BBG Watch Commentary
As Voice of America (VOA) English News website completely ignored the recent death of British-American historian Robert Conquest, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reminded its online, radio and television audiences of the great significance of Conquest’s research and his books, two of which, The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow are his landmark works. VOA Russian Service report on his death was short and pedestrian. Conquest was one of the most influential historians of the Soviet Union who documented for the Western world the extent of Stalin’s crimes now being once again largely denied or misinterpreted by President Putin-inpired Russian government’s propaganda and from nationalistic groups which support him. In 2005 Robert Conquest received the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.
RFE/RL Covers Robert Conquest Well
In The Daily Vertical, a RFE/RL video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday, RFE/RL’s analyst Brian Whitmore described Robert Conquest as a outstanding historian and writer who opened the eyes of many people in the West to Soviet crimes.
Of Voice of America’s foreign language services, it appears from an incomplete search that perhaps only the VOA Ukrainian Service devoted considerable attention to Robert Conquest’s unique role among Western historians of the Soviet Union. Millions of Stalin’s victims were Ukrainian peasants who resisted Soviet collectivization of agriculture. Most were starved to death. In the introduction to his book The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine (1986), Conquest wrote:
“Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian, Cossack and other areas to its east — a great stretch of territory with some forty million inhabitants — was like one vast Belsen. [the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp] A quarter of the rural population, men, women and children, lay dead or dying, the rest in various stages of debilitation with no strength to bury their families or neighbours. At the same time, (as in Belsen), well-fed squads of police or party officials supervised the victims.”
Pedestrian VOA Russian News Item
The Voice of America Russian Service posted online only a short five-paragraph news item about Conquest two days after his death and did not follow up with any further analysis of his groundbreaking work or any statistics on Stalin’s victims which are now being again denied, suppressed or downplayed in Russia under President Putin.
The pedestrian VOA Russian Service news item about Robert Conquest said nothing specific about his significant contribution to documenting and exposing the enormity of Stalin’s crimes and offered no details from his books or reactions to his death from such prominent Americans as former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz who said that “Robert Conquest set the gold standard for careful research, total integrity, and clarity of expression about the real Soviet Union.”
The VOA Russian Service news item provided no links to any previous reports, interviews or analyses dealing with Robert Conquest’s works, of which there have been very few in recent years in VOA Russian programs. A prominent Russian scholar of new media and independent journalist concluded in a study commissioned by the BBG in 2011 that the VOA Russian website had a “pro-Putin bias” at that time. Despite some improvements since then, internal and external critics say that the site still appears uneven in speed, quality, balance and objectivity and BBG and VOA missions-focus. This may be due to a combination of factors, including insufficient funding, mismanagement and lack of strategic editorial guidance from BBG/IBB. In 2011, the official evaluator Dr. Nikolay Rudenskiy, deputy editor of the independent Russian online media outlet Grani.ru, told the BBG:
“History also matters. There is an apparent scarcity of historical themes on the VOA site. Meanwhile, there is a growing interest in public historical debate in Russia, and the site shouldn’t stay away from it.”
Dr. Rudenskiy’s advice appears to be for whatever reason still ignored.
Both VOA and RFE/RL are U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities reporting to the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). Of the two, VOA is federal and RFE/RL is a non-federal grantee. According to information posted on the BBG official website, BBG’s International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) has a system for advancing collaboration and coordination across the BBG and providing strategic editorial guidance, but it appears to be broken. There has been a recent change in VOA’s senior management. IBB also has a new top management team, but some of the executives who have been in charge for many years still hold senior positions.
The VOA newsroom has been decimated due to massive diversion of resources and positions from VOA programs to IBB and VOA bureaucratic operations and jobs. Several experienced and talented VOA English reporters had left the organization due to what they said was massive mismanagement by IBB and VOA officials.
A few of VOA newsroom’s remaining reporters, have been preoccupied in recent days with their internal protests against “countering ISIS’ violent extremism.” They say that “countering” ISIS propaganda would be inappropriate for a journalistic organization. What “countering” means is not exactly clear, but their view does not appear to be widely shared among VOA foreign language services and, according to our sources, is rejected by RFE/RL and two other of BBG’s non-federal grantees, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN – Radio Sawa and Alhurra TV).
Why VOA English news website had nothing on the death of Robert Conquest is not known. There are a few possible explanations.
The remaining VOA newsroom reporters may have not known who Robert Conquest was, there may have not been sufficient staffing during the summer vacation period (or for that matter at any other time) to report on his death although that would not have taken much time, or someone may have concluded that Conquest was either not important enough or that reporting about him might appear as anti-Putin propaganda. Even ignorance of who Robert Conquest was would be inexcusable, while the other explanations would be horrifying if they were true.
TRANSLATION OF VOA RUSSIAN SERVICE NEWS ITEM: “Historian Robert Conquest, whose outstanding work on Soviet history shed light on the era of Stalinist terror, has died at the age of 98.
Conquest’s wife, Elizabeth Neece, said that her husband died Monday of pneumonia in Palo Alto, California.
Conquest has written 21 books on history, politics and international relations of the Soviet Union. His work “The Great Terror. Stalin’s purges thirties” remains one of the most influential works on Soviet history. The book has been translated into more than 20 languages.
For 28 years he was a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
As a renowned expert on Soviet history, politics and international relations, Conquest has been awarded the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Voice of America Russian Service did find time and resources to do and post on August 7, 2015, four days after Robert Conquest’s death, a 3-minute long video report on a cat fashion show in a New York hotel. Money for the show goes to animal shelters. But come on, couldn’t the VOA Russian Service also do something more about Robert Conquest and his groundbreaking Soviet crimes research which is being banned, ignored or distorted in Putin’s Russia?