N 4-5, 10.07.2001
BROADCASTING IN TATAR:
My work for the Tatar-Bashkir Service of Radio Liberty
On December 27, 1991, a Lufthansa airplane was taking me to Munich. My eyes were teary because I was sad to leave New York, a city where I have always felt at home and where I met some of the most wonderful and remarkable people in my life. From the airport in Munich I took a cab to my new home - an apartment in a high-rise building on Elektrastrasse, in a part of the city called Arabellapark. The Radio covered all the expenses for my move. I spent all of 1992 in Munich, with the exception of a few weeks in October when I flew back to New York and then to Barbados for a vacation.
My typical day in Munich was quite similar to an ordinary working day in New York. Every morning on my office table I would find one or two copies of articles from Western (mostly American and British) newspapers left for me by Mr. Agi. From these articles I would prepare Tatar scripts. In the early afternoon I would go to a recording studio and read the scripts into a microphone. After that there would be time to relax, to go to the Radio’s cafeteria for lunch, read some Russian and Tatar newspapers or watch Russian TV.
It was exciting to witness the disintegration of the Soviet empire, especially by watching TV programs directly from Moscow. It was exciting but not surprising. I had always believed that the USSR would eventually collapse. I could not comprehend why the CIA had failed to predict the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the Russian-language daily in New York, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, published my article entitled "Would Tatarstan Become an Independent State?" in which I predicted the disintegration of the USSR. The same year, my letter, predicting the disintegration of the USSR, was published in a Chicago newspaper "In These Times". The editorial comment, attached to my letter, argued that the Soviet republics should be allowed to secede from the USSR only after a very lengthy process of negotiations and referenda. I could not understand why a Socialist newspaper would tolerate colonialism so willingly.
I did not expect that Tatarstan (an autonomous republic within Russia) would remain a part of the Russian empire after the Soviet Union’s collapse. To my surprise, the Soviet constitution (which distinguishes "union republics" from "autonomous republics" by granting the right to secede only to the former) was generally accepted as the legal framework for the disintegration of the USSR, even though the disintegration itself was purported to be an act completely and totally invalidating the Soviet constitution. Tatarstan's failure to achieve independence was disappointing, especially because Tatarstan had a strong pro-independence movement before the Soviet collapse, whereas some of the "union republics" that were granted independence, did not.
Nevertheless, political transformations in Russia affected Tatarstan and the Tatar diaspora in many less dramatic ways. Due to the relaxation of the travel restrictions, some prominent Tatars from Russia were able to visit Radio Liberty. The visit of mufti Ravil Gainutdin, Chairman of the Council of Russia’s Muftis, was one of the most memorable events of 1992. A very distinguished-looking, reserved man, sheik Gainutdin chose his words very carefully and spoke more like a diplomat rather than a religious leader. His blonde wife, dressed in an elegant black dress, could have passed easily for a Western business woman. Most of his time in RL mufti Ravil Gainutdin spent with Mr. Agi, who treated him as a personal guest.
Another distinguished visitor to the Radio was a renowned Tatar writer Taufik Aidi. Mr. Aidi spent much of his time talking to the members of the Tatar-Bahkir Service. Later, he wrote an article about RL for the Tatar magazine "Kazan Utlary" (The Lights of Kazan). It was the first time that the Tatar-Bashkir Service of RL was presented in a positive light in the Tatar press.
The visit of one prominent Tatar to RL passed without the Tatar-Bashkir Service being even aware of it. Former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces who at some point served as the chief military advisor to the Najibulla regime in Afghanistan, General Makhmud Gareev, was interviewed by the Russian Service of RL. Surprisingly, Makhmud Gareev was not told of the existence of the Tatar-language department at the Radio and the Tatar-Bashkir Service was not notified of his visit. It was not clear whether this happened because of the Russian Service's ignorance of the general’s ethnicity or because of its reluctance to share "the scoop".
In Munich I was not aware of any journalistic rivalry among the Radio’s language services. But I was glad that some of the programs that we broadcast were unique. For example, the Tatar-Bashkir Service was the first (and, to my knowledge, the only) language department at RL that dared to broadcast a program totally sympathetic to gay and lesbian people. The program advocated complete equality for homosexuals and mentioned a number of famous people who are gay. I am proud that I was the author of that script. Farida, who had many gay friends in Finland, did not have a slightest problem reading my script over the microphone.
Unlike some other departments at RL, the Tatar-Bashkir Service was like a big family. We frequently invited each other home and knew about each other’s personal lives. Sometimes Hairettin would take us in his mini-bus (which I called "Hairettin-mobile") to some beautiful place outside Munich, such as Neuschwanstein, the 19th-century fantasy castle built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria. During weekends my friends and I would frequently go hiking. My favorite trip was to take an S-bahn (a suburban train) to the town of Starnberg in the outskirts of Munich and then walk for 5 hours to the town of Herrsching, from where we would take a train back to Munich. I remember being always amused by the unusually long name of one of the train stations that we passed: Unterpfeffenhoffen-Germering Haltestelle.
In March 1992, a friend and I visited Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic that became independent just a few months before our visit. The border guard at the town of Jesenice could not understand why two Americans would want to visit a place that was still considered dangerous for tourists. He told us that we were the first Americans to pass through his checkpoint since Slovenia achieved independence. The border guard was also not sure about what to do with our documents: in addition to the country's visa, he also affixed to our passports the official seal of the town of Jesenice. It was thrilling to see Ljubljana which was gradually assuming the role of the country’s capital. Slovenia’s birth as an independent nation was evident in many little details, such as the absence of coins (although the national currency, the tolar, was already in circulation). "Hvala lepa!" (Thank you very much!) was the first Slovenian phrase that we learned. Such trips -- to Slovenia, Austria, Italy or other parts of Germany -- were one of the advantages of living in Munich.
Because of such advantages -- high salaries, opportunities to travel, job security, etc.-- very few employees ever left the Radio voluntarily, despite its smoke-filled corridors, petty squabbles within language services and stressful work. It is not surprising, therefore, that most employees were very nervous about the rumors of the possible closure of RFE/RL or its merger with the Voice of America. Communism’s collapse meant that the Radio’s raison d'ętre had to change. In 1993, the former President of RFE/RL, Gene Pell, delivered a major speech to the Radio’s employees, trying to soothe their fears. Nevertheless, one could easily feel that the Radio's employees were demoralized and pessimistic about their future. In contrast, the Radio’s former employees, who frequently visited the offices of RL, seemed to be content and optimistic. The former members of the Tatar-Bashkir Service, men in their 70’s or 80’s, such as Ali Akish, would frequently come to the office, inquire about our work and give us friendly advice or simply share their wisdom with us. From them we learned a lot about the early history of the Radio, about the Tatar-Bashkir Service's former directors Maksudov (1950’s), Aksam Yusufoglu and Shihabetdin Nigmati (1960’s).
I hope that some time in the future there will be a museum in Kazan, devoted to the history of Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service and that the most prominent part of the museum will be dedicated to Garip Sultan, the person who has done more for the benefit of the Tatar people than any other Tatar emigre, with the possible exception of the Tatar nationalist Gayaz Iskhaki.
On March 18, 1993, I resigned from the Radio to resume my personal life in New York. My decision to leave the Tatar-Bashkir Service was painful, and I still miss my work and my former colleagues very much. Nevertheless, I am quite happy in New York and only wish that I never had to make such a painful choice.
I'm back again in New York.