Seva Novgorodsev (1990)

Few technologies have so revolutionized humanity and harnessed the power of the masses as radio. Although historians have written at length about the medium’s impact on the western world, radio’s revolution-inducing effect on the people of the Soviet Union has largely gone unstudied. Consider the fact that in a near instantaneous, geopolitical shock to the world, the USSR dissolved peacefully at the end of the Cold War. In a society where any dissent was “managed” through repression (or worse), why wasn’t the revolution violent? How did the people know what freedom even was? How did the youth cope with such an existential crisis of identity? A unique, cultural story highlighting the psyche of the Soviet people remains untold.

Any list of the BBC’s biggest radio DJs must include Seva Novgorodsev, famous all over the former Soviet Union for broadcasting pop music across the Iron Curtain and poking fun at the regime. On Friday, after 38 years on air, he hung up his headphones for good. ”

To this day hardly anyone from the streets of Moscow to Kyiv to Estonia, born before 1980, has any trouble understanding the question concerning a certain BBC radio presenter: “Did you ever listen to Seva?” Hate him or love him, everyone heard Seva Novgorodsev’s voice and name at some point from the 70s onward. The question I, as an outsider, couldn’t understand was why he became so popular, why people credit him today for changing their lives, and why (if his impact was ubiquitous) the West is so deaf to this intrinsically cultural marvel? Radio books upon radio books have been written, but very few mention Seva’s name, or if they do it’s only in recognition of his obvious achievements, what is documented in other words. But what isn’t documented is the memories of millions—things that will never be found in any archive in the world. And this is what I have tried to access. This is what I’ve tried to understand. Russia is not simply a cold mystery—it’s a series of locked treasure chests. But the keys are not in the Kremlin; they’re in the possession of the people themselves, freely given assuming anybody bothers to ask.

July 1990, Moscow. “The Triumphant Return” – Seva walking with his fans in Red Square.

About The DJ

In Cold War America, music was a powerhouse form for expression, but essentially an inalienable right. However, in Soviet Russia, jazz and rock were Western products marked as counterrevolutionary. As in other Communist countries, the restrictions produced a rise of acute creativity that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. Within the strange bubble of the Soviet Union, the people, particularly the youth, sought tunnels to the outside world—radio was the most prominent. “Enemy Voices” from the West spoke to the stifled youth, ministering, entertaining, and educating them. But the music played over the waves by a BBC DJ from Leningrad, Seva Novgorodsev, revolutionized the soul of the listeners, proving that sword and spear could not pierce hearts and minds as powerfully as the right song and voice coming in over the airwaves. 

Сева Новгородцев

Born in Leningrad on July 9th, 1940, Seva Novgorodsev was a masterful presenter with the BBC from 1977 to 2015. Considered a sage of rock ‘n roll, he introduced forbidden western popular music and culture into Soviet Russia through his radio programs. He developed a satirical style of presenting which turned Soviet-approved jargon on its head, subverting the USSR’s carefully constructed defense systems while avoiding political diatribes. The Central Committee of the Communist Party viewed him as an ideological saboteur, but despite KGB hounding and the murder of fellow BBC Bulgarian presenter Georgi Markov, Seva remained on the air for 38 years, acquiring well over 25 million listeners weekly. He received the Order of the British Empire in 2005 by Queen Elizabeth II and retired in 2015 with the unofficial title the “DJ WHO BROUGHT DOWN THE USSR”. But this book holds that Seva didn’t so much as bring down the USSR, but rather he raised up a generation of disenfranchised youth and taught them to laugh. To live.

Rok-posevy fan club samizdat cover from 1990 – artist rendering of punked-out Lenin