Growing up in 1930’s Babruysk, a provincial town in what was then the Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic, Galina Rudnik envied only two other little girls--one the daughter of a local secret police worker, and the other, Svetlana Alliluyeva, the daughter of Joseph Stalin. Politically connected as they were, those lucky girls’ mothers would never be taken away from them, she thought. By decade's end, both of Rudnik's parents would fall victim to Stalin's purges, leaving their only child an orphan at the age of seven.
It wasn’t until many years later that Rudnik discovered one of the objects of her envy had also suffered during this period. After famously defecting from the Soviet Union in 1967, Alliluyeva, who had lost her own mother to an alleged suicide in 1932, asked Rudnik to voice her memoir on Radio Liberty.
That twist of fate is but one of many Rudnik experienced during her decades-long career at RFE/RL, beginning in Munich in 1954 and ending with the company’s move to Prague in 1995.
Rudnik ultimately managed to escape the horrors of World War II as a refugee, a crucible she recounts in the early chapters of her memoir--Migratory Birds.
“In 1938, when I was just seven and Stalin's Terror was at its height, my father, a high-ranking officer was executed by firing squad, and my beloved mother was arrested and deported, disappearing to me forever into the ravenous maw of the Gulag,” writes Rudnik. “Then came the hunger of 1941-42 and the Nazi bombing of Minsk, the Belarusian city I came to call home. Only two years later, an unlikely fate swept me into war-ravaged Berlin, where I endured the Allied carpet bombing which ultimately brought Hitler to his knees.”
Rudnik had been left to the care of an aunt, whom she calls her “guardian angel,” and together they survived the German occupation of Belarus with its concurrent deprivation and hunger. When the Soviet front advanced, the pair fled to Berlin, and after five years in refugee camps in Germany, she and her aunt were finally given visas to the United States.
Lonely during her first few months in New York, Rudnik threw herself into her studies, supporting herself with three part-time jobs. She graduated from New York City College in 1954 with a degree in Romance languages, and is today fluent in Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, French, Italian, English, and German.
Rudnik hadn’t yet even graduated when leaders of the Belarusian exile community, recognizing her linguistic talents, encouraged her to apply for a job with the newly-formed Radio Liberty Belarusian language service. Hoping instead to work for the United Nations, Rudnik at first declined, but was eventually persuaded of the importance of the company’s mission.
“I started to think, my God, there is actually an organization that is trying to fight communism and do something for the people of the Soviet Union, so of course I agreed,” she said in a recent telephone interview with RFE/RL.
In an era when men did the writing and women did the typing, Rudnik was asked to apply for the position of multilingual typist. She says she breezed through the English typing test, but panicked when unexpectedly confronted with an unfamiliar Cyrillic keyboard. “A quickly feigned hand injury, complete with medical gauze wrapped up to my elbow to complete the illusion, solved that problem,” she now recalls with a laugh. “The Americans were so sympathetic, they said we could skip the test.”
Once at RFE/RL’s Munich headquarters, Rudnik quickly mastered the Cyrillic typewriter, and also began voicing the news on the air in Belarusian and Russian. She was paid 260 dollars per month.
Her start at the company coincided with a perilous time for RFE. The radios were infiltrated by Soviet agents, and not long after her arrival in Munich, two colleagues were found dead under mysterious circumstances, only a few months apart. The deaths are now thought to have been assassinations in retaliation for Radio Liberty broadcasts.
“We were scared to death,” Rudnik says about her first year in Munich, “afraid even to cross through the park at night. It was really unbelievable. But I had a contract and I would never dream of quitting.”
Over the course of her 41 years with the company, Rudnik rose through the ranks, serving first as producer, then assistant program manager, and finally retiring as production manager for the Russian Service.
At a time when women managers were rare, and typists-turned-bosses an anomaly, Rudnik says she struggled, and remembers taking more flak from other women than men.
“As a woman, frankly speaking, you had to be better than the male managers to get the same respect,” she says. “My strength was that I came from the bottom, so nobody could argue with me because I had done all of their jobs before and could show them how to do them properly if they complained.”
Her professional tenacity is all the more impressive in light of the adversity she continued to face in her personal life. In the 1960s, she received a letter from another aunt in Moscow informing her that her mother was still alive, but it would have been too dangerous to communicate with her mother. They never spoke again.
“Galina Rudnik has long been a woman for whom I've had the utmost admiration,” says Bohdan Andrusyshyn, deputy director of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, and a personal friend of Rudnik’s who is currently working on an English translation of Migratory Birds. “She is tough, determined and, at a freshly minted age 85, still one of the sharpest people I know.”
In 2011, Rudnik was eagerly anticipating her first trip back to Belarus since she and her aunt fled the Red Army’s advance over a half-century earlier. In addition to formally launching her book in Minsk, Rudnik had hoped to visit the grave of her beloved grandfather in her native Babruysk. She had also planned to make a sizeable charitable donation to a local orphanage where, but for by the grace of her beloved aunt, Galina says she would doubtless have ended up herself.
Rudnik was incredulous when, without any stated reason, she was denied a visa to her home country.
“I was so angry, you can’t imagine,” she says today. “I’ll never go back again now.”
Though deeply disappointed with the current political situation in Belarus, Rudnik says she admires the way the Baltic countries took up the mantle of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union, and credits Radio Liberty as a major contributor to the empire’s demise.
During her time at the radio she covered some of the most important events of the second half of the 20th century--the Hungarian Uprising, the Prague Spring, the fall of the Berlin Wall--and of course voiced the tragic memoir (Twenty Letters to a Friend) of the "lucky" little girl she had so envied as a child, Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva.
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. Evoking this passage from the famous novel, Rudnik’s friend Andrusyshyn muses, “Perhaps it was her traumatic and difficult start in life that inured Galina to the inevitable challenges and upsets we all face, and granted her the wisdom to honor and cherish the blessings--sons she adores, friends to whom she is devoted, work that she believes in, and a professional mission about which she remains passionate.”