The legendary radio presenter of the BBC Russian Service talks about the importance of his programs for the Soviet youth, views on what’s going on in Russia at the moment, his musical taste, lifestyle, the current situation in the BBC as well much more
Seva Novgorodsev is, without a doubt, a legendary and cult figure for many people who spent their youth in the Soviet Union during the 70s – 80s of the last century. In the era when the country was covered by iron curtain authorities, were really interested in the ideological purity of the nation and were taking care of it by jamming out radio broadcasts from the western world. Trying to catch BBC radio waves turned into a kind of risky national sport which improved the technical skills of many young Soviets that invented special antennas and even customized their radios by soldering extra diapasons in order to catch the voices from the other side.
One of the leading reasons for this technical resistance movement were Seva Novgorodsev’s musical programs which became one of the main sources of knowledge about what was going on at that moment in western music for the curious soviets. This made Seva a kind of a hero for forward and progressive thinking people of that time.
Novgorodsev says that he always tried to stay far away from the politics and was mostly interested in the spiritual and intellectual nature of his listeners. But anyway his gentle voice, relaxed manner of talking and a big amount of sought-after information helped a lot of generations of the Soviet people to expand their mind and understand that there was a bright and interesting world on the other side of the border.
We were lucky enough to have a chance to talk with the maestro of radio presenting, the one who dedicated almost 40 years of his life to providing a loyal service for the BBC Radio. In his interview to All Andorra, Seva Novgorodsev shared his thoughts about the situation in Russia and its current image for the western world, new projects, lifestyle, his views on what’s going on at the BBC at the moment and much more.
Interview: Dmitry Tolkunov
Hello Seva! What have you been up to after leaving the BBC 4 years ago? Have you mostly been enjoying a well-deserved break or you started some new exciting projects?
I want to start with a kind of metaphysical note –I believe that our life circumstances are created not by us but by supernatural forces. So, when a new page starts in my book of life I don’t think what I have to do, I just go and perform the mission.
And exactly this kind of thing happened with a series of public talks with my fans that I do now regularly in Russia. It all started in Feb 2018, in India, Goa. There is a big community of Russian downshifters there that are living in the area of Arambol beach and what they have is a special place there for their cultural entertainment called Ash. There was a live show there by the legendary Russian rock-star, Boris Grebenshikov, which was very successful. The owner of the venue Vasily Ash asked Boris’s advice after the show – who he thought would be suitable for the next big event. Boris (being stunned by the poetic beauty of the sunset over the Indian Ocean), immediately answered: “Invite Seva, he will tell you something interesting”. So, this is how my first public talk event happened. And it continued and developed further when I was invited to do a few more of these kinds of events during the year.
Besides the talks, as I am a professional musician and in order to keep it up, I need to practice playing the flute and guitar every day. Actually, performing some musical pieces and singing is a big part of my public events.
Sometimes I receive really interesting and unexpected requests which I can’t refuse. Just last week I came back from Texas where I had a meeting at Austin University with students and professors from the Eastern Europe and Slavic Languages Faculty. Austin University is one of the biggest in the world, almost 50 thousand students study there so it’s almost like a city inside the city. They even have a special Russian Radio that is broadcasted only for the University and curated by this Eastern Europe Faculty. So it was really interesting for the students and professors to exercise their Russian by talking with me.
Also, I have a TV project coming up in Ukraine at the end of the month. It will consist of two parts. The first part will be dedicated to Ukrainian priests that are raising the future priesthood and taking care of orphans. And the second one will be an Easter marathon, that will be presented by me.
So, in a few words, these are the things that fill my days at the moment. I hope that I will have enough energy to complete all of them.
Does your interest in taking on this Ukrainian TV project come from your spirituality?
Yes, of course, I’m a man of God. An American priest from Texas baptized me in 1977 in Rome, in a protestant church. I follow an Evangelical tradition that is, in my opinion, the closest one to the pure essence of Christianity. It is not spoiled by any practices that have nothing to do with the original idea – like fasting or not eating some specific food on particular days. In Evangelical churches, they even don’t have crosses as icons and the only thing that they refer to is the Holy Scripture. They research the Holy Scripture with an academic approach during special bible classes.
