Happy 80th to BBC Russian Service legend: Seva Novgorodsev

I think it’s worth taking a break from podcasting posts to honor the reason I even got into podcasting, why my life has any trajectory at all following multiple downswings and failed attempts at becoming something that I really didn’t want to be (a.k.a. doctor). Seva Novgorodsev, a name you probably haven’t heard outside the Slavic world, is a living legend as a former radio DJ for the BBC Russian Service from 1977 to 2015 when he retired. At the peak of his career, he had approximately 25 million listeners across the USSR and many of these were youth who created a fan club for not just him but the rock music he broadcast. This was a big deal as far as pre-social media networking goes, particularly in a communist society thought to be grey and lifeless. As I learned, however, color did exist in the USSR in various cultural expressions. But universally, the main window to the rest of the modern world was radio, through which people could hear western broadcasters such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and of course the BBC.

My discovery of Seva Novgorosdev’s legacy and impact on the Russian youth, particularly, of the late Soviet period changed the course of my adult life. And so, beyond just wishing him a very happy 80th birthday (July 9th), I would also like to recount how I heard about him in the first place–living as I was in the middle of the U.S.–and what our initial correspondence was like in fall of 2015, following his retirement. I also want to add that while 2020 has been grotesquely repressive (as it has for most people in the world), 2019 was filled with the most memorable moments of my entire life, including but not limited to meeting Seva Novgorodsev in person when he visited little ol’ me here in Austin, TX and spent the week of my birthday with my family and me (best birthday ever, no joke).

But that’s a whole other story. As for how I initially connected with Seva…

Seva Novgorodsev at Bush House in London. Photo Credit: BBC

In early fall of 2015, my life was on a major down swing; I’d lost the tempo somewhere in the B section and floundered in a sea of dangerous free time which made me sink against my will into a deep depression and therefore a small closet space only I occupied for hours on end. My husband, enabler, and savior was my only pulse but even this was fading through no fault of his. I was in my very own mental black box. There was no obvious oppression except a lack of money and resources and family support and, therefore, freedom.

So, I lived tunelessly. And I wrote tirelessly to escape. Escape parents who were insistent on my becoming something I couldn’t become, three wonderful children who deserved better than I could provide, and a society that was bent on telling me I needed to conform in order to succeed. Money equaled success. Lack thereof equaled failure. And I was quite obviously failing. The Almighty Dollar served as the weathervane of my righteousness for my parents and relatives in the Bible Belt. Since I didn’t have much by way of liquid assets, I had to be morally bankrupt too, right? Anyway, this is a tiny vignette of the situation I was in when I came across the BBC article online that changed everything for me, though not right away.

In 2015, I am not a consumer of world news—any world news at all—except wherein relevant to whatever I was writing, and only curated for the topic or region of focus. It’s a sad world, after all—I get it. I don’t need headlines to tell me that. The only thing I have never abhorred is listening to NPR or BBC on the radio specifically in the car, but this is because I was programmed to feel comforted by their particular midrange drones from a young age, thanks to my father who listened to nothing else with more religiosity except his preacher on Sundays. Even so, there was nothing on my docket that necessitated I navigate to the BBC’s website on my phone or elsewhere and certainly nothing that required me to look up Cold War-era radio DJs. What on earth for? (I was writing horror at the time for some small-town Atlanta director.) So, believe me when I tell you that one September day all that happened was I picked up my phone and found a happy little pop-up on my screen (from Google) which suggested I check out this story from the BBC that “might interest” me. Still, I would never have clicked if not for the title of the article: “The DJ Who ‘brought down the USSR’”. I screwed up my face, thinking that’s a ridiculous headline, too fantastical to believe. But there was a part of me that wanted to believe it was true and to find out why it was true. In my mind, ‘DJ’ meant music and music was me. So it was actually relevant.

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34157596

Moscow, July 1990 Seva pictured dead center

Obviously, Google knew me so well by then that it picked up on the small references to jazz in the BBC article by William Kremer and thought—by Joe!—user 6,606,980,150 temporarily located in Tulsa, Oklahoma—where she does not belong—could benefit from a distraction. But this was no mere distraction. This was a trajectory. A key change.

I started to read and found myself growing excited. I gleaned from this five-minute article that here was an incredible story that just begged to be told. Now, I tend to have flights into fantasy, and I also tend—just a little—to get very animated about a thing which I may or may not drop later—like ten seconds later. So, as I was acutely aware of this fatal flaw in my personality, I didn’t immediately do anything about the story though it stuck hard in my mind and soul. I could feel a beat coming back.

