Vladimir Danchev: The broadcaster who defied Moscow
- 8 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
Broadcasters at a Russian television station protested this week about the country's actions in Crimea, echoing what a Soviet radio announcer did 30 years ago.
Two US-based presenters on Russia's English-language TV station Russia Today (RT) caused a stir recently by denouncing Moscow's military intervention in Ukraine.
Abby Martin told viewers of the state-owned channel that what Russia had done was "wrong". And Liz Wahl said she could not work for a broadcaster that "whitewashes the actions" of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Wahl resigned live on air.
Among seasoned Russia watchers, their exploits recalled the strange and sad story of Vladimir Danchev, the Moscow radio announcer, who in the 1980s caused consternation by calling Soviet troops in Afghanistan "occupiers".
Danchev, who was of mixed Russian and Bulgarian parentage and came from Tashkent in present-day Uzbekistan, was an English-language newsreader at Radio Moscow World Service (RMWS), an arm of the Soviet Union's vast propaganda machine.
According to his erstwhile colleague Vasiliy Strelnikov, Danchev was a prim, well-spoken young man, a long-standing member of the Communist Party and, to all appearances, a fine, upstanding representative of Soviet society.
In short, the very last person you would expect to defy the system.
Transcripts of RMWS broadcasts held by BBC Monitoring - the part of the BBC that sifts and analyses output from foreign media - reveal that at the start of the 1980s, Danchev was criticising Western foreign policy and talking up the anti-war movement in the UK, just like any other Soviet radio announcer.
Some of the reports he read were very similar to RT's critique of the West today.
But at the height of the USSR's military involvement in Afghanistan in 1983 something rather strange happened to Danchev.
He himself said in an interview with the magazine Sobesednik in 1990 that it all started with a typo - an errant "not", which turned the sense of the official Kremlin message on its head.
"I thought to myself - what if I leave it in and read it out just as it is. If the worst comes to the worst, I can always point to the misprint," he recalled.
From then on, he was on a slippery slope inserting ever more daring "misprints" into reports about the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.
In a podcast published in 2006, Strelnikov remembered listening to one of Danchev's bulletins as he was washing up in his kitchen.
Suddenly he heard him say: "Soviet occupiers have burnt down a village."
"I could hardly believe my ears," Strelnikov said.
Kremlin propaganda usually referred to the Soviet troops as the "limited contingent" of "internationalist warriors" bringing help to the "fraternal people of Afghanistan".
The phrase "limited contingent" is also being used by Russian politicians today to describe future possible military intervention in Ukraine.
When Strelnikov saw his colleague at work the next day, he nervously asked whether everything was all right following his "mistake".
But Danchev calmly replied: "I read out everything just as it should be." Colleagues realised that Danchev was on a "mission".
Danchev's subversive newscasts had somehow escaped the notice of the Kremlin propaganda bosses. But at BBC Monitoring, Soviet specialists soon realised that something was up.
Former BBC Monitoring journalist Phil Tanner recalls how, by analysing the Radio Moscow news output over a number of weeks, colleagues soon realised that Danchev had gone rogue and was inserting subversive messages into the official radio scripts himself.
This posed a dilemma.
In the Soviet Union presided over by former KGB chief Yuri Andropov such displays of dissent could have very serious consequences for the individuals concerned, Tanner pointed out.
But with the truth likely to come out shortly in any case, the BBC World Service went ahead and broke the story of the "dissident" newscaster on 23 May 1983. Strelnikov recalls hearing a bulletin talking about "radio sabotage" and "professional suicide".
As the news came down the wires, it spread panic among Danchev's colleagues.
"Where's Danchev?" they asked. "Oh no, he's on air!"
It was a moment of high comedy, before the inevitably grim consequences.
Danchev was apparently sent for treatment at a psychiatric hospital in his native Tashkent, though he is later said to have returned to RMWS in a rather humbler capacity. One former colleague said he worked in the gramophone library.
Other staff at Radio Moscow suffered dismissal or demotion as the result of his exploits, Strelnikov said.
Although hailed at the time by the press in the West for defying his Soviet masters, Danchev is a more or less forgotten figure today.
Strelnikov said in 2006 that he did not know what had become of his former colleague.
RT appears to be more forgiving of public dissent than its Soviet predecessor. Martin was back on air the day after her outspoken comments on Ukraine with criticisms of the US mainstream media for not speaking out against the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"But I do stand by my opinion and I stand by everything I said," she insisted.