Shortwave radio monitoring by the KGB in Latvia

Soviet made Shortwave radios were enjoyment for citizens but were headache for KGB

Soviet made Shortwave radios were enjoyment for citizens but were headache for KGB

Soon after the end of the World War 2 the tensions between Soviet Union and United States of America engulfed into Cold War. A full-scale war of propaganda was used by both side including shortwave radio broadcasts. Shortwave radio broadcasts could reach listeners to faraway locations including the Soviet occupied Latvia.  Soviet security services were unable to control the foreign broadcasters so they tried to jam the broadcasts or to punish the listeners. But in either way it was never-ending carousel as Soviet radio industry made shortwave radio receivers in masses and neither the technical jamming or KGB monitoring could not fully block the western propaganda.

Shortwave radio broadcasts were popular among Latvians because many of them were critical of the soviet mass media content and therefore they seek alternative news sources. In first post war years radio was still a rare household item, as may pre-war Latvian and German-made radios were lost and Soviets attempted to register the radio owners. The average shortwave listener needed to know English, German and Russian although some of their news were transcribed in the national partisan underground newspapers and leaflets. However, the circulation of these newspapers were quite low. So radio owners tried to listen to “Radio London”, “Voice of America”, “Radio Luxembourg” and “Radio in American Sector”, that transmitted from Western Germany. After the Winston Churchill “Iron Curtain” speech in May 24 1946 in Fulton the BBC World Service started broadcasts in Russian. From September 2 1948 “Radio Vaticana” started broadcasts in Latvian.

Soviet authorities listened and discussed these broadcasts themselves. Since the content of these broadcasts were beyond their control they started to build powerful jammers. Their technical operation is discussed in separate post. War in Korea triggered the full-scale “campaign of truth” against the communists and decided to boost nationalism within Soviet occupied Baltic republics. On June 3 1951 the “Voice of America” begun to broadcast in Latvian. Latvians at first paid large attention to it, radio played the Anthem of Latvia and called for resistance making many people to believe that US will send its support. However, it took place after the deportation of March 25 1949 and Soviet power had fully established itself in Latvia. Later people got enough of repetitive information and lack innovation.

Soviet Ministry of Security gathered reports about people listening to “Voice of America”. Mostly they were discovered when they unknowingly talking about the broadcasts to a KGB agent or their conversations were overheard. They were added to KGB list as persons as spreaders of the “anti-soviet propaganda”. Soviet bureaucrats were even suggested to stop the production of the shortwave receivers, however it was turned down by the producers. At the start of the sixties Latvian industrial companies like VEF and Radiotehnika were one of the first to produce portable affordable transistor radios in USSR. Radio was no more a large cabinet like standing in room corner it could be battery-powered and taken to picnics.

Despite the relative liberalization after the death of Stalin and limitation of repressions the ideological war with west was far from over. Broadcasts from the west continued and it was forbidden to publicly spoke about the content heard in them. Doing so might result an arrest in “Corner house” of KGB main headquarters in Riga. It was also no secret that shortwave radio broadcasts inspired many dissidents and no wonder why many workers in VEF and Radiotehnika became dissidents. Most known of them were Gunārs Astra. On September 3 1953 in town of Auce locals streamed the Voice of America within local radio broadcasting net. They were later arrested.

During the crisis in Hungary on 1956 people were tuned to BBC World Service and Voice of America. Some young students told they only first learned about Stalin’s cult of personality from the Voice of America. In Preiļi region people gathered in groups to listen to Voice of America. While USSR was reluctant to speak about negative news within the country the US spent an enormous recourses for anti-communist propaganda. President of US Richard Nixon told that its much more useful to spent one dollar on radio propaganda rather than spend 10 dollars on another new rocket. Another massive radio propaganda network also broadcasting in Latvian was “Radio Free Europe” that in its r0ots was a funded by US CIA. It was kept secret until on late seventies KGB funded leftist magazine uncovered it. After that Radio Free Europe was funded by US State Congress. Soviet Union also had shortwave propaganda station “Radio Moscow” that transmitted in various western languages. Shortwave radio jamming in USSR was halted during diplomatic warm-ups on 1963-1968 and 1973-1979 both times restarted because of the Soviet invasions in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.  Because of relative low numbers of English speakers the broadcasts in English were not jammed. This is also one of the reasons why in schools the English studies were limited.

Radio Free Europe begun its Latvian broadcasts on 1975. KGB foreign branch was tasked to gather information about the Latvian broadcasting staff and their editors and tried to infiltrate their agents in them. KGB succeeded to find information but failed to send agents to subvert the Latvian editions of VoA and RFE. As the soviet power weakened on seventies people were less afraid to speak about the things heard on the radios. KGB still tried to punish some people who were too open, often it was included into official accusation that the crime was influenced by the western radio broadcasts. Last such case was for Rolands Silaraups on 1986 the member of the nationalist Helsinki-86 movement.

On 1987 in the spirit of perestroika the shortwave jamming was fully halted. People now closely followed the VoA and RFE. Some of them heard about the first pro-independence protests on 1987 in the foreign radios and took action on following ones. On political level most influential were the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. On cultural level the foreign pop and rock music heard by youngsters on their Spīdola radio receivers also boosted the Latvian cultural life. The banned Latvian movie “Four White Shirts” included  old conservative party functionary in the censorship meeting talking about the bad influence on the young generations caused by Spīdola radio receivers.

Today the World Wide Web has replaced shortwave radio as propaganda weapon. Voice of America no longer broadcasts in Russian or Latvia. Radio Free Europe however continues to broadcast in Russian and Belarussian over shortwave, because their local coverage within medium waves were closed by Russian authorities on 2012.  Russia itself has stripped their Voice of Russia the oldest international radio station from 1920ies when it was called Radio Comintern. But, now the neo-soviet Vladimir Putin regime has begun a crackdown on Internet calling it a project of the CIA. In such manner it could be possible that if Russia will isolate itself from rest of the world, the shortwave broadcasting to Russia can again became active. There is present example of China and even more extreme of North Korea where controlled Internet has caused extensive shortwave broadcast targeting towards these countries. In return China and North Korea use extensive shortwave jammers to limit these broadcasts from US and Europe. Will Russia will return to an old days of shortwave jamming and arresting their listeners we shall see.


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