However, being baptized means that I have deep sympathy not only with the religious idea but also to all people who support Christianity. And I can talk with priests from any other Christian tradition with soulfulness and full empathy.
You are also known as an author of several very interesting books. Is anything interesting now happening in this field?
Hardly, but I am writing a new one. I spoke about my life in the Soviet Union in my book “Integral is similar to saxophone”. My next book will be dedicated to the next years in my life that are strongly connected with work at the BBC, it’s evolution and relations with the country, changes in the public consciousness and all other important things that I observed during the last 40 years.
Your previous books were an example of great non-fiction – memories of the past or an example of great essays about music. Have you ever thought about writing some pure fiction books?
I had the chance to do a couple of film scripts. But I faced a strange situation in which the characters that were invented by my imagination came alive in my head and started to talk, claiming for their rights and disagreed with some circumstances which I had put in the script and I got scared. This kind of writing where the characters start to talk in your head reminds me of the first stage of schizophrenia. So I quit these kinds of projects and I don’t have a big desire to invent any fantasy worlds, as for now my own life is so varied and interesting that it gives me more than enough base for writing.
Have the films based on your scripts ever been released?
One of the film scripts got through to the last stage of considering by the people that are in charge of BBC content and policy. Somehow, it didn’t work out, I don’t know what was the exact reason. Few producers were interested in a second script, there was a lot of talking, but nothing happened at the end of the day. In the movie industry, it’s quite typical that 1 successfully released project comes about after 12-15 attempts, so it is normal even for professionals and famous people who have been in this business to have to wait and keep trying. So there is nothing surprising that my attempts failed. But I wasn’t really disappointed by it, seeing my script distorted by producers and directors is a perverse pleasure.
Why did you leave the BBC 4 years ago? Was it your wish to go, or a mutual decision with the editorial office?
A few factors came together. First of all, a few years ago the BBC started to reduce its radio broadcast and to remove redundant employees that were involved in it. And mostly these employees were the most interesting and creative people with the best writing skills. A technical revolution had happened and the website came to the forefront. In the beginning, when these first IT people appeared in the corporation, people that were sent to work in their department were usually the ones who didn’t have enough skills to work on the radio and we were joking that they are the kind of people that don’t know how to read and write.
But as the years passed, the BBC really grew as a corporation and the site turned into the most powerful media in terms of audience coverage and with it, these IT people became the most important players. It was like a kind of Bolshevik Revolution – when the lower class took the power. All the IT guys are lovely people, I have never been enemies with them, but they are just different types of beings, their mind and skills are oriented towards other things. And if we will start to talk about big professional journalism like the art of leading your audience morally and intellectually, the guys that do the BBC’s site at the moment are not this type of person. Like I’ve said many times in my last years of working in the corporation – now you can listen to the BBC, you can trust it and respect it but you can’t love it anymore as the soulfulness with the artistic and humanistic approach have gone.
Nevertheless, nobody fired me from the BBC. They were keeping me there like a sacred cow. During my last years there, I was doing a half-hour program, BBSeva, every day.
But, in 2015, I received a letter from my bank telling me that they couldn’t continue with my mortgage anymore. Following their rules, I had to pay the final amount for the apartment and it was an amount of money that I had never ever dreamed of. So, I repaired the flat and sold it on. At that moment. when I had already put the apartment up for sale, I started to ask myself – what shall I do next? I could easily stay on at the BBC but there was a feeling that the era of radio was coming to its end and I was a kind of “Last of the Mohicans”. Also, I was getting older – I was already 75 at that time. If I stayed in London it would have meant that I had to rent an apartment and go to work every day just to cover the rent. Running on this hamster wheel didn’t sound like fun for me at all.
So, I started to look for a place where I could move to with my wife. We did not think much about options in England, as the country is really small and already crowded. Each tiny piece of land belongs to somebody which leads to many problems like when you go by car to the countryside sometimes there are no options for parking. And I was looking for some place where there is still a lot of free space and the nature breathes. Looking through satellite pictures, I found a place in Bulgaria, close to the border with Greece – big mountain ranges covered in forest. We bought an apartment there in a family hotel, in quite a deserted place, in the mountains at 1500 meters above sea level. I am very satisfied with the location as I really love alpine skiing and now in winter when the weather is good enough for it I can dedicate my days to skiing.
