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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Russian's Voice Reaching Across the World

Out there on the short wave radio bands, between the hisses, squeaks and pops of hundreds of stations struggling to be heard, Joe Adamov's resonant, baritone voice has boomed for 51 years to English speakers throughout the world.


With a flawless American accent, a ready chuckle and an occasional harrumph, Adamov on Radio Moscow was for years an affable voice reaching out from the Cold War mystery of a totalitarian regime.


Now, still on Radio Moscow but freed from the censors, Adamov speaks his mind to the world about anything from Moscow's murder rate to Russian poverty and "that nut," Vladimir Zhirinovsky.


It is a transition which, Adamov said, came easily.


"Through the so-called stagnation years, I still tried to insert the truth. Some of it was deleted, but some of it always remained," said Adamov, who hasn't had his commentary censored in about five years. "Every night I'd sit there cutting and gluing, making the changes they wanted. Then it just stopped."


Now 74 years old, Adamov has trimmed his broadcast schedule to just the 19-minute weekly question and answer show, "Moscow Mailbag," which he started in 1957. It airs locally between 11 and 11:30 A.M. on 102.5 FM. The days vary.


"The Bag," as he calls it, has a hokey, home-cooked flavor. An announcer reads questions about Russia mailed from short wave listeners and Adamov answers them. Each show ends with a joke, often corny.


There's no fast talk or high-tech production, but the program is ranked as Radio Moscow's most popular feature.


The appeal seems to be in the brassy way Adamov answers questions like: What's wrong with Zhirinovsky? Have any cosmonauts seen UFOs? With personal anecdotes and research from Radio Moscow's library, Adamov uses his air time to respond to even the least inspired of queries.


"They love to hear me answer the dopey questions because I can tear them apart," said Adamov, as he looked through a pile of recent questions during an interview in his three-bedroom apartment in western Moscow.


"Here's one," he said, putting on a credible Indian accent. "A man from west Bengal asks, 'How many Indians are there in Russia? And what are they doing?'" Adamov guffaws. "How do I know? Who cares?"


Listeners, baffled by his fast, fluent American speech, have asked hundreds of times whether Adamov is really a Russian.


The son of Armenian parents, Adamov was born in 1920 on the Black Sea in Georgia. His father, an official with the Ministry of Foreign Trade, moved the family to England and then to Moscow, where Adamov attended an American school. Well-educated, 18, and bilingual, he looked to have a promising future -- until a February night in 1938.


"I was at a birthday party of a friend. I came home and I came across this search by men in KGB uniform. My father looked kind of indifferent. My mother looked on the verge of tears," said Adamov, pausing with a sigh. "When he left, he kissed my mother and he kissed me. He told her, 'It is just some mistake. I'll be home in two weeks.' Two months later, he was bumped off. Shot."


The experience brought an anger and disillusionment with the system that is still evident in Adamov's voice today.


"It just didn't make sense even to an 18-year-old when 80 percent of my father's ministry were pulled in as wreckers and spies. I could forgive and forget, but when you think of the scale of it, 40 million," he said, pounding his living room table and citing historian Roy Medvedev's estimate of those directly affected by Stalin's atrocities.


Even as a "son of the enemy of the people," the state found a use for Adamov, sending him to Radio Moscow in 1942 as an announcer on the North American broadcast. Through his work, Adamov had access to Western publications and broadcasts, which made it clear the world wasn't as Radio Moscow said.


"I acted as a lawyer for the defense. I was paid by the government," he said. "The lawyer for the defense, knowing that his client is guilty, sticks in bits of the truth."


Adamov's career progressed stead-ily, with the apparent trust and approval of the Russian government. After the start of "Moscow Mailbag" in 1957, he went on to translate at the 1961 trial of Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 spy plane pilot shot down by the Soviets. And in 1967 Adamov went to Montreal, Canada for a World Exposition.


During that visit, Adamov's appearance on Canadian and American television led to the first of three offers to defect and work in western radio and television.


"I had my wife here, that was the problem. What would have happened to her?" Adamov said of Yevgeniya, who died in 1984. "And every bird likes to return to his nest, no matter how prickly."


Since then, Adamov has made over a dozen trips to the United States, Canada and Australia, where he is something of a minor celebrity as a commentator on Russia. A 1990 article in an Australian fashion magazine, Mode, stated that "for a while he was better known than Mikhail Gorbachev himself."


As word gradually spread among English-language radio and television stations that Adamov made for an entertaining, informative interview, the demand for him snowballed. During the August 1991 putsch, Adamov did 51 telephone interviews in three days for Western news organizations.


Ironically, Adamov is virtually unknown in Russia.


"When I was in Seattle, they called me the Walter Cronkite of Russia. I'm not," said Adamov. "It's a pity. I feel sorry that I'm not better known in my own country."


But the recognition he gets from his foreign listeners makes his relative anonymity at home less troubling.


"The letters -- that's what keeps me going," he said. "Like most people, I don't make much money."


With a thinly disguised pride he rifled through a stack of letters he has received over the years. One North American writer discribed him as "a bright light through the dark years." Another listener from Arlington, Virginia, wrote, "you have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon," read Adamov, laughing.


And then there is his favorite, written on a torn piece of notebook paper from a woman in Chicago in 1974.


"You certainly are an asset to the Russian government," she wrote. "Your charm, poise and courtesy make us Americans stop and wonder, 'gee, the Russians are human beings just like us.'"


Adamov's mind wanders easily during the course of the interview, touching down occasionally on more mundane matters. Speaking over a loud metallic bagning from a neighboring apartment, he said angrily, "This has been going on for 15 years. Your nerves just give out after a while."


He sat for a moment, and then made a move to get up from his seat. "Where's my knife?" he demanded with mock savagery. "There'll be trail of blood leading to my door after I'm through with that guy."