Yuriy Handler 1936-2011 – Soviet Dissident, Former Director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service


Remembering A Mentor

by Mario Corti

No one has told Yuriy Handler’s story better than his daughter, best-selling American novelist Paullina Simons.

When I was 9 years old my father picked me up from school and as we were walking home on Nevsky Prospekt, he said, “Paullina… we are moving to America….” While he was… in prison, he had taught himself to read and write English, because he wanted to speak the language of the New World, give himself a surer footing, a stronger chance… And when they asked what he would do in this new frightening country, he said, “I want to work for Radio Liberty.” He had listened to the jammed radio signals his whole adult life, Radio Liberty broadcasting freedom over the shortwave to the Soviet Union, and it meant something to him, and taught him about America, those programs about culture and politics showed him a glimpse of a life beyond his horizon. But they said, “You know nothing about journalism.” He said, “I’ll learn.” “You’ve never done radio!” He said, “So what. How hard can it be? Is it harder than melting metal for telephone poles while in exile? Harder than two years in the Gulag”? …That is the kind of man my father was…

Yuriy Handler did it! He became the New York Bureau chief of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, where he managed to put together perhaps the best team in the history of that unit: the legendary Sergei Dovlatov, Boris Paramonov, Marina Yefimova, and Peter Vail. “New York, New York,” He was the kind of person who could make it anywhere, and he did it in his inimitable way.

Eventually, much to his own credit, and that of Kevin Klose, then President of RFE/RL, who appointed him, Yuriy Handler became director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service first in Munich and later Prague. It was a period of radical change — “perestroika,” both in the Soviet Union and at RFE/RL — competition with the developing Russian media, direct interaction with listeners, emerging new technologies, a chance for the first time to recruit and work with journalists in Russia and to open news bureaus in Moscow and St Petersburg.

New approaches were required, a new mindset. RFE/RL and the Russian Service seemed to be heading for a disaster like a ship without a pilot, and suddenly Yuri  emerged — the right person, at the right time, at the right place. When RFE/RL moved out of Germany, he offered to lead the transition, and he managed to bring the Russian Service from Munich to Prague without losing a single minute of broadcast time.
Unfortunately, to the great sorrow of his friends and family, and to the detriment of U.S. international broadcasting — as never before, so much in need of sound counsel — Yuriy L’vovich Handler, a Russian Orthodox believer, a devoted husband, a loving father and a loyal friend, died on January 17, in Murphy, North Carolina.

There are many people who are very talented, very smart and knowledgeable. But often their lives revolve so much around themselves that they lose the ability to share their wisdom and experience with their friends and colleagues. They depart this life without leaving behind anyone who can continue their work. Yuri

Handler was not such a person.

He could spot in his colleagues even those qualities he himself did not have. These extraordinary people have the rare ability to impart wisdom and to inspire. Thanks to them, we improve and develop. Yuriy Handler was this kind of extraordinary person.

He liked metaphors, proverbs and aphorisms. One of his favourite was: ”Power is like a bank account, the more you spend, the less remains.” He realized that he was surrounded by very talented people. Not too many managers in this profession recognize talent, let alone admit that there can be anyone more talented than themselves. Yuri was different. He would sometimes compare his job to that of a gardener. And what is the job of a gardener? — he would ask. Fertilize, nourish the plants, water them, protect them from harmful agents, remove weeds, give each plant the specific care it requires, place it in the best possible light, et cetera, et cetera.

It’s not easy to work with and manage highly talented individuals: egocentric, capricious, envious as only gifted people can be. He had to motivate them, assign the right functions and tasks, so that each one could feel comfortable performing these assignments and making the best use of his or her skills. He had to reconcile conflicting interests. Ultimately, he had make his colleagues work together in a disciplined manner and a cooperative spirit. He did it his way. He found extraordinary combinations of talents, subjects and techniques. Thanks to him, we were working together in an intellectually inspiring atmosphere.

In general, Yura was more of a mentor and an older brother to many of us than a boss — a well of wisdom and good advice. While discussing our programs with us — which he had always done — he was very kind and gentle, but at times — when it was necessary — he was also tough and severe. I remember when — after many months of anxious waiting on my part — he approved one of my radio projects, and then he listened to the first program I produced. In his gentle manner — after pointing out some of its good qualities — he tore it up into pieces. He was absolutely right.

I also remember the thrill that stirred the whole service when, to mark the centenary of cinematography, we produced the “kinodvadtsatka”– “Radio Liberty Top Twenty” — a radio serial of twenty one hour-long programs, each devoted to one of the twenty best movies of the century selected by Russian Service editors. All of us, in one way or another, participated in this project. It was a chorus of true artists and great sounds, and Yuriy was its conductor. He loved cinema, particularly American cinema — yet another field, in which Yura displayed profound knowledge. Afterwards — inspired by that experience — some of us began pondering new ways of evoking images in the minds of radio listeners by the mere use of sound — an art which, according to some, is the very essence of radio.
Yuriy had the qualities of a fisherman — fishing was for him more than just a hobby; it was a mindset. A fisherman must be perseverant, have an eye for the right moment, and must keep himself out of sight. Yuri was not a frequent participant in Radio Liberty programs. When he did go on the air, he set the pattern for brevity, cogency and clarity of expression. But behind and within the best of our programs, there was always something that went beyond his advice and his intellectual contribution — there was his Russian soul, and his American passion.

His colleagues’ successes always made him happy. There was not a shadow of envy or jealousy in him. And I should like to touch here, briefly, upon another one of Yuriy’s many human qualities. Talented people can be prone to self-damaging behavior. He saw as one of his duties to protect his colleagues from this dangerous tendency. I know of many he had saved from self-destruction.

There were good and even excellent Russian Service directors before him, but I can hardly imagine anyone who could achieve Yuriy Handler’s high standards after he had left Radio Liberty. For whatever reason, he decided to end his work in the Russian Service. To many of us, it was a premature departure. After he moved back to the United States, he remained available and forthcoming, continuing to share with us his wisdom, wit and experience, whenever we reached out to him. But what could replace the physical presence of a true leader? Nothing could.

Yet for him — and perhaps also for us — it was the right time and the right thing to do. And he did it in his inimitable way.

I’ve lived, a life that’s full, I’ve traveled each and every highway.
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.

This was Yuriy’s most favorite song.

Mario Corti