After all these years and with all your rich life experience, how do you look at the role that your radio programs played in changing the mindset of the Soviet people? Do you think that they helped to shatter the Iron Curtain or at least make some holes in it?
Well, starting from the times when I lived in the Soviet Union and used to be a musician, playing the saxophone and touring with my band, I was never interested in politics. In our circles, it seemed to be a kind of tasteless thing to take part in dissident movements as we felt that it was sleazy. When I started to work at the BBC I didn’t change this principle and did not turn into a political creature.
I was also interested in the intellectual and spiritual nature of my audience. During the years of working on the radio, I collected all the letters from my listeners. I stocked them, they took up more and more space in my apartment and at some point, it was really hard to move them when I was changing from one place to another. Finally, in 2014, I got the chance to give them away to the Hoover Archive in the USA. When the management of the Hoover Archive asked me what would be the best name to give this huge collection of letters, I recommended calling it –“The evolution of the Soviet youth’s mentality during the 70s-80s of XX century”.
You really can notice through things that people allowed themselves to write in the letters how the mind state changed and got broader during that period. This mind expansion and flashing the broad horizons of life, which were narrowed by Soviet reality was the thing I was always interested in. When I was working on the radio I didn’t formulate this kind of task and did it intuitively based on my inner understanding of the audience. And I have a chance somehow to analyze and to understand what I was doing only now.
I remember being a teenager in Moscow in the 80s – I tried to listen to your programs a few times and it was a hard experience. They were really jammed out by KGB equipment and it was almost impossible to hear anything, only fragments of your voice and music coming out from the permanent noise and crunch. I remember that I was even amazed by how people managed to listen to it.
Well, it was an interesting game called catch me if you can. There were different ways to catch the broadcast at a better quality. Many people invented their own big antennas for it or customized home radio systems by soldering extra diapasons.
Later, I was told that KGB was monitoring and recording all my broadcasts and the printed texts of them went to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. So in order to create a print-out, they always left one frequency not jammed out. So if you were lucky enough you were able to catch this frequency.
Also in 1987, in the era of the first democratic transformations in the USSR, there was a TV program, Vzglyad, which was really revolutionary for its time as it was allowed to show rock groups there and to discuss pressing challenges. I was told not long ago that Vzglyad was opened on instructions from Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to distract youngsters from my programs. One of Vzglyad presenters told me about it and he was the son of a KGB general, so he really knew what he was talking about. As you see, everything was really challenging.
Do you think that with these attempts of putting the information field under control that we see now in Russia, the BBC and other western radio stations with broadcasts for the Russian audience could get influential again like in the old days?
If you buy a pack of sugar you can use it for its purpose for a long time. But if you accidentally spill this sugar there will be no use from it, only mess that you will be cleaning for a while. Metaphorically speaking, this happened with the influence of western radio stations in Russia.
Big parts of the BBC and Voice of America were self-destroyed. Other stations have lost their influence because of the information boom that happened in Russia after 1991 when 35 thousand independent radio stations appeared and stole the audience. And with the developments of the internet and social media, the new form of communication was born in the context of which any particular person can create his own media content that will be interesting for other people.
So, there is no going back and for sure the BBC as a radio station will never be so influential again as it once was.
Does it look like that this seeking for non-censored information has moved to the internet now? And the way that people are looking up the blocked Russian sites by using VPN’s can be compared in some ways to the way they were catching BBC waves using handmade antennas and customized radio systems?
Yes, we can say that all intelligent people have mostly moved to using the internet now, where they can entertain themselves without the help of editors, correctors, editorial offices. On the internet you can find any kind of information that will match your interests – from philosophy to sociology, politics etc… It is like a self-regulated process of appearing of horizontal communications. Of course, the authorities will try to control it, but it will be really hard, as we know that the internet has many channels of communication. Maybe they will succeed in something, but not as much as I think. Russia is not like China where the whole country and its internet was under strict control right from its beginning.
So you think that the Iron Curtain and having a fully controlled information field by the authorities doesn’t look like a possible situation for modern Russia?
I don’t think that the authorities will succeed in the process of full conservation of the country and I’m not sure that they will even want to do it. First of all, because Russia is strongly tied to international activities through money that comes from selling national resources, never-ending trips of wealthy people to western countries and education of officials children in America, England and other places.
