THE Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and Moscow's deplorable delay in disclosing it raised questions about the communications system in the Soviet Union; namely, how and from where the Soviet leaders get their information about what is going on in their own country and outside its borders. Ivan Stadnyuk, the official biographer of Stalin, who had access to secret Kremlin archives, acknowledges the fact that in Stalin's dining room there was a Telefunken radio set that his wife's brother had brought back to him from abroad.
During the war, when the Soviet news agencies were issuing doctored communiqu'es from the front, the suspicious tyrant did not put much faith in the reports from his own commanders -- he would push the button on his foreign-made radio set and, holding his ear close to it, get the war news from the Russian-language broadcasts of foreign radio stations. That was how he first learned that his son Yakov had been taken prisoner and later executed by the Germans.
We do not know whether Nikita Khrushchev listened to the Voice of America and the BBC when he was in power. But after he was removed from office and became a pensioner, he definitely became a regular, avid listener to those broadcasts. According to his closest relatives, what interested him more than international news or fascinating gossip was political information about his own country.
The Russian writer Felix Kamov, who now lives in Israel, told us (when all three of us were still living in Moscow) about a meeting in 1977 between a group of ``refuseniks'' and Leonid Brezhnev's minister of internal affairs, Gen. Nikolai Shchelokov. General Shchelokov frankly told them that he had learned from a Voice of America broadcast about a Jewish demonstration in Moscow that had been broken up by policemen -- who were of course under his own authority.
Mr. Brezhnev himself, no less than his ministers and very likely more than his predecessors, was extremely fond of listening to shortwave radio. He especially liked to do it when he was in Zavidovo, the woodland area not far from Moscow, where members of the Politburo spent time hunting, relaxing, holding sessions, and even entertaining foreign guests (for example, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were overnight guests there.)
To ensure undisturbed and ``clean'' reception of foreign radio broadcasts for the Kremlin Olympians, this area is left free of jammers -- of which we ourselves found confirmation more than once when we were in that vicinity. (We could hear the faint sounds of jammers only in adjacent areas.)
One of the superintendents of the Politburo's hunting lodges in Zavidovo told us that Brezhnev preferred Japanese-made shortwave receivers; that he tried not to miss a single evening broadcast by the Voice of America; and that he took a special interest in its analysis of the alignment of political forces in the Kremlin and in the odds put on each of his potential heirs, no doubt so that he could render the most likely one harmless in good time.
Unlike him, Yuri Andropov, according to a credible story, preferred the BBC to the Voice of America because the former's reportage was ``clean'' -- unburdened by ideology and propaganda. When he was KGB chairman he listened to foreign radio broadcasts as part of his job. At KGB headquarters, on Dzerzhinsky Square where he had his office before moving to the Kremlin, they routinely record any and all transmissions around the clock -- in Russian and in the other languages of the USSR -- from Western stations, ranging from the Voice of America to the Voice of Israel.
The tapes are then transcribed and filed in huge ledgers that are kept, in chronological order, on iron bookshelves in special archives for the internal use of KGB staff members. They are, however, available to some Soviet journalists who use them as a basis for writing anti-American, anti-Zionist, and anti-Western books, such as the recently published ``The Poisoned Voice of the Airwaves,'' ``Anti-Communism on the Airwaves,'' ``Beware: The Deutsche Welle!,'' The Real Face of Zionism,'' and the like.
Along with eyewitness accounts of the Kremlin elite's predilection for foreign broadcasts, we offer herewith one of its own members' viva voce admission of that vice. The man in question is Grigory Romanov, who has lost out in the power struggle with Mikhail Gorbachev and was expelled, last year, from the Kremlin. At the time, we were living in Leningrad, where he was serving as party boss.
One day the magazine Aurora, where one of us (Elena Klepikova) was working as an editor, made an ``ideological blunder'' in mentioning Andrei Sakharov as a model of morality, along with Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Robert Oppenheimer. This was at the time when the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb had just come into conflict with the Soviet authorities; at that moment, however, the ostracism of Dr. Sakharov had the form of a ban on mentioning his name in print.
When Mr. Romanov summoned the editors of Aurora to party headquarters and chewed them out for their lack of vigilance, the magazine's editor in chief quite reasonably asked how she was supposed to know who Sakharov was and what crime he had committed, since neither she nor the members of her staff ever listened to the ``voices of the enemies.''
To that Romanov unexpectedly retorted: ``All of you must listen to the Voice of America and the BBC and the Deutsche Welle so as to become familiar with the enemy's poisoned weapon.'' And then we, the Aurora staffers, realized that Romanov himself listened to these foreign radio stations on a regular basis.
It is hardly likely that Mr. Gorbachev differs in this respect from his Kremlin rivals, colleagues, and predecessors. Foreign radio stations are the only sources of accurate and timely information about what is happening in the world, including the USSR itself. This is why we are inclined to believe that Mr. Gorbachev and his Kremlin comrades also first learned about the Chernobyl catastrophe, not from their Ukrainian subordinates through the rusty pipeline of Soviet communications, but from the Russian-language broadcasts of the Voice of America or the BBC.
Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, both Russian born, are the authors of the book ``Behind the High Kremlin Walls.''