Friday, May 15, 2020

Radio Moscow and the Cold War

Radio Moscow
Geopolitics and international conflicts during the Cold War made it important for the United states and the Soviet Union to inform people or influence their political views, and this in many countries around the world. But how did they reach their audience?

Today, we can hardly imagine a world without Internet, cable TV and satellites that brings all the news and information from across the globe in your lap. Yet, during most of the Cold War, people only had newspapers, local TV, FM and AM radio. The only solution to spread ideas was shortwave radio, as these waves travel around the globe and can listened to by everyone with a shortwave radio.

Further down, you can listen to many fascinating English-language broadcast samples from Radio Moscow and other world services.

Both East and West had, and still have, shortwave radio stations with a world service. The best known are Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty on one side, and Radio Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba and Radio Peking on the other side. Everyone had their own truth and accused the other side of expansion drift, disinformation and inciting across the world. See also Cold War Signals.

One truly iconic station was Radio Moscow World Service. Their foreign service broadcasting started in 1929 with transmitters in Moscow and Leningrad, and later also relay stations in Vladivostok and Magadan. Radio Moscow reached whole Eurasia, Africa and North and South America. During the Cold War, their broadcasts reached across the world with transmitters in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Cuba, and this in more than 70 languages.

Joe Adamov
Their most popular program was without doubt Moscow Mailbag with Joe Adamov answering letters from Americans. They dared to asked a wild range of questions, some critical and some truly hilarious, but Joe handled them all.

The iconic radio host, born in 1920, started working for Radio Moscow in 1942. He began hosting Moscow Mailbag in the 1950’s and did this for more than forty years. Raised in England and fluent in English, Adamov interviewed many important western politicians and was official translator at the trial of downed U-2 pilot Gary Powers. When Radio Moscow was renamed Voice of Russia in 1993, Adamov continued working as radio host until 2004. He passed away in 2005 (see Voice of Russia message (translation).

Moscow Mailbag clearly intended to disprove claims that circulated in the western world, but also gave an interesting view on the Soviet mindset. There's a  CBS audio interview with Joe Adamov at Expo 67 in Canada (alternative link) and one at PBS Red Files.

Unfortunately, few broadcast recordings survived the pre-digital Cold War era, and sometimes you need a stroke of luck, like studio recordings of Radio Moscow that surfaced in New York.

It all started in the 1960s, when New York Public Radio WNYC tried to bridge the cultural and political gap between the Soviet Union and the United States. They broadcast recordings on reels they received from Radio Moscow. Their content and sometimes obvious propaganda eventually caught the attention of the FBI, ending the propaganda party.

Fortunately, many tapes survived. They are now available at the New York Municipal Archives and you can listen to many audio samples that immerse you in the Cold War atmosphere. The WNYC archive has some hundred recordings, so I selected some gems for you to get a taste of the collection.

In 1960, Joe Adamov explained in one of the many Moscow Mailbag episodes that there are no shortages in the USSR. He also talked about the 1960s prediction of Soviet economists, who expected the Soviets to have the highest standard of living in the world by 1980, leave the US far behind in production, and more optimistic news. In 1965, he countered rumours about the ousted Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and explained life in the USSR.

Nina Petrovna Khrushcheva, the wife of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, addressed in 1962 the concerns in letters of American women and explained the good intentions of the Soviets. Vladimir Pozner, another well known journalist, discussed bread and its historic and cultural significance in Moscow Meridian.

Radio Moscow discussed in 1960 the automation of Soviet industries and benefits for the workers. Moscow Radio wasn't always in the defensive, they also attacked the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and western propaganda in 1960. The Weekly Press Review (there are many episodes) are another gem that leaks the Soviets sentiment.

The complete archive is available at WNYC's New York Municipal Archives. They also explain how the tapes ended up in New York and the stir they eventually caused. Whether the broadcasts of Radio Moscow actually influenced the opinion of people remains a question. Mark Winek examined this in Radio Moscow and the Early Cold War.

Shortwave and DX enthusiasts also recorded many shortwave stations on reel-to-reel tapes or cassettes, and these are preserved in the fascinating digital Shortwave Radio Audio Archive (SRAA). They have recordings of Radio Moscow and their American counterparts Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe (RFE), Radio Liberty (RL) and many other stations.

There are quite a few interesting VOA recordings. They covered the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, the 1970 Palestinian aircraft hijacking in Jordan, a 1979 news broadcast that covers the 10th anniversary Apollo 11 moonlanding and the 1981 assassination attempt on President Reagan, to name a few. Over the years, RFE and RL have broadcast in 54 languages of the targeted countries and regions, such as Russian, Turkmen, Belorussian and many more.

Some fascinating recordings of Radio Moscow are the 1968 crisis in Czechoslovakia with the invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. There's also the 1981 Polish crisis with declaration of martial law and the Soviet view on the situation in Poland.

SRAA also has various Radio Havana Cuba recordings, such as the 1974 speech by Fidel Castra, both in Spanish and English, and the 2016 commemoration on Castro's death. They also have many Radio Peking recordings, like China's First Satellite in 1970. You can also listen to the 1990 final broadcast of Radio Berlin International, marking the end of both the station and the existence of East germany.

You can search the SRAA database for any broadcast station, or search all Radio Moscow recordings or all Voice of America recordings. If “no results found” is returned, simply refresh their page to find the stations anyway..

More about the battle over radio waves on Cold War Signals. Interested in shortwave listening? The SWL Shortwave Listening page gives you an introduction. has a ton of information and the great SWLing Post blog about shortwave, receivers and broadcast stations. Radio Moscow is still in the air, but changed its name in 1993 into Voice of Russia and renamed it again in 2014 into Radio Sputnik.

Side note: The archived historical recordings are not intended to promote any point of view. Bear in mind that these stations had specific propaganda purposes in the Cold War era, and might not portrait the facts accurately. In hindsight it's easy to dismiss presented facts, but back then, people had far less means to fact-check. Still, influence through news and social media remains a problem to this day, despite an abundance of news, albeit with varying accuracy.

Happy listening... and don't believe everything you hear!

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