55. Mutiny

By Peter Fraenkel

“Impossible.” Sonia had protested, “We cannot broadcast that.”

“Why not?”

“It would cause outrage.”

I was the Head of East European Services and the Russian Service was the largest of the departments under my responsibility. She, jocularly, often addressed me as “boss”. But now Sonia stood her ground.

“We cannot broadcast that.”

She walked out of my office but a little later came back with Nina – another of the seniors of the Russian service. Nina unhesitatingly agreed.

I hesitated.  I had been an odd choice for Head of the East European Services and was aware of that.  I spoke no Russian.  I had never travelled in the Soviet Union.   My two or three applications for visas had been ignored by the Soviet embassy. I had been occupied with learning the job and the rudiments of the language. Despite this I insisted on writing the occasional programme – partly to keep my hand in but, more importantly, to prove that, whatever my linguistic failings, I could still write a good radio programme.  Now, for a series on English literature, I had chosen to write on E.M. Forster – an author whose novels I knew well.  Here at least I was on more secure grounds. I had handed my typescript to this sophisticated, literate lady – Sonia Horsfall – probably the best of our translators. She had the looks of a grande dame. They said her Russian style was superb. She also spoke excellent French and German. I had not expected any problems.

My script I had included a well-known aphorism of Forster’s: “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.”

She had been back after only skimming my text: “Impossible.  We cannot broadcast that. You have no idea how that sounds to a Russian! Here is the BBC calling on them to betray the motherland.”

“Nonsense. I’m not saying that. The BBC is not saying it. We’re not advocating anything. We’re quoting one of England’s leading writers.”

“It will be remembered that the BBC advocated betraying your country…. the country for which so many gave their lives.”

I seemed to be facing a mutiny… and I did not feel entirely secure facing it: I knew I had been an odd appointment

I said we had better sleep on it.  We would talk again the following day.  In fact, I wanted to consult my boss – Alexander Lieven. By origin he was a Russian, a prince – scion of a family which had provided ministers for several czars. He spoke Russian – though he said it was archaic: “a bit Winter Palace” he had called it.

He read my script and pronounced it good.  He had no problem with the controversial quote. “It’s time they thought about such matters… time Russians stopped mouthing slogans.”

I felt justified – but not entirely comfortable. Alexander may have spoken Russian “in the style of the Winter Palace” but, like me, he had, at that stage, never set foot in the Soviet Union. He, too, had never managed to get a visa.  He had been born in Belgium where his family were in exile after the revolution. At home they spoke more French than Russian. His father, he had once told me, often joked that he was going off “to read Russian literature” when he was retiring for his post-prandial snooze.  Could he know how a Russian audience would react to that Forster quote?

We were operating blindfold. Proper audience research, too, was impossible at that time.

But who had seen the Soviet Union most closely?  Who had grown up among our listeners?

Sonia, undoubtedly. She and her colleagues.

I suppressed that quote.

She is long dead – so are all the colleagues she had brought to my office to confront me. I’m the only survivor – and I’m still puzzled.  Did I do the right thing? Or did I betray Forster?