Also, we shouldn’t forget that nothing is left from the ideology. There was a philosophical confrontation during the Cold War era in which Russia and China were standing for the theory of class war. One class was noble, educated and well-mannered, and the other was not noble, mannered and educated at all – and at the end of the day, this class won as it was much bigger. Russia is still recovering from it.
But nowadays nothing is left from this battle of ideologies. The current Russian authorities have only one simple and basic interest – money. When somebody starts to talk about Putin’s billions on hidden accounts I am sure that he looks at this amount like a KGB officer on an effective instrument. He and his surroundings already have so much money that it will be hard and almost physically impossible to spend them or to make them work. But you always can give some money to the Syrian and Palestinian comrades, or to the yellow jackets in Paris, just like in Soviet times they were sponsoring miners strikes in England. But Russia will never overplay the West on the money market. Mostly all the money is made and spread in the west and Russia can be tied to this process only through selling natural recourses or arms trading. But compared to money supply and volume of trade Russia is in a much lower position than western countries, it is not even in the top 10.
And how do you feel about Russia’s coming years? What is waiting for the country in the future in your opinion?
I think things will stay pretty much the same. But a good point is that people became much more educated and open-minded. Information is much more accessible than it used to be. If you will be focused and have enough power that people will then have a chance to break through the glass ceiling and go to other countries and start some interesting projects there. But if you were spending your time mostly drinking vodka and going to discos with friends then you will stay in Russia continuing to do these kinds of things.
If you were much younger and living in a modern Russian environment would you try to do something interesting in the country or you would be trying to leave it?
Well, I was trying to do something interesting while I was living in the Soviet Union and leaving was not my exact choice, I was mostly forced by my family to do it. But I’m really glad that I did do it. I think that if I would have stayed there would have been a big chance that I wouldn’t be alive right now. The Russian style of life with its permanent stress, drinking crazy amounts of vodka with your friends as in case of refusing to do it you are not a man and nobody will trust you – is very self-destructive. Now I’m almost 79 and I am vegetarian, doing a lot of mountain skiing and being involved in many projects at the same time.
When I was leaving the Soviet Union in 1975, I had a deep disagreement with the regime in the matters of style and taste. I played jazz and pop music, which was not really allowed at that time, and it was a never-ending, exhausting process of confirming my band’s program with the cultural institutions. And I really didn’t like anything that was surrounding me in the country – the moral vibe, crap music on TV… For sure we felt comfortable with friends in our narrow intellectual circles when we all gathered (as the typical Russian tradition) in kitchens to tell each other anecdotes, show our sense of humor and share sincere insights. But all these kitchen people have left the country and now are living all over the world.
Now, the Russian authorities are subtly trying to get rid of these types of people too. They really just do not need these kinds of smart and forward-thinking personalities. Many political analysts think that they would be ok if the population of Russia was much smaller, just enough for servicing their gas and oil tubes, filling the army and taking minimal care for educational and medical needs. This is why the population in Russia is in a distinct decline at the moment, statistics say that it around minus 400 people per day.
Given these factors, I think I would leave the country if I were young now.
Was it hard to leave the USSR in the ‘70s and did you manage to do it because you are natively Jewish and took part in a repatriation program?
It was not easy. I got an invitation from Israel and the whole process took around half a year. There were difficulties connected with the fact that my wife at that time was Tatar and son due to it half Tatar and I had changed my real Jewish surname Levenshtein to Novgorodsev and had to change it back again. There was a lot of KGB intrigues around us and also due to that my father had a nervous breakdown and got seriously ill. I had to urgently sell all my belongings and from the money that I earned from that, I was buying icons on the black market and sending them abroad with the help of my foreign friends. This was a dangerous game, I risked my freedom and even life just to earn a few hundred pounds. Thank God it’s all over.
What was the reason for changing your surname from Levenshtein to Novgorodsev, was it connected somehow with the anti-Semitic vibe in the USSR?
Actually no, I was handling the anti-Semitic moods, they were not bothering me much. I changed my surname in 1971 when I started a band that was performing old, traditional Russian songs with a modern twist. Before I played saxophone in a jazz ensemble and was totally ok being Levenshtein.
