By Ruslan Tarasov, RFE/RL Ukrainian Service, August 17, 2019
“Producing propaganda,” “supporting nationalism,” “destroying the USSR,” and “promoting the imperialist interests of the U.S.” – RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, known locally as Radio Liberty, has been accused of all this and even more since it started broadcasting in the 1950s. The first radio program went on the air on September 16, 1954. At the time, during the Soviet Union, the Kremlin called RFE/RL correspondents “CIA agents.” Today, they are referred to as “foreign agents.”
Correspondents from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service recently spoke in Munich with Ivanna Rebet, who was the head of the RFE/RL library at the height of the Cold War. The Munich office of RFE/RL, which existed until 1995, was a powerful media structure with a large library and analytical department. Journalists actively cooperated with scientists from the Institute for the Study of History and Culture of the USSR, which mainly explored Soviet society and behavior. At that time, almost every Soviet book and newspaper went through Rebet’s hands; she knew what information was “ruinous” to the former USSR.
Radio Liberty’s library at the Munich office, headed by Rebet, was for RFE/RL journalists something like today’s internet. It had more than 150,000 books, of which about 5,000 were in Ukrainian. It also had data from encyclopedias and official Soviet statistics, as well as scientific papers and newspaper articles. These materials were an information trove for the USSR.
“We had lots of newspapers. We ordered them for the entire radio, for every department. There were about 800 newspapers. In order to find out what was going on there, we needed to go over Soviet newspapers. I had 30 to 35 employees because there was a lot of work,” said Rebet.
Experts from RFE/RL’s analytics department searched the pages of Soviet newspapers for inconsistencies with encyclopedic data and official propaganda coming out of Moscow. Of particular value was the Soviet regional press, which featured articles on local issues.
Local newspapers reported a shortage of certain products or industrial accidents. Regional press could devour “enemies of the people.” However, the central Soviet media were usually silent on local issues. As Radio Liberty’s announcers recounted such stories, listeners heard about the economic problems of the USSR and the anti-communist underground.
It turns out that the most damaging information to the USSR was in their own Soviet newspapers, which were carefully analyzed at Radio Liberty and repackaged for broadcast, together with the comments of economists and human rights activists.
For example, after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, Radio Liberty analysts searched in the Soviet press for experiments that had been conducted earlier on the reactors. Throughout the year, Rebet’s library staff collected a wealth of useful information for listeners from regions affected by the radiation.
“We were gathering the information so that analysts could research and analyze it and journalists could use it…They wanted to know what had to be done in the case of radiation exposure, and we were finding it for them,” said Rebet.
Radio Liberty reported on the Chernobyl accident and radiation protection methods earlier than official Soviet media. The Kremlin's silence on the catastrophe seriously undermined public confidence in the communist regime.
The daughter of Ukrainian expatriates, Rebet now works at the Library of the Ukrainian Free University in Munich. She is the wife of journalist Andriy Rebet, whose father, Lev Rebet, was a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and a deputy chairman of the Ukrainian State Board, which was created after the proclamation of the Ukrainian State Restoration Act in Lviv on June 30, 1941.
Even today, Rebet closely follows the news from Eastern Europe. The theme of Ukrainian statehood remains important to her.
“You know, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin says that Ukraine did not exist, but we have maps from 1635 – ‘Ocraina,’ 1712 – ‘Ukraine.’ He says that Ukraine does not exist -- you do not exist, I do not exist -- but we exist. Ukraine already existed without us back then,” said Rebet.
Although the library served all RFE/RL language services, Rebet particularly enjoyed working for the Ukrainian Service, which turned 65 on August 16, 2019.
BROADCASTING BEYOND THE ‘IRON CURTAIN’
The archive of the Free Ukrainian University in Munich, where Rebet currently works, houses about 1,000 tapes of Radio Liberty broadcasts. Rebet read out the names of famous Ukrainians recorded on tape.
“This is a collection of cassettes and audio tapes. Do you know these dissidents? And this is Rudenko, Pavlychko, Symonenko, Shevelyov – a famous philologist,” said Rebet. She called the collection a “history of the radio station.” But, Rebet added, most importantly the voices recorded by Radio Liberty journalists for listeners in Soviet Ukraine gave people hope.
“Democracy is very important for a person to think freely and to choose, to reflect on the things they are offered. But the main thing was information, so that people did not forget that they were remembered. It was important to them,” Rebet said.
This interview was translated from the original Ukrainian and adapted for English-speaking audiences by RFE/RL’s Pressroom.