Thursday, September 24, 2015

Stephen Lovell's "Russia in the Microphone Age"

Stephen Lovell is Professor of Modern History at King's College London. His books include The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (2009) and The Shadow of War: Russia and the Soviet Union, 1941 to the Present (2010).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Russia in the Microphone Age: A History of Soviet Radio, 1919-1970, and reported the following:
My book can be summed up as an attempt to explain what radio can tell us about Soviet culture and politics more broadly. The Soviet regime policed its media and propaganda network very closely. It was particularly anxious about the possibility of error and political incorrectness in the largely ‘live’ medium of broadcasting. From the late 1920s radio scripts were subjected to overbearing preliminary censorship. This rather begs the question: did radio have any significance independent of the narrow agenda of the Party - wasn’t it just subservient or parasitic?

In a nutshell, my argument is that, even in an oppressive one-party state that is determined to eliminate ambiguity, the message is shaped by the medium. The arrival in power of the Bolsheviks coincided almost exactly with the invention of sound broadcasting: a ‘newspaper without paper and without distances’, as Lenin called radio in its very early days. By the early 1930s radio was starting to establish itself as an everyday presence in the lives of Soviet urbanites: the Soviet authorities had opted for diffusion networks rather than wireless radio, which meant that 80 per cent of Soviet listeners were getting their radio through wired receiver points in their workplaces or dwellings (which, in the 1930s and for some time afterwards, were often communal).

Radio was a boon to Soviet propagandists for the fact that it could reach even a weakly literate audience and could bring public discourse right into people’s homes. But it was also path-breaking because it could communicate events in a new, remarkably vivid way: in ‘real time’, and from the place where they were occurring. In the 1930s the Soviet media kept the population at a fever pitch of excitement and anxiety. One aspect of this was show trials and the never-ending quest for ‘enemies’; the murder of Sergei Kirov in December 1934, which set the USSR on a steep downward path to terror, was a Soviet ‘JFK moment’, and one that many people experienced at the radio receiver point. But another aspect was ‘socialist sensationalism’: the notion that Sovietness was compatible, even synonymous, with heroism and adventure. Page 99 is about how radio conveyed some of the ‘distance-conquering feats’ of the 1930s: the first unbroken transatlantic flight, the construction projects that extended from deep underground to the summit of the gargantuan planned Palace of Soviets.
Learn more about Russia in the Microphone Age at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue