In 1926, twenty-year-old Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union with dreams of becoming a fiction writer. More than four decades later, having reached America and achieved her ambition, she was invited to address the Russian people in her native language through the Voice of America radio service, whose signals reached deep inside the dictatorship’s borders. This is the story of that remarkable 1968 interview.
Voice of America’s reach
The U.S. government started Voice of America as German-language counterpropaganda against the Nazis in 1942, but by the end of World War II it had expanded to forty languages broadcasting across the globe. In 1947, as tensions rose between the U.S. and the Soviets, Voice of America began its Russian-language service.1 “The Voice,” as it was commonly called, addressed two hundred million people ruled by a Communist dictatorship.
In the tightly controlled world of the Soviet Union, all Western media was censored, with “penalties that ranged from administrative fines to jail sentences.”2 Because owning a shortwave radio could arouse suspicion, some Russians buried their radios, digging them out again as needed.3 Millions of Russians accepted these risks for a chance to hear the Voice of America Jazz Hour.4 But VOA also presented four daily programs for fourteen hours a day, including news and commentary on international events, while offering a window into American culture and ideas. VOA was dedicated to telling “the truth about the United States and its people.”5 Embed from Getty Images
Regarding alternative sources of information as “no less dangerous than bombs and machine-guns,”6 the Soviets began jamming Voice of America’s signal in 1949.7 By the early 1960s, fourteen hundred jamming stations had been established across the Eastern bloc. Yet on the outskirts of cities or in the evenings, when jammers were weakest, “those who wanted to listen to alternative information would sit by their radio receivers, trying to find the frequencies on which they could hear something.”8
Interviewing Ayn Rand
As a direct counter to the Soviet narrative that Russian émigrés faced a wretched existence in Western countries, many VOA broadcasts featured interviews with refugees who had escaped abroad.9 Ayn Rand was a perfect candidate for such an interview. Born in St. Petersburg in 1905, Rand had spent the first twenty-one years of her life in Russia, experiencing firsthand the horrors of the Soviet regime. She escaped in 1926, eventually establishing herself as a best-selling author, philosopher, and public intellectual.
On February 20, 1968, a VOA representative telephoned Rand’s office to propose a Russian-language interview. He told Rand’s assistant that it would be “an interview and not a debate” and that it would focus on her ideas, especially as they related to Russia.10 Rand immediately accepted and started preparations. The prospect of a Russian-language interview presented a challenge, as the precise conceptual vocabulary of her Objectivist philosophy would need to be translated into a language she had barely used for decades. She generated several pages of notes, writing out English words like “reason,” “sacrifice,” and “reality,” along with their closest Russian equivalents. She also wrote out entire sentences in Russian that expressed her philosophy in condensed form.11
On March 4, 1968, Rand arrived for her interview at the Voice of America studio on 250 West 57th Street, just two blocks west of Carnegie Hall. Interviewer Ludmila Obolensky began by asking for a summary of Objectivism, a question that Rand had prepared for. “It’s a new moral philosophy,” said Rand, “an ethics of rational egoism. We say that the human mind — human reason — is the main means of human existence.”12 In a few short sentences, Rand captured the essence of her philosophy: the primacy of reason, a morality of self-interest, and capitalism as the only moral political system. It is likely the first time that a Russian audience would have heard about Objectivism.
This provoked a question from Obolensky, who asked if individual freedom should be restricted in order to prevent people from stomping on the rights of others. Rand was careful to distinguish herself from anarchists, by noting the necessity of a limited government designed to protect individual rights.
The interview then turned to Rand’s books, with a summary of Atlas Shrugged and its theme: the role of reason in man’s existence. Rand also mentioned her first novel, We the Living, providing an opportunity to mention a crucial piece of her own backstory: her life in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. At the time of the interview, Rand’s books had been translated into nine languages — but not Russian. She expressed hope that her books would someday be published in Russian, “without censorship.”
When the fourteen-minute interview was over, Rand had condensed a significant amount of highly abstract philosophy into short statements designed to be understood by an audience of oppressed and censored Russian listeners. Rand’s recorded interview was later broadcast to an audience of millions.13 In the mid-1970s, a Harvard University study estimated that 28 million Soviet citizens tuned in at least once per week.14 In 1980, Russian journalist Alexander Ginzberg remarked that “the VOA has as many listeners as Pravda has readers”15 (Pravda was the regime’s official newspaper).
