19 August: Boris Yeltsin speaks outside the White House in Moscow. CC-A 4.0 / ITAR-TASS. Some rights reserved.
The friends who spent the night at my apartment on 18 August, 1991 woke up in dribs and drabs the next day — lazily beating back the collective hangover with coffee. We were in our early 20s, most of us were about to graduate from Novosibirsk state university, and the world was changing all around us. Life was exciting in a way it hadn’t been before. We read a lot and talked nonstop.
Someone turned on the wireless — a fairly useless device used for short news reports and finding out the time. My wife, the only one of us even listening to the plastic box’s incoherent mumbling, suddenly said: “It seems Gorbachev’s been murdered.” We cranked up the volume. The announcer — who spoke in tones that had disappeared from the airwaves a few years ago — was halfway through a statement on Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill health and the creation of a State Committee on the State of Emergency in the USSR. The TV said exactly the same thing.
We started to look for the radio — a proper one, not connected to any wires in the wall — which was in a closet somewhere. We hadn’t used it for some time. We no longer needed foreign radio stations: Soviet mass media now broadcast real news reports.
By the end of the 1980s, Soviet TV and newspapers had become so interesting that radio was, in effect, marginalised. In 1989, I remember a music video for a song “Radio” in which the musicians broke apart old radios and sang energetic nonsense you could dance to. There was nothing ideological about it. It was absurd and fun.
Hearing “voices” on the radio
I don’t remember, when the silver-and-black VEF radio appeared in our home — it’s as if it was always there. I later found out that the radio model was the same age as me: the VEF-12, made by Riga’s Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika, was first produced in 1967.
This radio was great for shortwave frequencies — the same frequencies that western radio stations used to reach the USSR. Soviet mass media did not provide enough information about world affairs. My grandfather subscribed to two newspapers, Pravda and Izvestiya, and they seemed identical. Later, when the fateful word “perestroika” was announced, but nothing had yet changed, the rock band Televizor (literally: Television) sang: “The evening won’t bring anything / The programme remains the same.”
During the Brezhnev era, when I was a schoolboy in Novosibirsk, I began to get a sense of reality not just from conversations between adults, but also Literaturnaya gazeta (which didn’t just write about literature), the foreign press digest Za rubezhom, and the Mezhdunarodnaya panorama programme. In any case, Soviet newspapers and shows were only good for learning to read between the lines.
This is why starting at age 12 I began to listen to the “voices” — the Soviet slang term for foreign broadcasters such as the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Liberty. They had jazz, as well as news you actually wanted to listen to — incredible news of Soviet losses in Afghanistan, arrests of dissidents, martial law in Poland, the Falklands war, terrorism.
On a July night in 1980, Voice of America announced that the popular singer and actor Vladimir Vysotsky, who had a difficult relationship with the authorities, was dead. The next day, my friends wouldn’t believe me, Soviet radio and TV hadn’t said a word.
Radio Liberty, originally a project of the CIA, operated out of Munich for much of the 1970s and 1980s. (c) AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.
This isn’t to say my parents encouraged my desire to take the radio to my room for the night, but the habit of listening to banned stations was a kind of unspoken norm in our house — as well as criticism of Soviet power.
Of course, there were things we didn’t say out loud. But I understood the code phrases. When grandma said: “So and so has got a trip over the ocean coming up,” I understood that “so and so” was not going on a business trip to Cuba, but emigrating to the United States. I wasn’t surprised: our eighth floor neighbours, who spent years asking for permission to travel to see relatives in West Germany, asked for political asylum as soon as they were allowed to leave. Their apartment, which had a grand piano and all the other attributes of Soviet prosperity, was simply left abandoned.
I was lucky with school, which was, for the early 1980s, very liberal. I wasn’t afraid to discuss what I heard from the “voices” with some of my classmates. For us, finding a new radio station to listen to was a competition. Everything depended on how dedicated you were and how good your radio was. You could listen to Chinese station on our enormous valve radio at the dacha — they praised their leaders even more fervently than ours praised Brezhnev, and they played unusual music. Others were even able to listen to Canadian radio.
A friend of mine insisted that he heard Russian-language programmes on “Philippines Christian Radio”, but I’m still certain that he either made this up or made a mistake (maybe it was Radio Vatican instead). My Minsk-based grandmother told me while I stayed with her that she was able to listen to Voice of Israel. In the European part of Soviet Russia, the various voices could be heard much better. I could never get a hold of Radio Liberty or Deutsche Welle in Novosibirsk, and only occasionally could I listen to the BBC.
Bits of news were exchanged the way samizdat publications were exchanged. The fact that this could be dangerous went unnoticed by us teenagers.
The ease with which I discussed news I heard in the night changed my life radically. After graduating from high school, I went to medical school, and continued to share news that I picked up via Voice of America. It was 1984, and many of my classmates were eager to discuss what I heard. One of them turned out to be an informer, and my medical career was suddenly over. I was thrown out of the Komsomol (the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League) and med school for “violating the social norms of socialist life by sharing bourgeois enemy propaganda.”
My attachment to my VEF-12 radio didn’t lessen after. But I didn’t know that in four years, censorship in the USSR would practically disappear and western radio stations would no longer be jammed. In Novosibirsk, the old jamming base, otherwise known as “Station Three,” was turned into a facility for the city’s first local independent TV company in August 1991.
