Traditional media everywhere grapple with the Internet age and the wide availability of information, but here in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, where news is highly political and controlled, a small but loyal radio audience that treasures unbiased reporting has declared itself betrayed. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, has complained. The name Radio Liberty — Svoboda in Russian — carries memories of overcoming Soviet oppression, freighted with disappointment over failed democracy, and its transformation is mourned.
On New Year’s Eve, after weeks of growing controversy, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President and Chief Executive Officer Steven Korn resigned, effective Jan. 25. He cited personal reasons — his father is ill, and his family has been unable to join him in Prague, where the service is based — although he said in an interview from the United States on Thursday that his critics would probably interpret his departure as their victory. “I understand the nostalgia,” he said, “but it’s not our fault.”
Controversy aside, the last weeks have been sad and silent for Marina Zherdeva, a 66-year-old artist who said she listened to Radio Liberty for 40 years, “since before it was allowed.” The station began broadcasts in 1953, when Russians listened by shortwave radio, often sticking an antenna into a potted plant on the windowsill and tuning in at night, when reception was better.
“It had news, culture, political topics, wonderful programs you couldn’t find anywhere else,” Zherdeva said.
“I’m not a very good computer user, to put it mildly. A radio — you can always switch it on anywhere. I could carry it with me. You can’t do that with a computer,” she said from her realm of bulky desktops, where smartphones are far from the horizon.
After the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin allowed Radio Liberty to open a bureau in Moscow. It obtained a medium wave, or AM, license in March 1992. By 2004, it had more than 30 affiliates across the country, giving it access to Russia’s 10 largest markets. But by then, Putin was exerting control over information, and the affiliates were pressured to drop Radio Liberty programs. For the past several years, Radio Liberty was heard only by those who have a shortwave radio, those who could get a weak signal in Moscow and Internet users drawn to the Web site.
Korn and Julia Ragona, RFE/RL’s vice president, hired Masha Gessen, a Russian American journalist who last year published a book critical of Putin, as the editor, based in Moscow instead of in Prague. But a firestorm erupted as journalists whom Korn and Ragona fired set up an alternative Web site criticizing the changes.