Music History

The DJ Who Helped Kill the USSR

If you’ve done any reading on the fall of the Soviet empire and the failure of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, you’ll have come across theories on the part played by The Beatles in undermining the official realpolitik with their subversive music. (Go here and here for that story.)

While the Beatles, the Stones and any number of metal bands did their best to ruin the USSR, some credit must also be sent towards Seva Novgorodsev.

Wait. Who? From the BBC:

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.

A mellow late-night-radio voice floats over the horn introduction to Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke. “Good evening and welcome from London,” come the words in Russian. “Today we will focus on the most popular records of the week, both in Britain and the United States.”

With those words, broadcast late in the evening on Friday 10 June 1977, Seva Novgorodsev began his career as the BBC’s DJ for the Soviet Union. Over the next four decades, he would become an unofficial – and definitely unwelcome – ambassador for Western popular culture behind the Iron Curtain.

In the 1980s it’s thought that 25 million people regularly tuned their shortwave radios to hear Seva’s crackly broadcasts of David Bowie, Queen and Michael Jackson on the BBC Russian Service. The influence of these programmes, arriving at the end of the Soviet era, was enormous.

At that time, his four-letter first name was as well known in Russia as the three-letter name of the organisation he worked for.

Always well dressed, with – latterly – a mane of white hair, Seva cut a striking figure in Bush House, the World Service’s stylish but shabby HQ until 2012. But now, at the age of 75, he is retiring – his final show was on Friday.

When he left the Soviet Union, Seva was a successful jazz musician, who had learned the saxophone and clarinet at naval college. After paying 500 roubles each – about five months’ salary – he and his wife were permitted to exchange their Soviet passports for pink exit visas in 1975.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37921 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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