In his “Russia in the Microphone Age”, Stephen Lovell claims to have written no less than “the first full history of Soviet radio in English”(p. 7). Indeed, despite the importance of radio for the development (political, social and cultural) of the Soviet state, before Lovell’s, not a single comprehensive English-language work has been written about the Soviet radio. Considering that there already exists a vast amount of literature dealing with Soviet history this can be considered to have been a serious lack. Thus, Lovell’s excellent study is a very welcome addition to the scholarship pertinent to the Soviet Union.
“Russia in the Microphone Age” is first and foremost a socio-cultural history of the Soviet radio rather than a technical or even political one. Moreover, by addressing political and ideological aspects, the primary objective of the book is to illustrate radio’s broader social and cultural significance. Lovell examines radio’s development through the eyes of both the Soviet citizen and the journalist aiming at understanding how this new medium (born around the time of the Bolshevik revolution) had gained its important role in the Soviet society. After all, the Soviet radio was not just entertainment but also an important means for communicating and molding the new “Soviet man”. However, as Lovell points out, Soviet radio personnel were not just minions of the Soviet communist party; the new medium gave them more maneuvering space than the more established print media. Furthermore, especially in the post-war era, when unwired radio sets became more common, audiences had more choices over what they were listening to, forcing the Soviet radio to develop its programming in order to maintain its audience.
The main chronological focus of the book is on the interwar and war periods. While the post-war period is being discussed from three different angles in separate chapters the 25-year-period from 1945 to 1970 is mostly discussed as a single period which is somewhat surprising considering the major social and cultural changes which took place during this time. Nonetheless, Lovell manages to provide a laudable overview of the postwar period and to describe the major significance the radio had in the Soviet society at the time. While the significance of television as the main Soviet medium was reinforced by the 1970s radio retained its important role continuing to develop. In this sense, concluding the study at 1970 seems to be defined by work economy rather than by the development of Soviet radio.
The source base for Lovell’s study is quite extensive using not only the central collections of the State Archives (GARF) and the pre-1953 Party Archive (RGASPI) but also several regional archives and interviews which is particularly interesting even if oral history does not play a major role in the study. Even so, interviews shed light on the meaning of Soviet radio broadcasts for the wider Soviet audience. Soviet officials did not believe in modern social methods such as opinion polls and with the KGB archives out of reach there are few other means than interviews to get necessary information about radio listening habits of broader masses. Together with primary sources, Lovell has used extensively essential Russian-language literature. However, topical English-language literature discussing the social and cultural development of the Soviet Union is poorly represented.
The geographical focus of Lovell’s study is focused on the Soviet metropolises. Even though Lovell has aimed at extending his study beyond Moscow, the two other sources of evidence are Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and Gorky (Nizhny-Novgorod) which were among the biggest cities in the Soviet Union. Furthermore, both cities were located in the western part of the Soviet Union and were distinctly Russian. In this sense, the book has a centric approach providing information mainly about the Russian language part of radio in an establishment that was essentially multi-lingual and multi-cultural. Radio was very meaningful for the numerous nationalities both in other Soviet Republics and in Russia. Furthermore, radio played an important role for Soviet citizens living in Siberia and other remote areas where the arrival of print media was often slow and prone to disruptions. These areas became dependent on radio and the information it provided whether it were Soviet or foreign broadcasts.
The only obvious minus in the book is the lack of discussion about the Soviet radio activities abroad. This is something that is only hinted at in the introduction where the author deals with the early phases of the Soviet radio. While Soviet foreign radio broadcasts are a vast topic – it was easily the biggest global radio project ever – some references to it would have been in place. After all, foreign radio activities played a very important role not just in international relations but also in influencing the development of radio broadcasting in the Soviet Union; experiences from international broadcasting were used in developing domestic broadcasts and also offered a window abroad for many.
This being said, Lovell’s book is the first English-language presentation about the Soviet radio. It is well-written and rigorously explored. Lovell’s style of writing is enjoyable and he has the ability to make his chosen topic a compelling reading even for those who were not previously fascinated by it. For anyone with any interest in the Soviet society and its development “Russia in the Microphone Age” is a must read. But as a well-written study it can be warmly recommended also for the general readership.