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Prestigious NEH grant to support project on Soviet defections

Monday, January 14, 2019

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas historian has received a prestigious $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete his book project on the history of defection from the Soviet Union and what it can tell us about the nature of Cold War borders.

Erik Scott, associate professor of history, said the project challenges the notion of the Cold War era as a place of stable boundaries from 1945 to 1991. His research traces the winding journeys of defectors from the Soviet Union to the West through border zones, extraterritorial spaces and disputed areas beyond the limits of state jurisdiction, including international waters and airspaces.

"While states typically use borders to keep undesired migrants out, socialist countries from Cuba to the People's Republic of China often used borders to keep citizens in," Scott said. "In contrast to refugees in the contemporary world, defectors constituted a class of migrants whose exit was not authorized and who were actively pursued by states they left, even as they were eagerly sought by the states that received them."

Defections touched off disputes between the socialist and capitalist camps, and the episodes often played out across the globe, capturing the popular imagination and turning ordinary citizens who illegally fled from socialist countries into public celebrities, he said. For example, in the 1984 movie "Moscow on the Hudson," Robin Williams depicted a Soviet circus musician who defected while on a visit to the United States and garnered widespread publicity.

Scott said his project will also examine how the term "defector" has virtually disappeared from popular discourse since 1991 when the Cold War ended.

"It is striking that today defection is rarely mentioned," he said. "It is sometimes used to describe people leaving holdover socialist states like North Korea but is almost never applied to other migrants."

In his first book, "Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire," Scott offered a new understanding of the multiethnic nature of the Soviet empire by examining internal mobility and diaspora, and he said the current project connects internal and external processes of movement and identity formation among Soviet migrants.

To follow the global journeys of Soviet defectors, Scott conducted research in over 20 state and private archives in six different countries. He extensively used untapped archival sources, including recently declassified KGB files from Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. The notorious Soviet security agency was tasked with enforcing the Soviet border, investigating cases of unauthorized departure and preventing would-be defectors from leaving.

"Despite the term's dramatic rise and precipitous decline, the subject of defection has received scant scholarly attention and remains poorly understood," Scott said. "Defectors were a numerically small group; nevertheless, their status as migrants caught between the socialist and capitalist camps offers a unique glimpse into how the national and ideological borders of the Cold War were defined and disputed throughout the world."

A closer understanding of these issues will also likely challenge our understanding of the Soviet state's relationship to the world around it in a creeping area of globalization, he said, and it will help us understand an international refugee regime whose legacy and limitations remain with us to this day.

"Defection's ideological framework hardened international borders by reinforcing the view, still widely held today, that asylum should only be granted to migrants with clearly delineated political claims," Scott said.

In contrast to such a view, his research suggests that ideological boundaries — and the aims of migrants who cross them — have long been contested and complex, even along the Iron Curtain.

Since its establishment in 1965, the National Endowment for Humanities, an independent federal agency, has supported some of the nation's most significant humanities projects through its highly competitive fellowship program.

Photo: Former Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko’s military identification document, via the CIA Museum, public domain. Belenko defected to the West in 1976.