Dangerous and subversive CIA tool, harmless propaganda organ, or evidence of Russian liberalism? Russian Prime Minister (and once and future president) Vladimir Putin wants to have it every way when it comes to describing RFE/RL’s Russian Service, aka Radio Svoboda.
Putin provided Svoboda with a little backhanded publicity in a prime-time interview aired on October 17 with the heads of Russia’s three largest television stations. Responding to a question from NTV’s Vladimir Kulistikov about much-needed reforms to Russia’s legal system, Putin prefaced his answer by chiding Kulistikov for having once served (1993-96) as a correspondent for Radio Svoboda.
WATCH — Putin takes some potshots at RFE/RL during a prime-time interview on Russian state television:
“When I worked for the KGB, we viewed Radio Svoboda as a branch of the CIA. Of course, it was only a propaganda arm, but still. Anyway, such an attitude toward that station was not unfounded. It was funded by the CIA and, what’s more, it was even involved in spying activities in the former U.S.S.R.,” Putin said. “Today, the situation has changed, but still, no matter how you look at it, Radio Svoboda is a media outlet that expresses the views of a foreign government. In this case, it is the U.S. government.”
Then, in a nice little bit of rhetorical jujitsu — the man is an expert practitioner of judo, after all — Putin pointed to Kulistikov’s career trajectory as evidence of Russia’s increasing liberalization.
“So, you used to work [at Radio Svoboda], and now you are the head of a national television channel in Russia. How long have you been working there? For quite some time, right? Isn’t this a sign of liberalism? In other words, you can’t say that there is no liberalism at all in Russia.”
Putin is certainly correct that the CIA once covertly funded Radio Liberty, though by the time Putin joined the KGB in 1975, RFE/RL, a private organization, was funded directly by the U.S. Congress. The connection between RFE/RL and the CIA was a major scandal on Capitol Hill when it was uncovered by congressional investigators, and it nearly led to the RFE/RL’s dissolution.
But as Putin also doubtless knows, there’s plenty of hard evidence to suggest that while KGB apparatchiks may have viewed RFE/RL as a “propaganda arm,” plenty of ordinary and extraordinary people across the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc relied on RFE/RL to provide them with accurate information when they most needed it.
During the 1991 military coup that ousted Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the dying days of the U.S.S.R., Radio Svoboda’s central place in Soviet civil society became starkly apparent as Gorbachev — under house arrest in Crimea — used basement transistor radios to access Radio Svoboda and the BBC for information about what was happening inside his own country.
Putin’s own predecessor and former boss, Boris Yeltsin, used Radio Svoboda to broadcast his call for a nationwide general strike. He later noted that “during the three to four days of this coup, Radio Svoboda was one of the very few channels through which it was possible to send information to the world and, most important, to the whole of Russia.”
Putin’s insistence that Kulistikov’s move to state television from Svoboda is evidence of Russia’s liberalization makes for another whopper of a claim. There is a long list of famous Russia watchers who might disagree with Putin’s rosy assessment of Russia’s liberal progress, were they not now dead. Paul Klebnikov, Natalya Estemirova, and Anna Politkovskaya are just a few of the dozens of journalists who’ve been assassinated in Russia during Putin’s reign for messing with the Powers That Be.
Indeed, Kulistikov’s path diverged quite sharply from that of RFE/RL’s own Iskander Khatloni, who was bludgeoned to death with an ax inside his Moscow apartment in 2000 after reporting critically on the Russian military’s human rights abuses in Chechnya. Khatloni previously worked as a BBC correspondent and was an accomplished poet.
His death was a tragic but typical case of the dangers that made Russia in the last decade — the Putin decade — one of the worst working environments on Earth for investigative reporters.
— Charles Dameron