Oleg Shevkun: “I Don’t Know How to Trim My Sails to the Wind”

“I Don’t Know How to Trim My Sails to the Wind”: The Head Editor of Radio Station for the Blind on His Dismissal for Speaking Out on Crimea
Darina Shevchenko
October 6, 2015
Yod

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Oleg Shevkun. Courtesy of his Facebook page

Oleg Shevkun, head editor of the online radio station of the All-Russia Society for the Blind (VOS), was fired after making comments on the air about the unlawfulness of incorporating Crimea.

“I think that, from the viewpoint of international law, the incorporation of Crimea was unlawful. And the countries that responded to it with sanctions are right. We got Crimea along with isolation from the rest of the world,” Shevkun said on the air.

The VOS confirmed to Yod that Shevkun had not worked since late September: he had resigned voluntarily. Shevkun, who is wholly visually impaired, told Yod about his firing and what he planned to do next.

Why did you start talking about the incorporation of Crimea on Radio VOS, which, according to its website, is engaged in “covering all aspects of the life, work, and adaptation of people with visual impairments”?

We have tried to stay away from politics on our radio station, but it turns out to be impossible. From September 14 to September 20, the VOS held a big festival entitled “Crimean Autumn.” The point of the festival was to gather the visually impaired people of Crimea and pass on the VOS’s know-how to them. Radio VOS was involved in the festival, and on the eve of the festival we got a question from a listener in Ukraine while we were on air: “Are you going to Crimea for reasons of conscience or because your job requires it?” I could have left the question unanswered, but I am used to speaking sincerely with people. I said that my conscience did not bother me, but that I considered the incorporation [prisoedinenie] unlawful from the viewpoint of international law, and was surprised how Crimea had become part of Russia. And that I was even more surprised that this idea had been supported by the residents of Crimea. Then I added that we were going to visit people who had supported this business, and we had something to offer them.

So you did not use the word annexation” [anneksiia]?

No, I think I answered the listener’s question politically correctly. The head editor had to voice his own position on Crimea. And this was what I did. I should note that no one who called into the studio during this program disputed the unlawfulness of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. Listeners said, Well, what of it? America breaks the law, too. If it is going to be “Well, what of it?” then we will be living by the laws of the jungle. Mom taught me not to steal, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,” and in contentious situations you have to negotiate.

What happened after this broadcast?

At the festival in Crimea, one of the participants asked Alexander Neumyvakin, the president of the VOS, why management was not monitoring the content of programs on Radio VOS. Neumyvakin said there are different opinions, but the program was soon deleted from the archive. Vladimir Bazhenov, director general of the VOS cultural and sports rehabilitation complex, told me I would be fired after the festival.

How did he explain this decision?

The radio station survives on subsidies from the state. If the higher-ups find out we have been criticizing Crimea’s incorporation, blind people will end up out of work and without rehabilitation.

Do you think he was expressing his own fears or did he get a signal from higher up?

Bazhenov told me the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knew about what I had said about Crimea. But I think he was playing it safe. During the following program [at the festival], the blind people of Crimea said they had been shocked by what the head editor of Radio VOS had said, and had welcomed the “little green men” like family. In the evening, at the banquet celebrating the end of the festival, after one of the toasts it was announced that among us there was a certain person . . . Basically, he no longer worked at Radio VOS. And they called my name. I was asked to publicly renounce my beliefs; then, maybe, I could keep my job. I refused to refute my personal opinion. Bazhenov  replied that, if that was the case, I should either resign voluntarily or they would fire me for cause and I would never be able to get a job again. I was not allowed to host my programs, for example, a talk show about new technologies for visually impaired people. We took second place with this talk show at a competition for radio programs in the Central Federal District.  I used to think that such situations happened only in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s books.

How did your colleagues react to your dismissal? Did they try and defend you?

My colleagues were told I had said on air that Crimea had been annexed, although this was not the case. There was a co-presenter with her own position and two listeners on the program in which we discussed Crimea. Everyone voiced different opinions, as should be the case when an important topic is discussed. The management objected: what had been acceptable two years was now impossible, and I should have sensed which way the wind was blowing.

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Oleg Shevkun on the air at Radio VOS. Courtesy of his Facebook page

What did you say?

I don’t know how to trim my sails to the wind. If I follow the wind all the time, what will be left of me?

Had you made any political statements on the air earlier?

When Russia’s isolation from the world began, we did the program “Navigator,” about the lives of blind people around the world, and we established a partnership with a radio station for blind people in Great Britain. We did a big interview with Seva Novgorodsev and Dina Rubina. We have tried to remain open despite the trends in society. We did programs with blind Ukrainian people, and they talked about what had changed for the better for them after the change of regime. “Crimea is ours” [Krymnash] was also in our programs. For example, I did an interview with Sergei Aksyonov, the head of Crimea.

Have you found a job yet?

I am still looking, but I am confident there will be work, despite all the complications. After my firing, a nasty text about me, entitled “Anatomy of Freedom” (by analogy, apparently, with “Anatomy of a Protest”), was leaked onto forums and social media.  It explains to our listeners that I am an “American sectarian” and that I have “American curators.”

Why was it necessary to write and distribute a text like that?

After my firing, listeners were outraged and asked questions. The text explained to them who I was.

The text also says that “under your leadership, Radio VOS really became a ‘ray of light’ for many blind people.” Tell us how you got the job of head editor at Radio VOS and what you accomplished during your time in the post.

I was a pastor in the Evangelical Church, taught, and always dreamed of working on the radio. In 2011, VOS Radio was founded, and I began doing a show there on technologies for the blind. The ratings went up. In 2013, I was offered the job of head editor.  Under my leadership, the team managed to increase our listenership by several times. We have a great team consisting of ten professionals, both sighted and visually impaired people. I am certain they will go on working at a high level. We have won prizes at different festivals where such famous radio stations as Echo of Moscow and Radio Russia were involved.  Many new programs have come on the air, for example, a program about how blind people can solve everyday problems. On the show “Student Council,” students talked about how blind people should behave in a university cafeteria and adapt to life in a dormitory. We broadcast music by visually impaired musicians. It was very important to us to establish a dialogue with our listeners. For example, blind people sit at home and need to break out of this isolation.

The presenters give them the opportunity to call on the air; they guide them through the discussion, support them, and inspire them. For example, a man calls on the air and says he hesitates to use a white cane. The presenter asks him which is more shameful, to go out carrying a white cane or stay put at home. The man finally agrees  he should get out of the house.

Or, for example, we had a blind man from Yekaterinburg, Oleg Kolpashchikov, who sails, on the air. He and his crew of blind people have traveled nearly around the world. Kolpashchikov talked about what it had been like when he lost his sight. He is even glad to be blind now, because it is disgusting to have to look at some people’s faces. He said all this in a pleasant bass voice, calmly, easily, positively. Maybe he said it crudely, but such words give confidence to people who have recently gone blind.

So you almost never discussed sociopolitical topics on the air?

Very rarely.

Do you regret you expressed your opinion about the incorporation of Crimea and lost your beloved job?

The director general said he had not been happy with my political position for a long time. I did not hide my political views. For example, I came to work wearing a “I am praying for Ukraine” ribbon. My dismissal was a matter of time. I grew up on Radio Svoboda and Echo of Moscow, and cannot quickly cave in to a fickle world.

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