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NEH grant to study Soviet defection, migration issues

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

LAWRENCE — In film, fiction, and on the nightly news, defection occupied a key role in the Cold War as the United States and its allies sought to accept Soviet citizens and others seeking to leave socialist countries that used their borders to keep people in.

"There was a romanticized notion in the Western imagination that these were ideologically staunch opponents of communism who had, to cite the title of a famous defector's memoir, 'chosen freedom' over life in the so-called 'captive nations' of communism," said Erik Scott, a University of Kansas assistant professor of history.

But historians need to do more to understand the complex story of borders that defined and limited the global movement of people, commodities, and ideas during the Cold War. Scott recently received a $6,000 Summer Stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities to study and produce a book, tentatively titled "Soviet Defectors and the Borders of the Cold War World."

The NEH Summer Stipends program supports individuals pursuing advanced research that is of value to humanities scholars as well as general audiences. In the last five competitions, the Summer Stipends program received an average of 930 applications per year. The program makes an average of 81 awards per year, for a funding ratio of 9 percent. KU's Hall Center Grant Development Office helped secure the award.

As part of his project, Scott will examine how capitalist states facilitated the practice of defection, even though they were not always sure what to do with defectors themselves. Despite the popular romanticism surrounding defectors wanting to leave a communist country and live in the United States, Western leaders often viewed defectors as ideologically unreliable and psychologically unstable, or as potential Soviet spies.

Some specific cases even created political headaches, such as the violent hijacking of a Soviet commercial airliner by a Lithuanian father and son in 1970, which resulted in the death of the plane's flight attendant. U.S. leaders desperately sought to find a third country to re-settle the pair but were ultimately forced to grant them asylum, facing harsh criticism from the Soviet side that America was "harboring terrorists."

Despite the overt politics involved in some cases, Scott noted that were usually many other factors at play, both in terms of the reasons that defectors sought to leave and in terms of the goals and practices of Soviet border policy.

By examining recently declassified KGB documents in Ukraine and Georgia, including the internal correspondence of the Soviet border guard agency, he will seek to piece together the complex motivations of Soviet policymakers, who sought to prevent the exodus of those with strategically valuable skills. They were also concerned about protecting their citizens from the supposed risks of life in the capitalist West, he said.

"Previous scholarship has oversimplified the story by arguing that the Soviet Union maintained inward-facing borders simply because it was a 'totalitarian' state interested in maximizing social control," Scott said. "This explanation neglects how the Soviet border changed over time and was internally contested. It also does little to consider the potential demographic and economic consequences of truly open borders for a Soviet state that had lost nearly 30 million of its citizens during the Second World War."

After the Cold War, defectors virtually disappeared as political actors, and Scott said that his book will seek to compare the Cold War context with the state of migration today.

"Today, granting refugees asylum no longer carries the ideological justification that it did during the Cold War, when receiving defectors reinforced a sense of superiority in the West about the supposed virtues of the capitalist system compared to life under socialism,'" he said. "That line of thinking has all but vanished. Instead, there's a humanitarian argument that is made about the importance of human rights. People do have human rights and they should be protected, but the defense of universal human rights doesn't seem to have the same impact in terms of convincing skeptical domestic audiences who are wary of letting refugees in."

Moreover, in contrast to the Cold War, many migrants and refugees today are fleeing failed states or those so weak that they are barely functioning, including in Central America, northern Africa and the Middle East.

"There is just not the same sense of competition for the hearts and minds of refugees that there was in the Cold War," Scott said. "On the one hand, the states they are leaving have porous borders and don't necessarily want their citizens to stay; on the other hand, refugees often find themselves unwanted upon their arrival in a potential sanctuary state."

Photo: The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989. Source: Wikipedia