That night, some 32,400 seconds after initially reading it, I brought it up with my husband, my sole guide in case I didn’t make that abundantly clear before. One of his special skills involves throwing my every stupid idea out the window, thus, saving me from my own, at times, self-destructive predilections. I said:

“I read about this Russian émigré today in a BBC article… He was a DJ for them… played rock music to the Soviet Union over the radio… I don’t know all the details, but the article said when he returned to Moscow in 1990 tons of his listeners were waiting for him at the airport, chanting his name. I think he had a fan club or something. Can you believe that?”

He said: “That’s nice, honey.”

“But I think it’s a great story, don’t you?”

“Hm. Maybe.”

“But don’t you see it as a movie or something?”

He thought about it. “Could be. What’s the angle?”

My eyes bulged. “What do you mean what’s the angle?! The angle is obvious!”

Ugh. Sometimes I get so frustrated with him because here I have a vision—or think I do—and it requires me to explain to him in logical terms (who needs logic?!) why a thing makes sense to me and continue to answer why five times until he’s satisfied. But if I’m in a state, and I’m often in a state, I have a hard time sputtering words in a coherent manner. I tried though:

“Oh, come on, he was, like, I mean, he’s still alive, just retiring—but he sounds amazing! The article said he introduced bands like Queen and Prince and—”

Why can’t I think of any bands at all? Oh yeah, because I’m in a ‘state.’

“And! He was a jazz musician,” I exclaimed, grabbing onto that for dear life. “A tenor saxophonist who was, like, famous in the USSR before he emigrated to the UK.”

Despite my inarticulateness, my husband starts listening on that note. You see, he’s a tenor saxophonist, and jazz itself is the reason he and I met and married. (I know, it’s so sweet, it’s sickening.)

“Alright,” he said at length as we were taking our nightly stroll. “I’ll read it when we get back…”

So, he read it, made his ‘huh that’s interesting’ face, and gave me back my phone. I could tell he wasn’t un-impressed, exactly, just being a very stable sort of fellow, he wasn’t just going to go bat crazy like me and say ‘Woo! Let’s go all in!” especially when there was nothing to go all in with. I still didn’t know why I was so entranced with the story, why it was buried in me like a hatchet into a tree trunk. But it was and that’s that. I have a feeling it was something about the 25 million listeners Seva had at the peak of his fame. I’m very much about big ideas and world-changers, and his legacy fit my itch for large-scope, sweeping storytelling.

My husband recommended I sleep on it—“You know how you are.” Yeah, I do, I did.

So, morning came. My husband and I took two-thirds of the kids to Whole Foods because even broke people need to eat healthy (or pretend to eat healthy), and somewhere between his ramen soup and my spirulina smoothie, I burst out, “I can’t get it out of my mind!”

“What?”

“The DJ thing! The—what do you think?!” I asked, eyes bulging.

“Okay, so, then send it to Mark. See what he says.”

‘Mark’ was (is no longer) my agent for all things Hollywood. A native Texan, he’d picked me up after I won a major screenwriting contest with a screenplay that came out of one book and turned into another book. We had a strange love-hate relationship, but for this one thing I will always bless him. So, right then and there I hurriedly sent of an email to “Mark”, getting the ‘okay’ from the husband before I hit send. Then, came waiting… It was a long two minutes.

Mark got back with a very straightforward “Heck yes. Love it.”

I unapologetically squealed to express my excitement. Oh, that beat was back, I could feel it. Before I knew it, I’d gone from reading an article to emailing the DJ himself to talking on Skype.

———- Forwarded message ———

From: Seva Novgorodsev

Date: Thu, Sep 17, 2015 at 3:13 PM

Dear Michelle,

I love your vision of the film… 

After the triumph of July 1990 in Moscow we go back to 1977. London, in a working borough of Camden, I bought a ruin of a house with a sitting tenant (protected by English Labour Law).

The tenant, Mr. Stanley Pitt, moved into this house in the 1930s when he was a boy of 9. [He was] Completely asexual, a loner with no family, a trade union activist, and a member of the Communist Party! (We would need Polansky as the director to convey the horror of this Dickensian situation.)

I could not afford a builder and was slaving away every night after work, moving around London on an old bicycle to save money. Tired, dirty, smeared in plaster.

Mr. Pitt, always on the dot, at 7.30, used to go to his pub around the corner where he spent all his adult life. Always whistling, merrily and in tune.

Always saying to me the same sentence (with a dose of sarcasm): “Enjoying yourself?” 

And I thought: I ran away from communism only to find it downstairs in my house!

What is our time difference? Are you in the East Coast? That would be 5 hours behind the GMT.

Shall we pencil the Skype conference for Saturday 15.00 GMT (your 10 AM) for half an hour?