Despite the rich history of the VOA broadcasts, many of the original tapes were lost over the years. However, an audio recording of Rand’s interview was preserved by the Ayn Rand Archives, likely the only copy still in existence. Recently, Shoshana Milgram, a Rand scholar at Virginia Tech, sought out the VOA interviewer, Ludmila Obolensky, and played the audio recording for her. According to Milgram, Obolensky was delighted to hear the recording for the first time in half a century, calling it “a really substantial interview.”16
The Ayn Rand Institute recently augmented the original Russian audio with English subtitles provided by Gena Gorlin, and shared the interview at an exclusive donor roundtable, which featured commentary from Milgram and Gorlin. To bring the interview to a global audience, ARI has published it on YouTube and on Telegram.
Although Putin’s authoritarian regime in Moscow censors internet content, sometimes banning whole platforms like Instagram, YouTube is still accessible in Russia.17 So at least for the moment, the Russian people can once again hear the voice of Ayn Rand delivering her radical message of individualism and freedom in their own language.
Do you have a comment or question?
- History.com editors, “Voice of America Begins Broadcasts to Russia,” History (A&E Television Networks), November 13, 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/voice-of-america-begins-broadcasts-to-russia.
- Boris Von Faust, “Banned in the USSR: Counterculture, State Media, and Public Opinion during the Soviet Union’s Final Decade” (master’s thesis, Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology, 2014), 7, https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/43919/PDF/1/play/.
- Christopher Swan, “Voice of America, a Radio Heard in Secret,” Christian Science Monitor, February 7, 1980, https://www.csmonitor.com/1980/0207/020762.html.
- Foy Kohler, “The Effectiveness of the Voice of America,” Quarterly of Film Radio and Television 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1951): 24, https://doi.org/10.2307/1209931.
- Alexander Rapoport, “The Russian Broadcasts of the Voice of America,” Russian Review 16, no. 3 (July 1957): 3, 6–7, https://doi.org/10.2307/125939.
- Vladimir Lenin, “Decree on the Press” (November 9, 1917), https://soviethistory.msu.edu/1917-2/organs-of-the-press/organs-of-the-press-texts/decree-on-the-press/.
- Kohler, “Effectiveness of the Voice of America,” 24.
- Irina Naumenko, “Cold War Archive: How the USSR and U.S. Battled Each Other with Radio Waves,” Russia Beyond, February 17, 2017, https://www.rbth.com/politics_and_society/2017/02/17/cold-war-archive-how-the-ussr-and-us-battled-each-other-with-radio-waves_704218.
- Rapoport, “The Russian Broadcasts,” 12.
- Telephone message dated February 20, 1968, Ayn Rand Archives, 044_06B_027_001.
- “Objectivism” (handwritten notes in Russian) dated March 4, 1968, Ayn Rand Archives, 044_06B_028.
- The quoted text was translated into English in 2022 from Rand’s spoken Russian comments. Ayn Rand Interviewed in Russian on the Voice of America, YouTube (Ayn Rand Institute, 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W41DrNbCIE0&t=65s.
- Rand might well have hoped that her sister, Nora, with whom she had lost contact decades earlier, would hear the VOA interview. Though that did not happen, Nora did become aware of Rand’s worldwide renown just three years later through reading a story in America Illustrated, whose mission was the in-print parallel of the VOA’s. Nora wrote a letter to the magazine’s editors seeking more information, and that contact led eventually to the sisters’ reunion in 1974. (Letter dated March 1, 1973, from E. B. Drobyshcheva to the editor of America Illustrated, Ayn Rand Archives, 012_52A_003_001).
- “Soft Power in a Cold War: Challenges of Reaching out to the Soviets,” Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, March 16, 2017, https://adst.org/2017/03/soft-power-cold-war-challenges-reaching-soviets/.
- Swan, “Voice of America.”
- Ayn Rand Speaks to Russia (Ayn Rand Institute, Monthly Member Roundtable, October 29, 2022).
- Billy Perrigo, “Why YouTube Has Survived Russia’s Social Media Crackdown — So Far,” Time, March 23, 2022, https://time.com/6156927/youtube-russia-ukraine-disinformation/.