Defection and the Cold War

I’m a Cold War kid. So, I remember defector films as entertainment-propaganda. One that sticks in my memory is White Nights (1985) starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines. The plot is heavy with Cold War themes–two defector dancers–Hines to the USSR, Baryshnikov to the West. Circumstances put them together in Leningrad, and after some initial friction, the dancers become buds. The duo eventually join forces to get the pregnant wife of Baryshnikov’s character out of the USSR. The film’s drama is helped by the fact Baryshnikov himself defected from the Soviet Union to Canada in 1974. Like most of these Cold War-era American films, politics and morality coincide giving the viewer a binary window into defection. Soviet citizens want out, and America is happy to oblige them.

Enter Erik Scott’s new book, Defectors: How the Illicit Flight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World. Scott shows that things weren’t always so black and white. Both the United States and USSR tried to manage the flow of people across the Iron Curtain. America certainly welcomed defectors, but only those of a certain type. For the Soviets, they were just traitors. After a brief period of celebrity, life for defectors was hardly glamourous. Those able to find stability and fade into obscurity fared best. A few even went back. And most “defected” for reasons that had little to do with ideology. As Scott explains, despite its Cold War inflection, “defection” was more part of an increasing globalizing world where movement across borders required regulation and management.


Erik R. Scott is Associate Professor of History and director of the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas. He is the author of Familiar Strangers: The Georgian Diaspora and the Evolution of Soviet Empire and editor of The Russian Review. His new book is Defectors: How the Illicit Flight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World published by Oxford University Press.


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