My Skype address is ————————

My best,

Seva

As the email stated, we met on a Saturday, no video or anything, so I can’t say I really laid eyes on him until March 23rd, 2019 when he came to Austin, Texas and I had the privilege of picking him at the airport. But here is a snippet of that first conversation:

[Sound FX: the Skype ringtone nobody loves but everybody knows]

Seva: Hello, Michelle. It’s Seva.
Me: Hi Seva. Do you want to do video or…?
S: Probably be a distraction.
Me: Okay, then let’s not do video… So, how are you doing?
S: I’m doing fine, thank you. Just had the BBC radio forced into this morning. I had the Saturday Live, an international program. You might just listen to it in podcast form. Anyway, it’s one and a half hours. But I have a decent slot there.
Me: And it’s called Saturday Live?
S: Saturday Live, yes. BBC Radio 4.
Me: I will definitely listen… Are you tired after doing that?
S: No, no. I had a little rest. It’s early, so I had to get up at 6.
Me: Well, I was reviewing your website [seva.ru] last night trying to parse through the Google translation. (*At this point I hadn’t learned a lick of Russian, much less even heard the language spoken or seen Cyrillic letters.)
S: It’s a huge site because it goes through many levels. By the way, it was all organized by the fan club… the champ who started it is a web specialist, a computer programmer at least, and he has since relocated to Hungary…

Here, I must stress that the site seva.ru is truly worth visiting whether you speak or read Russian or not. In 2015 I had no inclination to learn the language and still I managed to work through the information all right—thank you, Google. Furthermore, I didn’t see how it could possibly benefit me in terms of telling a story about a man who speaks English superbly. But again, I was wrong.

From Left to Right: Me, Seva, and Olga at an Italian restaurant in ATX, March 2019

Now, I must also point out that Seva’s mention of the webmaster is important, and something I resoundingly failed to latch onto at that first interaction due to, I assume, nerves or excitement. Anyway, the point is that this “champ” became pivotal to my project. His name was and is Sergey Pantsirev. And a few years down the road, he helped to shape what my research on Seva and his faithful listeners eventually became.

So, after Seva and I toddled through some pleasantries, I stumbled my way towards more concrete talk. Talk of the movie I had in mind, the framing I wanted for this story. I didn’t know then why he agreed to speak with me—a literal nobody with no Russian background or connections—but as time marched on, I discovered it was really all about the music. Jazz, specifically. We had that shared language, if nothing else… Now, back to the call.

Seva: The pivotal point actually happened in Rome [in 1975]. Because I arrived in Rome as a truly stateless person; we didn’t have our passports because the Soviets took them away from us. We arrived with just an exit visa. So, when I finally got my BBC contract and that happened also through a series of mystical coincidences, I could not cross the border and so I had to apply for an Italian travel document. Which they call titulo deviacho. And for that you need to travel to Rome and go to the police department—huge building with walls probably 20 feet thick—and it’s called Questura. So, you sit there in the queue for about 4 hours and then you are seen by one of the clerks—there’s about 100 of them in a big, big hall. And so he was filling in my papers as an application for this travel document and he asked for an address. My address was Via Umberto Cagni. Umberto Cagni was some sort of… naval admiral which Italians cherished the memory of, and so they called streets after him, all of the place, everywhere. And I lived on Umberto Cagni number 21. So, I said Umberto Cagni 21. And the clerk who was filling in the paperwork said ‘oh I also live on Umberto Cagni Ventuno’. But in some other town. He asked then, ‘Do you have children?’ I said, ‘yes’. My son has a Tatar name Renat. I said, “filio Renat.” He [the clerk] said, “Oh! I am Renato as well.” So, we had this pleasant giggle and then we parted company. He said the key phrase, which is “Settimana Prossima”. Come next week. So, I come next week, sit in the queue for four hours. Obviously, it’s a different clerk because there are so many of them. And he looks at me, not quite understanding why I’m there and said look there’s no response, and so you come settimana prossima again. And so, it went on week after week…

My then-wife, Gala, the Tatar beauty, didn’t think much of me in terms of potential or ability to organize things in life. She thought I was a weak sort of intellectual boy. So she said what the hell are you doing? All the people have gone already, it’s only you who goes week after week not being able to get the result!

So, in one of those weeks I was sitting next to apparently an American gentleman, about my age, 37. He was blonde, blue eyes and everything. And I was reading an English book. It’s my habit from the Soviet days. I was reading only in English to kind of shield myself from Soviet reality. You take out a book, you start reading and the Soviet system doesn’t exist anymore. So, I was reading it and he said, ‘oh you speak English’ blah, blah, blah. Apparently, he worked in Vatican as part of the American Baptist commission, and he worked in the film commission—there’s some strange jobs in this world. And he said, ‘oh, you’re Russian, I have five popular scientific films dubbed in Russian’. But because obviously he was a religious person these films had a religious undertone or rather the logical conclusion of the films was not towards science but towards some sort of creationist idea. I remember the first one it was dedicated to the red blood cell.