I remember when we had our first hit with this new Russian-oriented band and the compere reads out the names of the whole band that had quite Russian sounding surnames and then my name – the band leader Seva Levenshtein, I felt a strange and uncomfortable reaction coming from the audience. At that point, I understood that from the ethical, semantical and historical point of view it’s not really correct to perform this kind of music with such a surname. No doubt there were no Levenshtein’s in ancient Russia that we were singing about. So I picked up a moniker Novgorodsev, originally it was the surname of the captain of the ship where I was a sailor in my youth.
In 1971 I started a band that was performing old, traditional Russian songs with a modern twist
After a couple of years, I had to change my surname to Novgorodsev officially in the passport as I was always facing problems when going on the radio or TV – I was usually put on the list as Novgorodsev but I still was Levenshtein in the passport.
Do you think that the image of Russia is demonic again in the eyes of western people? Is it again the ‘Dark Empire’ like in the Cold War era?
Well, at least there could be two levels of perception. The first one that is created by political analytics is demonic. But there are still people that are interested in the Russian culture and the soul of the people and they have warm feelings for the country.
Just a few days ago when I was in Austin, the day before going back home there was a special meeting in my honor which was organized by the chief of the Eastern Europe Faculty who had invited me there. I came to this meeting with a guitar and sang 3 songs by one of my favorite Russian songwriters, Okudzhava. In my opinion, Okudzhava is the master of poetic space as he knows how to create a third dimension between his simple lyrics and music. When I finished, the whole audience was stunned. They were quiet and I felt a deep emotional reaction, then they asked if I could sing more. All these people that were at this meeting knew the Russian cover quite well – the language and its structure as well its history and literature. But these things are like the eggshell, and the inner essence was hidden for them before, they didn’t have the opportunity to touch it. And looking at their reaction I understood that if a Russian Soul who includes far-fetched qualities for many Americans like suffering and deep philosophizing finds a way to break into the American space, for sure it touches the heartstrings of these smart, well-educated, but kind of cold people.
So western intellectuals are still interested in the so-called Mysterious Russian Soul?
Well for me there is nothing mysterious left. In Russia just like in Latin America is prevalent not a cold, legalistic culture like in Western Europe and America, but a more warm and soulful one – when friendship is much more important than the law. In Russia, nobody will ever report on a friend to the police. In America and England, it’s a usual situation that if a friend breaks a law their friend may report on them with no problems and moral dilemmas. I witnessed this situation many times.
At the moment I’m living in Bulgaria in the Slavic culture environment. The local language has many similar words to those in Russian. And the Slavic traditions are kept well here. On all national holidays, people are dancing in a traditional way and they know all the moves and old songs. Not long ago I understood that this celebrating according to the old folk traditions is a kind of a form of talking with the ancestors. In America nobody talks with their ancestors, they just do not have this culture and these kinds of instruments, maybe only the Indians in the reserves. Here in Bulgaria, you can feel it like a real process. And also here they have an optimal balance between a western legalistic culture and Slavic soulfulness. And the good thing is that the population here is mostly ethnically homogenous, this is why it is really safe here and you can see almost no crime. People here are quite poor but happy at the same time.
When you were doing your musical programs on the BBC you were broadcasting not only new western music, sometimes you made programs about Soviet rock which was banned and existed in the deep underground in the USSR. In some ways do you think this music represented this deeply hidden Russian Soul that you were just talking about? It’s fully understood how you got the info about the freshest western bands as you were living in London, in a city that could be called the center of the musical industry. But how did you get all this info about the banned, underground soviet bands through the Iron Curtain?
Well, I had to act according to the BBC’s rules. So I had to seriously check the factual information that I was giving to the people, it had to be proved at least from two reliable sources. I could not just give some unproven information from the deep underground.
This is why the first-ever program dedicated to Russian rock that I ever made was after a double vinyl with 4 Russian bands – one on each side, called Red Wave, was released in the USA in 1986. I made a program dedicated to these bands as it was already reliable information, this music had been released in the USA.
