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How Liberty Came To Russia

On August 19, 1991, a military coup was attempted in Moscow. Instead of reporting on the event, Soviet television broadcast the ballet, Swan Lake.

On August 19, 1991, a military coup was attempted in Moscow. Instead of reporting on the event, Soviet television broadcast the ballet, Swan Lake.

That night, listeners of Radio Liberty heard an emergency news broadcast: “As you know, we just received a message that the Soviet leadership has issued a statement saying that the powers of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev shall be transferred to Vice President Yanaev due to the inability of the president to fulfill his duties because of health reasons.”

Three days later, the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP – which staged the coup attempt) fell, and a few days after that Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree accrediting the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow for the broadcaster’s role in covering the August events.

Only a few years earlier it was impossible to imagine an official office of the radio station in Russia – the Soviet Union had been jamming the broadcasts of “Western voices” for decades. Dmitry Volchek, who became Radio Liberty’s first freelance correspondent in the USSR in November 1988, literally just days after Soviet authorities turned off the jammers, recalled, “Sometimes people listened despite the jamming. Maybe every tenth word was clear. But only because they were hearing some forbidden words, names of Solzhenitsyn and others, the mood was getting better… But when the jamming stopped, everyone listened, millions of people, and the response to each program was enormous.”

During the coup, when the GKChP announced the “re-registration” of the media in an effort to block their work, Radio Liberty correspondents went live from the White House, from the streets of Moscow, and from other Soviet cities. On the night of August 21, they reported as tanks and armored vehicles approached the barricades surrounding the White House: “According to information we have not yet been able to verify, two people have already died. And apparently, we should tell you … ‘goodbye.’ But we do not say goodbye, we will wait, and I think that after all everything will be somehow better, in this country and in this world,” spoke Mikhail Sokolov, reporting from Moscow’s Krasnopresnenskaya embankment.

In an interview after the fall of the State Emergency Committee, Boris Yeltsin told Radio Liberty, “I have not been ‘allergic’ for a long time, I don’t feel mistrust toward your radio station, I always respond to your requests to be interviewed. And during the coup, this was one of the few channels that could communicate all over the world and, most importantly, in Russia. Because now almost every family is catching the signal of Radio Liberty. I think that with its deeds and objectivity the radio station deserves it. We must accredit you.”

— Valentin Baryshnikov

After 2000, Radio Liberty lost all of its retransmitters in Russia and its local radio frequencies in Moscow. In 2002, President Vladimir Putin revoked Yeltsin’s decree. Despite innumerable impediments, the bureau has continued to operate, registering in 2020 as a limited liability company.

This text has been translated from the original Russian.