BBC Russian's Seva Novgorodsev: 'The facts are the last thing they think of'

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4 2015

K.Rawlinson, The Guardian, Sep. 4th

BBC Russian's Seva Novgorodsev: 'The facts are the last thing they think of'

He is the man credited with introducing rocknroll to people living under the Soviet regime. On Friday, nearly four decades after he first went on the air, Seva Novgorodsev will finish the final edition of his BBC World Service programme.

The last broadcast of BBSeva will come from the London home of Russian culture, Pushkin House. There will also be a specially commissioned television documentary and a live conversation on the BBC Russian Facebook page.

As he prepares to sign off for the final time, the man who introduced Queen, David Bowie and Deep Purple to Soviet audiences decries what he says is a lack of cultural stimulation in his homeland, but tells the Guardian that a cultural movement is still going, underground.

There are a lot of activists who risk life and limb, he says. There are people who, because they are artists by temperament, disregard the authorities. They are in the minority but, still, they are present and they make themselves known. Whatever is left of the independent media notice and support them.

But, Novgorodsev says, the tonality of Russian media has gone down tremendously. It is all patriotic in a hysterical way and the facts are the last thing they think of.

He adds: Putin panders to the lowest common denominator. The propaganda says that, of course, Britain is in cahoots with America and all they think about is to downgrade Russia, destroy it, change the government etc. It reached a fever pitch, whereby logic and common sense [were] no longer present and that is a dangerous situation.

Novgorodsevs shows brought in Russian figures unpopular with the regime, such as Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, both since murdered. However, his airtime has been much reduced in recent years and, after the closure of the Russian radio service in 2011, restricted to just a downloadable podcast.

He says media organisations such as the BBC have a lot of work to do to combat the gulf between Russian and British perceptions of each other. It needs to be explained on a human level because you cannot fight facts with facts because they distort them the way they like, he says.

I grew up in Leningrad, [now] St Petersburg, which is part of me it is part of my DNA. But what is left is just architecture buildings and few friends. The people who inhabit the city are different. I dont recognise them as people who I used to know.

There was an influx of people from some other places and the intelligentsia of Leningrad left. And people who I meet, they are slightly shrivelled up. Somehow, life makes them smaller.

It is not as civil as it used to be it is cruder, it is rougher and you have all sorts of people who you would never see before in Leningrad.

Novgorodsev, born Vsevolod Borisovich Levenstein, was awarded the MBE for services to broadcasting in 2005. He became a British citizen in 1984, after leaving the USSR in 1975 and first making his way to Italy. A well-known jazz musician in his homeland, he was recognised by a BBC staff member, who convinced him to seek a job with the corporation.

Fate chose me, I didnt plan, he says. I was destined to go to Canada and work, probably, in the merchant fleet.

After a years delay while his travel documents were first lost, then found again by the Italian authorities, he arrived in London in 1977 to start his broadcasting career.

He began presenting BBC Russians pop music programme from London, which he used as a vehicle to introduce British and American music back in the USSR.

He also developed the informal, informative style for which he became known. I started in a very simple way, he says. If there was 22-second intro to a song, I had 20 seconds to fill an ordinary DJ style. But when letters started to arrive, they wanted something different. They didnt want just an ordinary top 10 programme, they wanted information, background, what was happening and why is this and why is that.

Slowly, we progressed to this huge literary-style series about 55 programmes on the Beatles or six hours on Jethro Tull and 12 hours on Led Zeppelin. Luckily, by the mid-1980s, the books started to arrive, so someone had done the basis for me. I was serialising them and it became quite popular.

He fronted the weekly music and chatshow Sevaoborot from 1987 and, since 2003, he has had the daily live current affairs programme BBSeva.

The moderate success that befell me was that I talked to people like friends do, then you get through, he says.

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