Meet Aviva LeKuch

She Used to Have the Most Popular Show on Voice of America

Interviewing Aviva LeKuch is a breeze.

Which isn’t the least bit surprising, considering that she interviewed over 350 people herself while hosting a Russian-language radio program in D.C. in the 1980s that was broadcast into the Soviet Union by the Voice of America.

The stylish and effervescent LeKuch, who lives in McLean, grew up in Latvia when it was under Soviet rule.  After her family emigrated to the United States in 1966, she went to high school in Saratoga, New York, and then graduated from Albany State.

Following graduate school in Slavic linguistics, she became a teacher.  Then in 1976 she moved to Washington and began working for VOA’s Russian Service.

“I started with pop and rock shows — youth shows,” she says, adding that as a young person herself, she knew what young people in the Soviet Union wanted to hear — “American pop music.”

Eventually, though, her subject matter became more substantive.

“I ended up with a political show, which was called The Nightowl.  It was the most popular show on Voice of America.  It was geared for the intelligentsia in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It was broadcast at midnight their time, four p.m. our time.

“I did that show for a very long time.  It consisted of fifteen minutes of news, and then some political-cultural material, and some music — because the intelligentsia liked American jazz.”

The show ended after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

A Latvian Childhood

Recalling her recitation of the Four Questions at the seders of her youth in Riga, Latvia’s capital, she says, “I remember mah-neesh-tanna, ha-lilah hazeh meekole ha laylot — I was the youngest one, so I still remember that.”

But seders and other Jewish observances were “not allowed under the Soviet government,” she says.  “It was looked down upon.  There was no religion, for that matter — neither Jewish nor Christian nor Muslim.  No religion.

“I was brought up as an atheist in the Soviet school, but my parents and my grandmother — we had a synagogue.  Actually we lived not far from the synagogue, and I had to go to the synagogue so nobody would see it, really, because if my school principal would see it, I’d get in trouble.”

“Everybody had to practice Judaism in the Soviet Union in secrecy, because, you know, ‘religion is the opium of the people,’ as Karl Marx said.  And that’s how we were brought up.  There was no religion.  I wouldn’t say that we were very, very religious — no.  But it was a tradition that we tried to keep.  We always had seder, we had Pesach, we celebrated Rosh Hashannah — the way we knew it, you know.”

I pose the following query:  “When you live in a system that prohibits practicing Judaism, does it a) make you more determined to be Jewish just to rebel against the authorities, or b) does it discourage you from being Jewish?”

“Basically, neither,” she responds.  “My rebellion, and my parents’ rebellion, was that we wanted to leave the Soviet Union.  That was the definite idea.  In those days — and we left in 1966 — the only way you could leave legally would be to unite a family.  You could not just say to the Soviet government, ‘I’m buying a ticket and I want to leave.’  It did not exist.  You couldn’t do that.  You couldn’t travel abroad.

“But you could unite a family.  And my grandmother happened to live in New York — that was my father’s mother.  All other relatives perished during the war.  Nazis killed them.  So we basically had no brothers, no sisters, no uncles, no more aunts, no cousins.  Forty-eight people died in the family.  I was born after the war, but they died without my ever seeing them.

“So, our only rebellion was we wanted to get out.  I knew as a kid that ‘I do not want to live in this country.’  That’s the way my dad brought me up.  He would not allow me to be a Red Pioneer.  And, of course, he would die if I would enter Komsomol, which is the Young Communist League.  He would not allow me to do that.  And that was not easy.

“There were only two kids in the class who were not in Komsomol, and I was the only one who was not a Pioneer.  And you could not say, ‘I don’t want to be a Pioneer.’  You just can’t say that.  I would say — my dad taught me — ‘I don’t deserve to be.  I don’t have all A’s, I have some B’s, and I don’t deserve the honor.’  And they told me, ‘Hey, come on, we have failing Ivanoff, who is a Pioneer.’  So, I’d say, ‘Well, that’s his problem.  I believe that a Pioneer should be an example for everybody.  It should be a person who has all A’s and I don’t have all A’s.’  So, they kind of let me go.”‘

It’s easy to see why she was such a successful broadcaster.  She has a friendly personality, tons of energy, and an optimistic disposition that the Soviet Union’s religious intolerance was unable to dampen.

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