A Russian's story comes to life on WJHU

November 04, 1992|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

The Baltimore-produced radio documentary program "Soundprint" takes a significant stride tonight toward giving Americans a greater understanding of a nation we once characterized as "the evil empire."

The three-part series "Voices of Russia" (premiering at 7 p.m. on WJHU-FM 88.1) marks an unprecedented collaboration by Russian and U.S. radio journalists.

We have heard much from Russia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, of course, but the refreshing slant in "Vavilov's Ghost," the first installment, is neither primarily political nor from a discernibly American perspective. Rather, it tells a fascinating human story.

Listeners will learn about Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, a plant geneticist driven by the vision of "better crops for Soviet farmers and eventually the world." In the early part of this century, he traveled the globe to amass the world's greatest collection of seed varieties, from potatoes to peas.

But the scientist was subsequently exiled by Josef V. Stalin and reportedly perished during World War II. Decades later the fruits of his work, maintained in an institute outside St. Petersburg, face new threats with the economic collapse of the Soviet state.

"It gives an opportunity to the American audience to find out something they didn't know," said Karina Melikyan, a Moscow journalist who collaborated in Russia and for the past two weeks in Baltimore on the series.

"Karina was our savior," said Moira Rankin, senior producer of the Baltimore-produced "Soundprint," who led a team in August to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Also in the group were producer Neenah Ellis, an independent producer based in Chevy Chase, and technical director Anna Maria de Freitas.

With Ms. Melikyan's help, the U.S. journalists had access to the plant institute and spoke freely with employees and Mr. Vavilov's son, Uri, a physicist. "It's not only knowing Russian, but knowing the psychology of Russians -- knowing when to push when the door is closed," Ms. Melikyan said.

A former on-air reporter with the state-controlled Radio Moscow, she is now part of an effort to establish independent FM radio voices in Russia's capital.

In Baltimore, she has been helping in the final editing of the programs while learning how American broadcasting works. She spent yesterday in the studios of National Public Radio, monitoring election coverage.

Ms. Melikyan said she has noticed a tendency in U.S. media to focus on the grim news from her home country. While U.S. journalists thoroughly reported the fall of communism and the failed coup last year, they now seem less interested in Russian stories, she said.

Further, she added, "when America is involved, that's news. When they're not, it's not news."

The next two "Voices of Russia" programs, at 7 p.m. Nov. 18 and Nov. 25, will examine "The New Generation in Russia" and "Collective Farming." Russia is also the subject of an intervening episode on Nov. 11, "The Gulag and the Garden of Eden," produced independently of the journalist exchange program.

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