September 9, 2015


Seva Novgorodsev: The DJ who 'brought down the USSR' (William Kremer, 9/05/15, BBC World Service)

A mellow late-night-radio voice floats over the horn introduction to Stevie Wonder's Sir Duke. "Good evening and welcome from London," come the words in Russian. "Today we will focus on the most popular records of the week, both in Britain and the United States."

With those words, broadcast late in the evening on Friday 10 June 1977, Seva Novgorodsev began his career as the BBC's DJ for the Soviet Union. Over the next four decades, he would become an unofficial - and definitely unwelcome - ambassador for Western popular culture behind the Iron Curtain.

In the 1980s it's thought that 25 million people regularly tuned their shortwave radios to hear Seva's crackly broadcasts of David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson on the BBC Russian Service. The influence of these programmes, arriving at the end of the Soviet era, was enormous. [...]

He became known for his satirical word-play, which was perfectly captured in the names of his programmes. Some of these enlisted his first name, which literally means "crop". His music show was Rock-posevy - meaning both Rock Crops and Seva's Rock. His chat show, which began in 1987, was Sevaoborot - crop rotation. Both names poked fun at the Soviet obsession with news reports about agriculture and industry. [...]

"And this is what led to the liberation of the young people - when they saw the Soviet reality suddenly. In a funny light that was it - it was no longer a terrible beast, it was a little cat that you could stroke."

Even in the era of perestroika, the gentle teasing continued, though it was perhaps a coincidence that the arrival of Seva's wine-fuelled chat show Sevaoborot - which brought listeners a sort of on-air dinner party complete with interesting conversation - coincided with Gorbachev hiking the tax on vodka and razing vineyards.

Seva's constant stream of light-hearted references to the banality of Soviet life, alternating with catchy Western pop songs, led to him being described on numerous occasions as "the man who caused the demise of the Soviet Union".

"Of course, it's kind of an exaggeration or hyperbole, but the thing is that there is some truth in it," says Andrei Ostalski, who was editor of the BBC Russian Service during the launch of BBSeva. By avoiding political diatribes, Ostalski says, Seva did not put his patriotic listeners on the defensive. Instead, he allowed appealing bits of Western culture, filtered through his Russian sensibility, to arouse his listeners' interest. "He was a symbol of this curiosity and the way it caused this great penetration of certain Western values into Soviet society, which was sort of deadly for the regime."

The Soviet Union jammed the World Service signal, but listeners could often hear it, if they searched carefully and located the bandwidth the KGB had left open to monitor the broadcasts. 
The signal was better in rural areas, so Seva's Friday-night show became an established curtain-raiser to weekends at the dacha in the country.

Seva says he later discovered that Soviet leaders were so worried about the influence of his broadcasts that they instructed TV producers to schedule big shows to run against Rock-posevy. Russian newspapers also published many critical pieces about him, which he assiduously collected in five box files with the title "Personal Fame".

It was less his military build-up than his making fun of them that was Reagan's greatest weapon.
Posted by at September 9, 2015 6:44 PM

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