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  • How Russia Learned to ListenRadio and the Making of Soviet Culture
  • Stephen Lovell (bio)

In January 1916, Maurice Paléologue, the wartime French ambassador to Petrograd, opined that “the Russians are affected infinitely more by the spoken than the written word. To begin with, they are an imaginative race, and consequently always desire to hear and see those who speak to them. In the second place, nine-tenths of the population cannot read. Lastly, the long winter nights and the debates of the mir have trained the moujik for centuries to verbal improvisation.”1 For all its quaint orientalism, this observation brings to our attention the fact that Russia’s rulers had to consider how they would address their subjects orally as well as through the written word. Paléologue’s view, in 1916, was that they were not doing a particularly good job. The tsar was nervous and hesitant as he reopened the Duma, and the parliamentary orators were too often pompous and ineffectual.2

The following year, the opportunities for political communication would be vastly expanded: the year 1917, and the following Civil War, saw a vast amount of speechmaking and agitprop. Although the leading Bolsheviks had, for most of their careers, been creatures of the written word, they were acutely aware also of the need to speak effectively to their target groups (workers, soldiers, and peasants). In June 1917, for example, Bolshevik networks of oral agitation were reaching 500 regiments at the front and 30 city garrisons.3 A [End Page 591] year later, an estimated 50,000 activists were spreading the word of Bolshevism from the capital to the rest of the country.4

Face-to-face oral communication was soon amplified by technological change. Milestones in broadcasting history came thick and fast in early Soviet Russia. In February 1919, the inventor M. A. Bonch-Bruevich was picked up in Moscow as he uttered the famous phrase “Hello, this is the Nizhnii Novgorod Radio Laboratory speaking”: here was the first occasion in Russian history that the human voice had been transmitted over the airwaves. In June 1921, loudspeakers were set up in Moscow to broadcast a “spoken newspaper.” In September 1922 came the first radio concert, and in the fall of 1924 the start of regular programming under the auspices of a newly created broadcasting company that was soon renamed Radioperedacha. On the eighth anniversary of the revolution, in November 1925, came Russia’s first ever outside broadcast—suitably enough, from Red Square.5

In theory, radio was a boon to the Bolsheviks on several grounds. First, it made possible the almost instantaneous dissemination of politicized information over huge distances. Second, it held out huge promise as a collective organizer: even the most charismatic and resonant orator could not hope to reach more than a few thousand people at once, but radio had every prospect of creating an audience of several million. Third, radio was the epitome of modernity: it would accelerate progress from darkness to light, from ignorance to enlightenment. The bearded muzhik in headphones was one of the iconic images of the 1920s.

That was theory, but the practice fell some way short. Although the technology of sound broadcasting was developed in the early 1920s, radio did not reach anything approaching a national audience until a decade after that. For all the Bolshevik asseverations (dating back to Lenin himself) of radio’s importance, its cultural impact in the prewar era was limited by the poverty and underdevelopment of the USSR. Historians can point to innumerable occasions when party and state agencies bemoaned their inability to harness radio as a significant force for cultural construction.6 Comparisons with Nazi Germany are unflattering to the Soviet propaganda machine. In August [End Page 592] 1933, Goebbels declared, “what the press was to the nineteenth century, radio will be to the twentieth.” Even at the start of 1933, before the Nazis came to power, 4.3 million receivers were registered in Germany. By 1934, following the launch of the cheap Volksempfänger, the figure had risen to 8.2 million.7 At the end of the same year, the USSR could boast only 2.5 million reception...


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pp. 591-615
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