Impartiality [is the essential principle]. But, once you learn it, it is easy and becomes second nature,” said Novgorodsev. An understanding of impartiality, however, did not automatically eliminate all points of contention in the editorial process.

Novgorodsev tells me of presenter Vasiliy Rodzianko – a former aristocrat and the great grandson of the head of the Russian Duma in 1917 – who was also an ordained priest and explored religious topics in his programmes.  He worked alongside his wife, Maria, who too was a devout Christian. “One day, she came to record a programme, fell of the chair and died, right then and there. He was absolutely shaken to the core,” recalls Novgorodsev. “So he decided to dedicate the next programme to her. And what does the editor do? She crosses everything out and says that these things just cannot be done. For me this was an illustration of how far impartiality can go.”

“The BBC has independent policies and its own editorial code,” he reminds me. “It functions independently from the government.” Though until 2014 the World Service was funded by a grant-in-aid from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the stringent BBC Charter drawn up at its foundation guaranteed it a level of editorial freedom that other radio broadcasters, such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which were covertly funded by the CIA in their early years, did not have.

“If you put up a fight and you reference the BBC Charter, you will win,” Novgorodtsev says.

By 1982, occasional friction with BBC editors led Novgorodsev to toy with the idea of finding some other means of employment. One day, he was asked to assist another BBC department with a segment on Soviet critic Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was with this project that Novgorodsev began working in film. He subsequently worked as a consultant on John Schlesinger’s Academy Award-winning An Englishman Abroad five-part BBC mini-series. There were few Russian actors and cinematography specialists abroad and Novgorodsev’s creative consultancy Russian Roulette Ltd (founded in 1980) was in particular demand. Occasionally, he received Russian roles in films and even ended up playing the helicopter pilot in the opening sequences of 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill.

Post-Soviet Russia, the media and the current crisis

“I was told on numerous occasions that I was the one who brought [the Soviet Union] down,” jokes Novgorodsev. “When hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of listeners suddenly see the reality as it is, they become an unruly population. When everybody saw how ludicrous the situation in the Soviet Union was, it collapsed in an instant.”

Novgorodsev returned to the Soviet Union only in July 1990 at the request of his fans. By then, he had a fan club with 22 regional branches dispersed throughout the country. He flew in to Moscow. “Sheremetyevo Airport was blocked by 800 of my fans. They stood there screaming ‘Seva’. Customs had to smuggle me through the side door,” recalls Novgorodsev.

During this visit, Novgorodsev remembers engaging in a romance with the local media. “I was everywhere: on local radio stations, on television. My blackest day was when a PR agency in Moscow arranged interviews with all 11 time zones. So I was there for 11 hours giving interviews every 20 minutes to newspapers and radio stations across Russia.”

In the 1990s, the West believed that it had won the Cold War and that Russia was on track to becoming a democracy. But the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought great economic and social struggles. Unemployment and corruption became widespread and organised crime rose to the surface. Another development was unprecedented freedom in the press. “Suddenly, the Russian media was much ‘freer’ than the British media, because they could write things that would never make it past our editors. From the point of view of listeners, the Russian media was more unpredictable and, therefore, more interesting. And we were suddenly more timid and balanced,” said Novgorodsev.

As a result of the souring of Anglo-Russian diplomatic relations in recent years, partner stations that formerly provided the BBC with access to radio networks in Russia unexpectedly terminated their collaboration. Eventually, BBC Russian’s long feature radio programmes were cut. “For a while, I thought that we were gone. But, luckily for us, Putin’s regime has returned everything to Soviet standards and we are back in the saddle.” Now the Russian Service reaches its audiences via bbcrussian.com and social media.

Novgorodsev believes that, comparatively speaking, Soviet propaganda was uninteresting and repetitive. Most importantly, it was in the interest of Soviet authorities to encourage the unity of all ethnic groups residing in its republics, so propaganda rarely encouraged nationalism. By contrast, Russia’s current propaganda adamantly seeks to unite the Russian populace along ethnic, as opposed to ideological, lines. Tangible results of this campaign have included the formation of ideological rifts within families split geographically between Russia/Eastern Ukraine and Western/Central Ukraine and the circulation of “reports” on government channels, including one about the Ukrainian-organised crucifixion of a Russian-speaking boy in Eastern Ukraine. “I think that they are playing with fire. When you nurture monsters, especially monsters with Kalashnikovs in their hands, the future is absolutely unpredictable,” warns Novgorodsev.

Conclusion

Studying the experience of journalists like Novgorodsev is profoundly important for many reasons. Firstly, Novgorodsev’s story is an important testament to the history of the Russian diaspora. It is often assumed that people who emigrate desire to cut ties with their country of origin. In reality, however, having experienced the benefits of a democratic society, many first- and, arguably, even second-generation immigrants remain invested in the fate of the land they have left behind, as evidenced by numerous London-based émigré-founded organisations, like Euromaidan London, which engage in protests, collect supplies and fundraise in support of victims of the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. Immigrant journalists are a particularly important element of any diaspora, because they have the capacity to help to effect change through their profession.

Secondly, as a professional journalist who worked in Moscow for three years, I had the misfortune of witnessing the destruction of a seemingly free forum by censorship and propaganda. In December 2013, Russia’s President Putin announced that the 72-year-old news agency RIA Novosti was to be “liquidated” and replaced with new agency Rossiya Segodnya, which would “propagate” a specific image of Russia to the West. In the past year and a half, we have observed the systematic debilitation of most venues of independent broadcasting in the country. Some stations have been closed; others have been forced to accommodate new, pro-Kremlin managers. The goal is to affect editorial policy and manipulate citizens into supporting Russian political interests. Thankfully, foreign-owned organisations like the BBC could not be directly compromised, though many have been plagued by logistical challenges that render their operation in Russia significantly more complicated, to say the least.

Sadly, a lack of independent news outlets has left many Russian citizens with no alternative to state-sponsored propaganda, which has been unprecedentedly successful at inciting feelings of hatred, paranoia and victimisation within the populace. Propagandist journalists make a conscious decision to abandon the fundamental principles of the profession, namely impartiality and accuracy. I find the circumstances under which any ethical journalist could make such a decision entirely unfathomable. The information war is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced back to the earliest years of the Cold War. But, thankfully, neither is the brave resistance of organisations such as BBC Russian, which is today among the few remaining independent news sources in the country.

It is the decisions and actions of individuals that shape both the past and the future. It is, therefore, important to pay tribute to the efforts of people who, like Novgorodsev, worked selflessly and courageously to give millions a sense of hope in times of darkness. Novgorodsev’s experience exemplifies the good that can be achieved through journalism when the profession is not used as a channel of blatant propaganda. Success comes from catering to the needs of the people and from earning people’s loyalty, as opposed to demanding it, something I hope Russia’s future leaders will bear very much in mind.

With thanks to BBC Russian for their editorial guidance.