In order to show these films, we had to lure people in because in religious terms were all completely ignorant. And more because the Soviet system has been suppressing any bits of religious knowledge for years and years and years… All the church leaders were shot down, exterminated, etc. So… we offered free Bibles to people who come to these meetings, and if you offer something for free especially Bible because they were such a rarity in the Soviet Union, people started trickling in. The first meeting we had probably 4, it was just our neighbor, my wife, myself, and someone else.

This chap Joel had me interpreting for him, and he used to call me “My Interrupter”. To cut the long story short, several months later when I was leaving Italy, it was a fully-grown Christian mission with 11 people working there and film showings virtually every night…

So, this Joel started taking me around, meeting other people from other missions, giving me literature to read. Meanwhile, I go to Questura and I slowly realize that I probably will never leave Italy, because they can’t find my file, it’s been lost in the depths of Italian bureaucracy. And while reading all this literature that Joel gave me I gradually came to a logical conclusion about the, you know, the structure of the universe, the reasons for its existence, etc. Some kind of logical idea of a Creator… I said, “Okay, Joel, I accept” and [told him] just organize things as you see fit. So he baptized me in Rome in an old Baptist church near Piazzo del Popolo—beautiful marble building with a marble, little font but deep one (it’s you know, about your height). It’s a plunge pool. So I was wearing the white long shirt and he submerged me under the water as is the custom and it was very emotional, very sort of, memorable thing.

Next Wednesday, it was two or three days later, I go to Questura and by luck or by coincidence I come to see the same clerk who filled in my papers maybe a year ago. And he looks at me not recognizing and says well, settimana prossima. And then finally something clicked in his head. And he said wait. Umberto Cagni Ventuno. Filio Renat. Porque madona! And he opens the drawer in his desk, and I swear there is nothing there except my file. God knows how it got there. And he wrote on it big letters URGENTE. And we left not ten days later.

The celestial humor hasn’t ended there. I ended up presenting a pop program being a DJ. So, I looked at my old photographs and there was my first car which I bought off some Dutch students. It was a blue Beetle. You know the 60s with their nickel-plated bumpers and so forth. Now, the Dutch cars have two letters in the middle of their license plates—in their registration plates. And when I looked through the looking glass I could see those letters, they were ‘DJ’. And I’m telling you this because I think there was some sort of hand of fate.  So, I treated my job correspondingly. I realized I was put there by some sort of forces which not to be meddled with and you’d better take it seriously, boy.

So that episode in Italy for me was important because it was a turning point of my life in many sort of ways. And there was a difference between an ordinary person doing the job and a person knowing this something this something behind him doing the job. It was almost my little secret. I don’t know. It was some sort of pact with those forces. And I ascribed the success of my work to this factor very much. And at the bottom of this is this Joel, the Texan Baptist.
[Laughing]

Me: Wow, a Texan Baptist. That’s amazing…    

And that is how it all started for me. I was obviously unsuccessful at convincing any one else at the time that this movie had to be made, but biopics take years, sometimes decades to happen. So, I haven’t dropped it at all. Meanwhile, I did go the academic route and in 2018 made the commitment upon acceptance of course to plunge in to Russian Studies at the graduate level. And while there, at the University of Texas at Austin, I realized I had a cultural story to tell that had not been deeply explored by any academics in either radio or Soviet history. My advisors loved the idea and the chair of my department, Mary Neuburger, graciously invited Seva to UT for some talks and a week spent here in Austin at the end of March 2019. It was, as I stated at the beginning of this post, the best birthday I ever had (Seva and his sweet wife Olga surprised me by singing happy birthday and playing guitar). In anticipation of his arrival, I thought we had to do something radio-esque, and this is when I had the idea to launch a Slavic podcast in which we could bring him on as a guest. So began The Slavic Connexion, and if you understand Russian or just want a taste of the voice that Soviets listened to during the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, you can check out Seva’s episode here. We also did a reprise of one of his most popular radio shows Sevaoborot, wherein he and another professor at UT, Dr. Thomas Garza, talked over wine, just like in Seva’s long-running program. It was indeed memorable.

And this is how my true interest in the history of the USSR and fascination with radio and (quite naturally) podcasting began.

Happy 80th birthday, Seva!


Seva Novgorodsev’s Lecture at the University of Texas at Austin, March 2019

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