Peter Udell


Father Sergei Hackel began to edit the Russian Service's religious programme in the mid 1980s, at a time when the Service as a whole was flourishing, perhaps as never before. True, it had lost its best known voice: the outstanding political commentator, Anatol Goldberg. True, many of the staff who had kept the Service on air in the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s had retired. But many of its new programme makers, who had arrived in the 1970s and early 1980s, had become increasingly creative.

The presenters of the pop and jazz programmes — Seva Novgorodtsev and Leo Feigin — were carving out a high reputation, not only in Bush House where the Russian Service was based as part of the BBC World Service, but also in the Soviet Union. The coverage of books, theatre, film, art was increasingly authoritative, and was increasingly written in Russian by programme makers who were themselves significant authorities.

There were also exceptional broadcasts, perhaps most memorably Alexander Solzhenitsyn's historic reading in 1983 of his novel 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'. And the head of the Service, Barry Holland, who had himself been a creative programme maker, was an inspiration to his staff. It was, in many ways, a golden age.

The religious programme, too, became an integral part of this golden age, as Elisabeth Robson, who was responsible for this and other documentary programmes, remembers: 'With Sergei as editor the BBC’s religious programme was transformed, not so much in its constituent parts — readings from the Bible and semi-religious texts, a sermon, music from the Orthodox liturgy, news reports remained — as from Sergei’s approach and his general manner of broadcasting’.

‘He was’, says Elisabeth Robson, ‘himself a major scholar and a man of wide education and culture. He wrote illuminating commentaries on icons and was among the best and most subtle of thinkers about Russian Orthodoxy. His sermons immediately struck a new note for listeners — at once erudite and approachable. In this he resembled his superior in the Church, Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, the leading figure in the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain. Gradually, over the years, he introduced new elements to the programme: news from other religious groups in the Soviet Union, some of which were persecuted with even greater ferocity than dissident Orthodox believers, new books from which he read extracts, a regular contribution from Metropolitan Anthony, whose sermons remain legendary'.

And, as Liz Barnes, one of the small team of Russian-speaking producers who were central to the professionalism of the Russian Service’s output, and who worked with Father Sergei on the religious programme, told me: ‘Great changes took place in the programme in his years as its editor. He was an important figure in the ecumenical movement in Britain, which was reflected in his programmes. Our output became less of a «religious programme» and more of a programme about religion — though of course with a strongly Christian bias’.

In the 1960s, two decades before Father Sergei's arrival — in spite of the formidable contribution of Anatol Goldberg, and in spite of some original programmes such as Tony Cash's popular music shows — the Russian Service's programmes were, overall, less creative, less diverse than they later became. They relied much more on translations from centrally written World Service material than on original contributions written specifically for a Soviet audience, much more on scripts read in a studio than on interviews or discussions. This was, in part, because of a desperate shortage of staff and, in part, because the talents of some of the staff who were recruited were not in the field of creative broadcasting.

The religious programme in the 1960s, edited by Father Vladimir Rodzianko, certainly did contain much original material, especially his own commentaries on Russian Orthodox services, and news of the Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union — including the persecution of some of its members. But it was focussed very specifically on Russian Orthodox listeners. There was little coverage of other Churches, even those with many members in the Soviet Union. There was no coverage of religions other than Christianity. And, for Liz Barnes: ‘Father Rodzianko’s indifference to technical issues was extreme: the Lord would provide the medium for His message!’

In the 1970s, in the decade before Father Sergei arrived, the flowering of talents that was so evident in the following decade had already begun. Largely — though not exclusively — thanks to the Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, there was an unprecedentedly large number of new arrivals. True, none of those who arrived while I was in the Russian Service had been a professional journalist. But, given that the Soviet media were so cliché-ridden and that Soviet radio voices were so artificial, this was as I saw it an advantage.

It was, too, an advantage that they had such a diversity of backgrounds. There were, for example, engineers, teachers, a tennis coach, and even a leading fashion model, Mila Kuperman. There was also a distinguished art critic, Igor Golomstock, a novelist, Zinovy Zinik, a neurologist, Eduard Ochagavia, and a psychiatrist, Vladimir Eigenbrot.

Some of the programme makers, such as Aziz Ulugov and Efim Slavinsky, concentrated much of their efforts on high quality translations. Others, including Masha Slonim and Diran Meghreblian, were excellent all-rounders. Still others, of whom there are too many to mention individually, were eager to make their own original contributions.

A clutch of new programmes, launched in the late 1970s and broadcast every weekday, provided just these opportunities. One programme acquired the name Kompress: a review of the coverage in the day's British press — in editorials as well as in news stories and articles — of the Soviet Union and the countries of the communist world. It was, according to one of its editors, Efim Slavinsky: 'a tremendous step forward, because before that we would just dumbly translate the centrally written press review which was seldom relevant to our audience'.

Another of these opportunities was a daily look back at the Soviet press of fifty, forty, thirty, twenty, ten years ago. Though purely factual, its editor, Vladimir Eigenbrot, has told me: 'These programmes showed their listeners how they were lied to, deceived and manipulated’.

A third opportunity, often edited by Sylva Rubashova, was a daily literary programme in which she broadcast readings of authors who were shot or had died in Soviet prison camps, and of authors who, for one reason or another, were not published in the Soviet Union. These included some of the poems of Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Gumilev and Mandelstam, and novels by writers incuding Zamiatin, Lydia Chukovskaya and, of course, by Solzhenitsyn.