On the first morning of the coup, the VEF-12 worked superbly. The antenna was falling apart, but somebody was smart enough to stick a metal wire into the jack, and tie the other end of the wire to the radiator. The sound quality was even better than it was a decade before.
Within an hour, we learned from Voice of America, the BBC and Radio Liberty that Gorbachev was trapped in his dacha in Crimea, that tanks were headed to Moscow, and that Muscovites were gathering next to the monument to Yury Dolgoruky and the Supreme Soviet, better known as the White House.
We wanted to know what was happening in Novosibirsk. The radio was helpful here too — via local frequencies and Microforum, the region’s most popular radio programme. Microforum was a classic product of glasnost. Some young journalists founded it in March 1987 and it went on to share the waves with various meaningless news programmes about how much milk local cows were producing.
10 February 1991, Novosibirsk: people demonstrate in honour of the 74th anniversary of the February Revolution. (с) Dmitry Margolin.
On 19 August, the second day, Microforum announced that a group of deputies from the city council would rally against the State Committee on the State of Emergency, the coup organisers, on the evening of 20 August in front of Novosibirsk’s biggest library.
The situation with Novosibirsk’s local media was unclear, and this lack of clarity was the natural extension of the country’s political chaos.
Panorama, the main local news programme, which didn’t strike us as the sort of programme that would be sympathetic to the democrats, did not air that evening. By contrast, the Evening Novosibirsk newspaper, considered to be “democratic”, suddenly published the statement of the State Committee on the State of Emergency.
The Novosibirsk city council said it supported Yeltsin, refused to obey the putschists and flew the Russian tricolour flag over city hall. The regional council asked everyone to stay calm and said that the harvest was what was really important now. The newspaper of the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences came out with a big white space on its front page, and we could only guess what kind of article the journalists could not or would not publish there.
1 May 1991, Novosibirsk. (с) Dmitry Margolin.
Two newspapers, the Komsomol’s Youth of Siberia and the independent Siberian newspaper decided to come out with special joint publications to inform people on what was happening, but the printing house, which belonged to regional and party leadership, refused to print them. Youth of Siberia and Siberian newspaper had to go back to samizdat traditions. On 20-21 August, they published two semi-legal special editions, which were printed at some research institute.
Red prospect, Novosibirsk’s first tabloid, which had several journalists with dissident pasts, was the most radical. Every hour, it published flyers with constantly updated information as it came in via local and national sources.
Soldiers and news from Moscow
On 19 August, nothing special was happening in Novosibirsk, but people began to gather in the city centre, on Lenin square. When a bunch of us came to rally against the putsch the next day, we saw soldiers from the internal troops stationed at street crossings.
Many bystanders came up to the soldiers to ask what’s going on. The soldier we spoke to was shy, and said that he was there to regulate military traffic, that military hardware was on its way, that he didn’t know anything. We had a small radio that we let him listen to. He was grateful, but said he would obey his orders.
The military hardware did arrive, as did trucks full of soldiers, but they didn’t go to the centre, they went north. Some young people went to picket the headquarters of the Siberian military district. We went too, and saw a lot of people gathering. There news from Moscow and other towns were read aloud in between calls of protest against the coup. There was still little information.
What should we do if the putsch is successful? Will there be martial law? Censorship again?
We spent the last day of the coup, 21 August, sitting around the radio and on the phone with friends. What should we do if the putsch is successful? Will there be martial law? Censorship again? We’d have to emigrate then, for sure. Maybe it won’t be as bad as before perestroika? Toward the evening it became obvious that the putsch had failed and troops were withdrawing from Moscow.
On the morning of 22 August, the TV showed Gorbachev returning to Moscow, while my great uncle in Leningrad, whom I called to say happy birthday, screamed: “What birthday, what are you talking about?! Just look at what’s happening!” He also spent a lot of time out of the loop, but didn’t have the habit of listening to various “voices.”
It was overcast in Novosibirsk that day. Lenin square was blocked off for traffic — thousands turned out to support the government, which had withstood the putsch.
A similar “rally of the winners” in Moscow was shown on Soviet Channel One. We returned to normal life. Cigarettes were still scarce, there were lines in front of the beer kiosks. In a week’s time, I would start my final year at university.
We decided to keep the VEF forever. We also kept the radio wires, just in case.
Life after news
The last time we had to turn on the VEF-12 was during Russia’s constitutional crisis in October 1993. But this was done mostly out of curiosity, not necessity.
By autumn of 1993, a new information age was upon us. The story of the internet and mobile would soon begin.
Gathering around the VEF-12 in August 1991 could have been just a sentimental memory of youth long passed, of a story that was over. But the experience of trying to get information is more relevant now than we could have imagined back in 1991, when the coup failed and journalism seemed to have arrived.
For Russian news consumers today, there is a lot of news out there. But there is little in the way of good opinion
Analogies are often misleading. Today’s authoritarian Russia is far more open than Brezhnev’s USSR. You can get around internet censorship easily. Information is relayed by many media outlets and bloggers.
The residents of the former USSR are better at foreign languages, while finding out news of the world in Russian is easily done via the constantly updating InoSMI site. Nowadays, Russian-speaking media outlets exist all over the place.
For Russian news consumers today, there is a lot of news out there. But there is little in the way of good opinion. And when I think about the reader that I work for, I think of a person from a town like Novosibirsk, who needs those same “alternative sources of information”.
Today, “alternative sources of interpretation” would be more accurate. We need them now more than ever.