Guest Commentary by Marie Ciliberti, Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting (CUSIB –

How would the Voice of America (VOA) that I knew in bygone days have handled the event of the Greenpeace activists arrested and jailed by the Russian authorities in the Arctic six weeks ago? Among the detainees were the captain, Peter Willcox, a U.S. citizen, and Dmitri Litvinov, an American of dual Swedish-American citizenship. We know that the VOA of today, both the English News division and the VOA News website, as well as the VOA Russian Service, only gave cursory coverage of the incident — especially minimal on the U.S. angle of the story — while it made national and international news all over the globe. BBC and other public broadcasters in other countries focused sharply on the plight of their citizens jailed in Russia. VOA did not do any online reporting about the two Americans. [After criticism published by BBG Watch, this may have changed to some degree recently as far as the Russian Service is concerned , but there have been no noticeable improvements in news coverage so far on the VOA English website.]

Reflecting back, I could say with some certainty that the VOA of the past would not only have covered this international incident but also would have reached out to family members of jailed Americans and given a historical perspective on these events, in particular, focusing on the background of the Litvinov family. Quite a story. The kind that many reporters dream of finding. Not only an American story, but a Russian-American story and an international one.

If Pavel Litvinov had been interviewed by the VOA as he was by The New York Times and The Washington Post and most recently by Public Radio International (PRI), he would have told VOA about the history of the persecution of the Litvinov family and how the current government uses some of the same methods, modified for the new conditions, to stifle dissent.

Pavel, the father of the Greenpeace activist Dmitri (Dima) Litvinov, was a dissident and a political prisoner in Soviet Russia. He was expelled from the USSR in 1974 by the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. And now his son, Dmitri, sits in a holding cage imprisoned on the orders of the government taking its orders from the current Russian President, Vladimir Putin. The expulsion of the father, Pavel, followed his release from prison where he was incarcerated for his public protest in the Red Square to show solidarity with the Czechoslovak people following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops.

On a personal note, I vividly remember when Pavel Litvinov came to speak to a meeting of VOA Russian broadcasters after his arrival in the U.S. where he gave his frank opinion of VOA Russian broadcasts. There should be an interview or two with him in the VOA Russian Service archives. That is, if they even have any archives anymore.

During the recent remarkable series of events with the Greenpeace activists, the VOA was missing in action.

The New York Times had no problem finding Pavel Litvinov who now divides his time between the U.S. and Russia. He taught physics for many years in Tarrytown after his expulsion from the USSR. A New York Times reporter interviewed him: “Activists Feel Powerful Wrath as Russia Guards Its Arctic Claims,” by STEVEN LEE MYERS, The New York Times, Published: October 30, 2013.

The VOA English news website had nothing on the article. It appears that the VOA Russian Service never translated it and also did not report on it.

Most important, if VOA were still functioning the way it used to, VOA Russian broadcasters and perhaps a correspondent from VOA English News, would certainly have tracked down Pavel Litvinov on their own and interviewed him. They would have now taken some photos and may be shot some video for the website. They could have asked to make copies of some old family photos that would impress audiences in Russia and may be even Russian officials who decide the fate of jailed activists. The Russians have a strong sense of their country’s history, even if their knowledge of it is incomplete or inaccurate because of the regime’s propaganda. Five days before the New York Times report on the incident was published, The Washington Post printed an interview with Pavel Litvinov in which he issued a plaintive appeal for the release of his son. The Washington Post October 25, “My son, facing Russian prison for a peaceful protest” Both articles included many references to Russia’s history that is repeating itself in how Greenpeace activists and other protesters are treated by the current government.

In reportages, the VOA of yesteryear would have focused on the Litvinov family; thereby giving a glimpse into Russian history that many in Russia might not, even today, be aware of. These reports would have been interesting to listeners and online readers in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya, and Central Asian republics as well.

Greenpeace activist Dmitri Litvinov’s maternal grandfather was Lev Kopelev, a Soviet writer who spent 8 years in Soviet prison camps for his reports on the Soviet military’s pillaging and violence against the German population, including German women, during WWII. Dmitri’s paternal great-grandfather was none other than Maxim Litvinov.

Who was Maxim Litvinov? If you’re looking for any American connections, let’s start with the fact that he was the Soviet ambassador to the United States from 1941 to 1943 and that he played a key role in the lend-lease agreement. As USSR People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov had a more than collegial relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt. Historians believe that Maxim Litvinov was responsible, in no small measure, for the fact that the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in 1933.

See documents/personal correspondence between Roosevelt and Litvinov from George Washington University:

There are also historical accounts of Litvinov’s association with Walter Duranty, The New York Times correspondent in Moscow. In fact, Duranty accompanied Maxim Litvinov when he traveled to the United States where in the wee hours of the morning on November 17th, 1933, FDR and Litvinov signed the documents where the U.S. extended diplomatic recognition to the USSR and restored diplomatic relations between our countries. The next day, Walter Duranty filed a report on that historical event in The New York Times. There is also much more to tell about Duranty himself and his misleading reports on the famine in Ukraine, but that’s yet another story.

In 1938, Maxim Litvinov was removed as Commissar for Foreign Relations and replaced by Molotov prior to the signing of the secretive and controversial Ribbentrop-Molotov or Stalin-Hitler Pact. Later, because of Stalin’s growing paranoia toward the Jews, Litvinov fell out of favor. Several historical accounts even allege that Litvinov was assassinated by orders of Stalin in a staged car accident on New Year’s eve in 1951.

Altogether, quite an amazing story. As I said, the kind of story that journalists often dream of having the opportunity to report on.

Public Radio International also deemed the story important enough to have featured it together with an interview with Pavel Litvinov. See:

The arrest of the Greenpeace activists is an international story of such importance that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and 11 Nobel Peace Prize laureates and millions of people around the world are calling for the release of TheArctic30. But it was, evidently, not on the VOA management’s radar screen.

Another incredible story ignored by VOA. Another major blunder.


CUSIB member, Marie Ciliberti, worked at VOA for 34 years. As a language intern in the VOA Russian Service, she was detailed to the USIA PLASTICS-USA traveling exhibit and spent 8 months in the USSR. At VOA Russian, she wrote and hosted 3 jazz programs, including the popular CONVERSATIONS WITH CONOVER. After a stint in management in the USSR Division, she went on to Worldwide English Morning Programs. Since her retirement in 1995, she has been an elected member of the Executive Board of the AFGE-1812 employees’ union.

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