Red Wave, was released in the USA. It was reliable information
The next program with Russian music was about a Christian-rock band, The Trumpet Call. I received the information about them from Kingston College which was exploring the situation with the religious organizations in the Eastern European block. The leader of the band, Valeriy Barinov was caught by the KGB and violently admitted into a mental hospital at that time. Valeriy was a strong person and he managed to survive and later he emigrated with his family to the UK. As the information about his band came from a reliable source I had all the rights to make a program about them.
Do you follow any Russian music now? Do you have a picture of what’s going on in the scene there now?
I know a little bit but don’t research this field. The music that is created in Russia bears the special stamp of the country, its life and culture. For me, this music is a kind of a provincial and pretentious thing.
I do not want to complicate my life with this knowledge as my profession is no longer connected with exploring new music. And for sure this is not the kind of stuff I would listen to at home. Even in the old days, I had to listen to all this music because it was my job but it rarely reflected my personal taste.
So, you didn’t necessarily like much of the music that you were playing on the radio in your programs?
Well, yes, I started to do the musical program when I was 37 and finished at 63. I had to move like a surfer on their board catching the latest waves of changing musical styles. I got through punk, grunge, new wave and other subcultures. And I think that any mentally healthy and balanced person is struggling against new things in life, especially against new music. Usually, people listen to music that they were into when they were 18-20.
I had to step over myself all the time and it was not a pleasant experience. When I was doing this program each week around 300 new albums were released in England. Of course, I did not listen to all of them, but I listened to at least 10-15 albums a week. At one point, I learned how to listen with my musical ear to 10-15 seconds of each song just to understand if it consisted of some melodically interesting ideas or good vocals.
And I had a hero in this profession – John Pill, an English presenter of a musical program on the BBC. He was a true musical knight without fear and without reproach. He listened to the demos that were sent to him by unknown bands 12-16 hours a day. At the beginning of the ‘80s I had my own record label, Russian Roulette, on which I was releasing the Caribbean reggae and dub band, Icarus, that I was producing and also playing the saxophone for. As a label chief, I sent a promo vinyl to John Pill and he broadcasted it 3 times.
I sent a promo vinyl of my band Icarus to John Pill and he broadcasted it 3 times
After many years, at the beginning of the ‘90s I reminded him of this fact and amazingly he remembered it and said that Icarus was a good band and it was strange for him that they hadn’t gone further in their career. Also, he told me that his motto was to broadcast all the music that he didn’t understand. He was a genius and it such a big shame and loss that he is not with us anymore.
And did your experience as a record label owner continue somehow? Did you release any other artists?
No, it ended up only with two releases – a single and an album by Icarus. By the way, you can download this album for free at my site – seva.ru
As you mentioned, you still practice playing music a lot. Do you do it because playing different musical pieces is a big part of your private events?
Well, first of all I play because I have this habit as a professional musician. I think that without this habit I would have gone mad while I was working at the BBC because of the mad speed of work and permanent brain tension. Playing the flute was a real outlet for me.
Now I can say that I became a real musician who plays only because it is in his nature and he needs to play. Like a poet who writes poems only because he is a poet. I’m not looking for success, appreciation or reward for it. Only my wife knows that I do it every day and maybe some horses and cows when I’m playing on the balcony of my apartment.
Now I can say that I became a real musician who plays only because it is in his nature
But I’m working on the sound and techniques. The sound can get better, but not sure about the techniques as my fingers start to work slower after a long practice instead of faster. And I play the guitar in rare moments of light depression, mainly some sentimental songs that cure my soul.
How do you also fill your regular days in the Bulgarian mountains?
The house where my wife and I lives stands on the road in the forest. The area is quite deserted; there are no houses nearby and around 400 eco-trails. We really like to go for long walks. In winter we couldn’t go so much, there was a lot of snow this year, around 3 meters high. But now it has almost melted and we will be back on the tracks soon.
Also, I keep connected with my fans through social media. I post every day on my Facebook page where I have 5000 friends and around 150,000 subscribers. It has a good connection with my site on which I sell my books, it is a kind of small family business that we have. People mostly like to buy the audio versions of my books, as I have a special radio presenter’s skill of bringing an extra dimension to the texts that I read. This is how I fill my days usually.
Sounds like a good, healthy and relaxed style of life. Thank you Seva for this interesting interview and we wish you good health and many interesting projects in the future.