"The following is a complete, unedited, unverified interview, portions of which were utilized in the Red Files PBS broadcast. Statements therein are the sole opinion of the interviewee, and do not reflect the views of PBS, DDE or Series and Web Site producer Abamedia, which are not Responsible for the interview content."
Interviewer: Joe could you tell us about when you first started Mailbag, what the show was about?
Adamov: Well, I actually started the mailbag in Khrushchev's time. It was much easier already then than it could have been under Stalin. Khrushchev, at one of the party congresses, denounced Stalin's policy and Stalin's repressions. But it didn't go beyond that, beyond the denouncement. It became easier to write, and I started doing this program. It created a little bit of a sensation, because I did then what I'm doing now. I used to answer about anywhere from 15 to 20, to 25 questions on every program, anything from politics down to the price of a pair of trousers. I used to do the same thing then as I do now, and I try to alternate the serious questions with the everyday kind of thing.
Interviewer: Where were the letters coming from? What kind of people did you get?
Adamov: Well at that time I worked only in the North American service. All my letters were from North America, that is either Canada or the United States. Then they started a similar program for England and for Australia. Now we have one program going to the world in the English language. It's the world service in English. So I get letters from everywhere. I get letters from the Philippines, I get letters from Sweden, I get letters from, oh, God knows, South Africa, anywhere.
Interviewer: Back in the Cold War, I don't know if you can really answer this or not but, can you remember the kinds of things that American's in the West used to be interested in finding out about the Soviet Union?
Adamov: Well, naturally there, you see, a person reads something in his newspaper concerning current politics, or he sees something in the newsreel on television. And he naturally asks the question, "Is this really so, or explain to me how this happens in your country?" and so on. I did my best to answer them. As I've said, you had to follow, toe the line, the official party line. But of course since we were broadcasting in English and not in Russian, there was a lot of chance to sort of, you know, stick in your own ideas, your own little thoughts here and there. Some of it was cut out but a lot of it would remain. And that's what people liked. People realised it wasn't the official formal party line from yesterday's Pravda. I used to do most of the recording based on a script that I scribbled. It was about 30, 40, 50 percent impromptu.
Interviewer: Can you tell the story about the guy who wrote to you saying, "Who's stronger America or...?"
Adamov: Oh, yes. Well, everything that I used to do I used to do straight in English in those days. Of course that was only natural. But would you believe it, it was all translated into Russian, for the censor to censor, because the censor didn't know English, so it had to be translated back into Russian. Well, anyway, there was a question from a student, I think it was in America, who asked me, "Who is richer, the United States or the Soviet Union?" I said, "Well naturally you're richer." But that was just the time when Khrushchev said that we, in 20 years time, will be the richest country in the world, and so on and so forth. I had to toe that line, and I said, "You know, we're travelling at the speed of a jet plane, you're travelling at the speed of a piston engine plane, and we'll catch up and then overtake you." What do you know? The censor cut it all out. Not only the answer but he cut the question out. So I came to him, and I said, "Would you please explain to me why you cut it out." He said, "Where did you get the idea that they're richer?" I said, "Everybody knows it." He says, "I don't know it." "Well," I said, "Khrushchev, that was only a year ago in the States, kept saying it all the time." He says, "He said it there, but not here." I said, "But everything he uttered there was reported verbatim in this country, exactly to the comma, and the full stop." When I had him against the ropes he said, "Well, in that case, my party conscience won't allow me to let this through." I said, "I'll bring something tomorrow that'll make mincemeat of your party conscience." "He said, "I'd love to see you do it."
So next day I brought him a book that's standing on my shelf till this day, called Let Us Live In Peace and Friendship. It is a collection of Khrushchev's articles, speeches, interviews, press conferences and so on. And there in black and white, and I'm quoting verbatim, Khrushchev said, "Only a fool cannot see that America is powerful and rich." And I said, "I don't quite understand whom Khrushchev had in mind when he said that." The man turned pale and he says, "All right let it go." Some deal.
Interviewer: Tell me the story about when the censor wrote "Fascist rubbish?"
Adamov: Yeah, yeah. Well, every week or two we used to have what we used to call a production meeting. It was quite a useful thing. We used to get together and discuss things concerning our everyday work. There was an old fellow who was called, what was he called, a literary editor whatever that meant. In other words he dealt with theatre, with the movies with art, with literature and so on. In one of his articles he wrote something that was cut out by our Editor in Chief. He gets up and he says, err, he addresses our Editor in Chief and he says, "Michael Alexandrovitch why do you cut out everything I write?" He says, "Well you learned to write like a human being. Learn to write decently, then I won't touch anything." "But," he says, "last time I only wrote that the First World War gave an impetus to aviation, despite the losses of millions of lives. And the Second World War gave an impetus to atomic energy.' And you crossed it out and wrote on the margin fascist theories.' But I didn't invent that." He says, "Well I don't care what idiot invented it!" "I got it out of a book," he says. "I don't care what idiot wrote that book that you got it out of," he says. "But it wasn't an idiot, my friend," he says, "It was Joseph Stalin." I don't think I ever in my life saw a man turn so pale. But he was an honest old geezer that literary editor. He did not turn that paper in with the words fascist theory' on the margin to the party committee or God forbid the KGB. Because having written on the margin fascist theories' to Stalin's quotation, it would have been tantamount to signing your own death warrant.