The religious programme lost Father Rodzianko in 1980 when he went to become a bishop in the United States. It gained Janis Sapiets, a pastor in the Latvian Lutheran church, and the head of a research unit in the World Service that specialised in analyses of developments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Janis Sapiets’ 1983 obituary in the Times describes him as 'a man of remarkable gentleness and moral excellence, who exercised an unobtrusive yet considerable influence on the BBC's broadcasts to Eastern Europe — in particular the Soviet Union'. It highlights his meeting with Solzhenitsyn after the writer’s expulsion from the Soviet Union, when Janis Sapiets was the only journalist whom he talked to, and of whom he said: 'I recognised you at once when you spoke'.

During his years as editor, Janis Sapiets extended the scope of the religious programme, and introduced coverage of denominations other than the Russian Orthodox — though at the same time he continued to have Metropolitan Anthony as a frequent contributor.

In the years I worked in the East European Service — from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s — and in the time I worked wholly in the Russian Service — from 1977 to 1979 — its programme makers helped me to become more aware of the importance of our work to our listeners.

Although it was impossible to conduct any audience research in the Soviet Union, what we heard from the few official visitors whom we met, and from people who succeeded, legally or otherwise, in leaving it, was of very widespread listening — and not only among the intelligentsia. Every dissident who reached the West — from Solzhenitsyn to Sakharov, from Brodsky to Bukovsky — had certainly been a listener. And one listener told Elisabeth Robson that he had been converted to a belief in God by listening to Metropolitan Anthony on the BBC.

I also became more aware in these years of the unacceptable face of Soviet power. On each visit I made to the Soviet Union — which I could only ever go to as a tourist — I listened evening after evening to the jammers trying to prevent its peoples from listening to Western broadcasts — the BBC's Russian Service included.

On one such visit I found — though not to my surprise — that I was being followed, not only in Moscow and Leningrad, but also in Tbilisi, Yerevan and Baku. And at the end of that same visit, at Leningrad airport, I found myself taken off to a room where four or five men in leather jackets questioned me… as well as body searching me and taking photographs of me with a blinding flashlight.

But my experiences in the Soviet Union were as nothing compared with those of my colleagues. All had been subjected to the huge volume of restrictions imposed by the Soviet authorities, and by the pettiness of a gigantic bureaucracy. Many of them had been victimised by the Soviet authorities when they had applied to emigrate to Israel — including by losing their jobs.

I shall, too, never forget two events that showed me the Soviet Union at its worst. One was when, after the death of his father, a colleague was refused a visa by the Soviet authorities to attend his funeral. The other was when, after the death of a young colleague in London, his parents were refused permission to come here for his funeral. It was as if the Soviet Union was trying to demonstrate its inhumanity, and trying to prove that it was, in spite of its huge propaganda offensive, the evil empire.

The Russian Service was, at this time, housed in crowded — and sometimes overcrowded — offices. Its programme makers did much of their work sitting behind ancient typewriters, or dictating their translations to Russian secretaries. On their night shifts they were responsible for translating and reading the news on both the late night and the dawn transmissions and, if possible, they slept for a few hours in dormitories, together with the night shift staff of other services.

There were, inevitably, arguments between colleagues — though, as far as I know, there was never any physical violence! There were, too, conflicts between these colleagues and their managers — including a one day strike in protest against one of my decisions…

But there was, at the same time, a remarkable degree of unity — and not only at the Russian Service’s Christmas parties. This was, perhaps, because so many of them had a shared past, and a few had even known each other in the Soviet Union.

There was also a shared purpose, in broadcasting a wide range of programmes, from world news to news about Britain, from news about the Soviet Union and its East European satellites to reviews of new plays and books and films, to listeners whose own media were heavily censored and hopelessly selective and biased. And, of course, these colleagues had experienced this censorship and selectivity and bias both recently and at first hand.

These same colleagues, who had arrived in the West with no work and no home, were for me a delight to be with. Many had an exceptionally rich Russian language, were extraordinarily intelligent, and were, in their very different ways, highly talented individuals with great potentials to develop as broadcasters.

I greatly enjoyed seeing them develop in their first months and then years in the Russian Service. Advancing from translation to adaptation to original writing. Broadening their skills from scripts to interviews to documentary programmes. I enjoyed in particular seeing them emerge in their own different ways as creative broadcasters.

Above all I enjoyed getting to know them as outstanding individuals and as good friends. Some invited me to their homes and introduced me to their families. With others I drank beer in Covent Garden pubs, and coffee in Bush House’s subterranean canteen.

Quite remarkably, perhaps, some of these colleagues still meet each other today — sometimes in twos and threes and fours, sometimes in larger groups. And I have, sometimes, the good fortune to be included in these meetings, over thirty years after we worked together… as well as lunching at his club, the Athenaeum, with one of them, Leonid Finkelstein!

At our first meeting in 1985, Father Sergei and I had lunch together in a restaurant near Bush House. Many years later we had dinner together. From these two all too brief encounters, and from our even briefer encounters in the corridors of Bush House, I remember a man who was immediately likeable, a man of phenomenal warmth and humanity and, for me, one of most memorable characters in the history of the Russian Service.