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Culture, Tyranny, and Universal Values

Culture, Tyranny, and Universal Values

What dictators loathe, we should nourish. This lesson lies at the heart of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s legendary story and mission today.

Jeffrey Gedmin

In Tatarstan, a republic of the Russian Federation, Kazan—on the banks of the Volga and Kazanka rivers—is an important cultural capital with universities, museums, and music schools. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s (RFE/RL) Tatar-Bashkir service recently reported that Russian authorities are ready to use local factories to produce Iranian drones. Debates stirred about the opening of a new military recruitment center as well.

It’s amazing what you learn through water cooler talk at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague.

On an elevator, I heard last week from an Afghan colleague about a summer concert in Berlin; Afghan musicians are raising money for artists struggling under the Taliban. In the snack bar, a Balkan service colleague tells me about growing Milošević nostalgia in Serbia. Over coffee on the rooftop, a Russian editor explains how the FSB pressures Russian theater directors. Failure to put the symbol “Z”—an indication of support for the war in Ukraine—above an office door can mean an actor gets drafted and sent to the front.

Culture matters. In 1933, the Völkischer Beobachter (the leading Nazi Party newspaper) wrote, “So long as an unpolitical, neutral, liberal, individual art is left in Germany our task has not been done.”

RFE/RL is a treasure trove, a magnificent resource whose story is not so simple to tell. The old Cold War name gets in the way; iconic, yet off-putting in a different era. The modernized, digitized media group gets its annual budget (currently $146 million) from Congress through the United States Agency for Global Media. There’s editorial independence. RFE/RL is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Across all platforms, RFE/RL provides uncensored news and facilitates open debate in twenty-seven languages. There’s work being done in Prague and across twenty-one bureaus that knocks your socks off.

Human capital in this organization is immense. There’s deep talent in technology, innovation, organizational strategy, complex operations, and daunting security. And what a goldmine otherwise: hundreds of journalists, editors, and producers with intimate, firsthand knowledge of places like Russia and Iran, the Black Sea region and Central Asia.

In a hallway, an Iranian colleague tells me the latest on Narges Mohammadi, the fifty-one-year-old physicist turned human rights advocate who’s been summoned by a court for the fifth time in six months—while she sits in notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. “It’s the Iranian way,” says the colleague with a wry smile. The charges keep piling up. Mohammadi keeps sending (sneaking) letters and messages to followers and friends.

There’s grit in this outfit. Staff from Minsk has been forced to set up shop in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, site of this week’s NATO summit. Two colleagues remain jailed in Belarus. As the Kremlin has ramped up surveillance and repression, Russian colleagues have been pulled from Russia and settled in the Latvian capital of Riga.

And the reporting rolls on. There’s a story from Yashkino in the Kemerovo region—three days by train from Moscow—about women in a confectionery whose husbands have been forced into war. Kyrgyz colleagues are investigating the plight of an estimated eight million migrant workers in Russia from across Central Asia who are becoming fodder for Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine adventure.

The Ukrainians live in war. RFE/RL has an office in Lviv, a bureau in Kyiv, and correspondents reporting from front lines. Last year, far from the front, journalist and producer Vira Hyrych was killed in the capital when late one evening a Russian missile slammed into her apartment building. Vira was working on a story on environmental damage done by Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea.

The method for RFE/RL is accurate, reliable, and responsible journalism. The mission lies at the heart of everything. There’s every political stripe and persuasion in this company—and broad and deep commitment to accountable government, rule of law, and human rights.

Prague headquarters came about through an agreement between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Czech President Václav Havel. The organization moved from Munich in the 1990s. I’ve always thought of Havel as RFE/RL’s patron saint. The playwright turned politician exemplified pluralism, tolerance, and respect for diversity—values and aspirations that got him five years behind communist bars. “Keep the company of those who seek the truth,” Havel said, “[and] run from those who have found it.”

I always thought of Havel as having a musical soul, even if his friend and biographer Michael Žantovský says Havel’s fondness for underground rock—for Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, the Plastic People of the Universe—was less about the music than about its rebellious, contrarian spirit.

In today’s Afghanistan, music is banned, even at weddings. Private musical gatherings exist. Hidden.

Last weekend, I went to the basement venue of a Prague bar to hear a band called “The Gripes.” Drummer Josef and rhythm guitarist Francesca come from Britain, singer Joey is from Australia, and lead guitarist Terry from America. The Gripes play garage (or shed) rock, says Rashteen, the nineteen-year-old Pakistani-Czech bass player. At Chapeau Rouge in Prague Old Town, the music was loud, ferocious, fun.

Rashteen is the son of a top RFE/RL reporter who grew up in Waziristan, the mountainous area populated by ethnic Pashtuns that lies roughly three hundred miles southwest from Islamabad by the Afghan border. I was amused by Rashteen’s seven-year-old sister and her girlfriend. Both covered their ears with their hands at the Gripes gig. They came prepared with serious-looking noise protection ear muffs. That was, until the rhythm finally got them and the two girls started dancing.

Jeffrey Gedmin, co-founder of American Purpose, is currently in Prague on temporary assignment as acting president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Views expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

Image: Students of the Afghanistan National School of Music. (Afghanistan National School of Music/Global Centre for Pluralism)

CultureDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropeMusicUkraineUnited States