As the Winter Olympic games get under way in Sochi, the American press appears to be extra sensitive about getting the 'real story' out of Russia lest they be tagged propagandists for what many in the United States still see as 'the evil empire'. Truth be told, while we're no longer talking about the communist Soviet Union, the Russian Federation and its oligarchy remain a far cry from the iconic New England town meeting, and Pussy Riot travels to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to perform unhampered.
During the 1960s there was a small effort by WNYC to bridge the cultural, if not political, divide by periodically airing some English language Radio Moscow programs. They were mostly arts and music related shows, but it appears a few other genres occasionally made it to air. Among them, an April, 1965 marking of Cosmonautics Day, an appeal to U.S. women by Soviet first lady Nina Khrushchev and an edition of Moscow Mailbag which debunks common myths about Russia.
An excerpt of Nina Khrushchev's 1962 'Appeal to the Women of the United States of America' for world peace.
Excerpts from Moscow Mailbag
Cosmonautics Day Program from 1965
But this type of broadcast, despite being clearly identified as Radio Moscow and not WNYC, as instructed by city attorneys, eventually ran afoul of cold warriors who took their complaint to the top: J. Edgar Hoover.
WNYC's FBI file is a curious collection of memoranda between assorted and unnamed SACs (special agents in charge) at the New York bureau and the Director's office in Washington, D.C. Among the later entries is a United Press report and SAC follow-up from May, 1969 about the anti-Communist Latvian language newspaper Laiks publishing a story titled, "Moscow Propaganda on the New York City Radio Station."
The stories take WNYC to task for broadcasting Radio Moscow propaganda tapes "regarding occupied Latvia, which attempted to create the impression, by statistical manipulation, that the Communist way of life has transformed Latvia into a paradise on earth." The Latvians wanted equal time. While it's not clear if they ever got to make their case on the air, they certainly got the attention of the FBI.
According to the Bureau's informant at WNYC in October, 1969, it was not clear who initiated the relationship with Radio Moscow, but that it had begun about few years earlier "as a result of some cultural exchange program." Indeed, WNYC and other educational stations played tapes from a number of international broadcasters at the time as part of a periodic cultural series worked out with the non-profit Broadcasting Foundation of America.
The somewhat defensive mole at WNYC, however, noted that the Soviet shows are not presented on a regular basis nor does the station allow for news commentary to be heard. These shows, if received, "are automatically discarded." The blacked-out WNYC source indicated the station was primarily concerned with airing cultural programs and that these tapes were edited by WNYC staff so that "information known to be false, a distortion of the truth, or pure propaganda in nature, is edited out before being presented to the listening public." Presumably then, the few tapes we have since located in the archives were aired except perhaps for this edition of Lenin's Family.
While this tape didn't end up in the garbage, it seems unlikely WNYC aired it, since someone did write "prop" on the tape box, presumably for "propaganda." According to the broadcast, Lenin's mother did not focus on dress and idle gossip. His father made sure he had a great work ethic and didn't read trashy novels. To be sure, it is heartwarming, in a Soviet sort of way.
Fortunately for students and scholars of the former Soviet Union, these items have been saved and can now be listened to as artifacts of the Cold War 'from the other side.' Whether there's any similarity between these broadcasts and what we hear from Sochi, well, we report, you decide.
This wasn't the first time WNYC was accused of being a propaganda arm of the Russian government. Back in 1938 a series of Soviet travelogues promoted by a subsidiary of the American Express Company provoked a City Council investigation of the station and its manager Morris Novik. For more on the 1938 controversy see: Communist Propaganda or Capitalist Commercial? A 1930s WNYC Broadcast is Mired in Controversy.
Audio courtesy of the New York City Department of Records/Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
Special thanks to Katrina Dixon and Danielle Cordovez at the NYPL Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.