Interviewer: Joe, was there any logic to the censorship; what was the point of censorship?
Adamov: Well (laughs), a fantastic question! What was the point to the whole system? The point of censorship is that you wouldn't deviate one word from the official party line. And they were pretty strict you know. They were all under the, what do you call em, the KGB. As I've said, my programme had to be translated into Russian for the censor to pass. But then things became, a bit easier under Khrushchev and our Editor in Chief, a progressive soul, if I may call him that, said, "You won't have to go through the censorship. I'll sign whatever you do, and it'll go on the air." And they stopped translating it, thank God.
Interviewer: We'll go onto the radio. Did you listen to Western broadcasts and why?
Adamov: Well, during the war I did write here at the radio. All the radio sets were taken away by the officialdom. But after the war the sets were given back to the people. They were taken away so you wouldn't listen to German propaganda you see. After the war they were given back to you. But what happened was they started jamming all the programs wherever they may come from, in Russian. But I had it easy because I used to listen to the BBC in English, which was not jammed. But they spent about as much money on jamming foreign stations as on broadcasting from here.
Interviewer: Why were these broadcasts seen as a threat?
Adamov: Well, because the official propaganda told its people one thing, and from abroad, be it from London or from New York or whatever, or from Germany, they heard the true end of the story. That was it. They heard what was actually -- they wanted to know the actual state of affairs; they wanted to know the truth. On this or that problem, on this or that subject, or this or that happening in the news. It was only natural they wanted the true story, and the only way to do it was to tune in a foreign station, but everything in Russian was jammed.
Interviewer: How important was radio as a means of communication for Soviet and American people during the Cold War?
Adamov: Well, during the Cold War, as for the American people, I don't think our programs were any too important to them for the simple reason that in the United States, and I've been there many times, very few people have short wave sets. I don't know why. Maybe it's because of their sort of insular policy, they're sort of, you know, stay-at-home kind of policy, which used to prevail at one time. I know that people in Europe and in Britain, particularly, there were more people with short wave sets.
Interviewer: Joe, how important propaganda was in the Soviet Union?
Adamov: Propaganda was all-important for the people to believe in what they were told, for the people to toe the line, for the people not to stray away if were influenced by, say, western ideology or propaganda. It was a sort of machine to mould your thought according to one style, one mould, one idea.
Interviewer: How do you think people feel now? Do they feel betrayed? All their history is different than what they've been told.
Adamov: Well, you've raised a very big question. What do people feel and what do they think today? I would say that the majority of the people believe today that they were misled by the Communist ideal, that it was the ideal system that would give them the higher standard of living in the world etc, etc, etc. I don't think the majority of the people believe that anymore. But there are plenty of people today, very unfortunately, in Russia today, at least 25, 30 percent of the people that want to go back to the old system. Why? Because it's a form of protest, nothing else. A form of protest against the low standard of living that this country is experiencing today. When the average wage is what, it's about a 150 dollars, that would be about a £100, £90 a month, naturally it's just barely enough for food very barely to keep body and soul together. They think of the times when the average pay used to buy more. Therefore they think back to the Soviet times. Not that they liked the Soviet system, standards of living were higher, that's why when people vote for Zyuganov, the Communist Party Boss, they're not voting for him, they're voting for a higher standard of living.
Interviewer: Do you think people liked the old days? Some people like the old days because there were clear enemies then.
Adamov: Well, you know, when I see it, it makes my blood boil. When I see these documentaries today of demonstrations and these old women and men, it's mostly women, with portraits of Stalin, it makes my blood boil. I don't know you see; I don't think they know what they're saying, and I don't know, what they're actually trying to force on the people. Actually, it is no secret to anybody that about 40 million people all told suffered in one way or another from Stalin's repressions. Deportations of whole nationalities, enforced collectivisation, the jailing of so-called rich farmers, and to be called a rich farmer all you had to have were two cows and a horse and you were a rich farmer and off you went to Siberia don't you know. Not exaggerating these are facts, and the Stalin repression's and the Gulag camps. And yet you find these old women marching around with portraits of Stalin, mostly elderly people because they feel they had a better deal in those days materially. The young people of course don't give a hoot in hell.
Interviewer: But that means propaganda really works.
Adamov: Well naturally you think the Nazi's print propaganda didn't seep home; of course, it did.
Interviewer: What about Soviet propaganda.
Adamov: Soviet propaganda, I think, found roots within the majority of the people. You've gotta give em credit. Well they didn't hear any thing else. You see the only thing that they could hear were short wave sets and listen to, say, the BBC or the Voice of America. That's the only thing. Other than that they heard nothing, but what they're own television, radio and newspaper said, and what their schools and colleges taught them. And if you dared say something else you get a free ticket to Siberia.
Man: Programme Moscow mailbag. (music)
And as per usual here is Joe Adamov to answer your questions, Joe let's kick off with this one, what is your national anthem?
Joe: Our national anthem is Glinka's Patriotic song. Most of you probably know Glinka is a Russian Classic composer, unfortunately err, the anthem to this day has no words and I call it the song without words.
Man: Maybe you can think of something.
Joe: Think up the words I'm not quite good.
Man: Well you're doing good with the jokes.
Joe: Cut that out!