#KUFieldworks: Surveying defector policies with declassified documents
Editor’s note: Fieldwork provides invaluable insights about real-world environments and processes, expanding and reinforcing what researchers learn in classrooms, labs and collections. KU faculty, staff and students across a spectrum of disciplines are taking their inquiry directly to rivers, prairies, dig sites, glaciers, islands, burial grounds and more this summer. Through the #KUFieldWorks series, we'll join them on their adventures.
Q&A with Erik R. Scott, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies
LAWRENCE — Throughout the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union changed their border and migration policies to account for defectors, people who leave their home countries to join an adversarial nation. These changes have a lasting impact as their legacy shapes laws governing who can declare refuge status to this day. Historian Erik Scott closely examined newly declassified historical documents in archives across five countries to shed light on defection and its impact on the present. His new book, "Defectors: How the Illicit Flight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World," showcases his findings.
What methods, approaches, experiments, etc. are you using?
In the Cold War, defectors fleeing the Soviet Union seized the world’s attention. Their stories were given sensational news coverage and dramatized in spy novels and films. However, as individuals they remained mysterious and often misunderstood. In my new book, I uncover their history by tracing their journeys through state archives and personal collections around the world. Working in more than 20 archives in five different countries, including Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States, I pieced together their fragmented biographies. I also conducted interviews with defectors themselves to get a more personal perspective than archives typically offer.
Why does your study matter to your field or for society?
It is true that defection all but disappeared after the Cold War, but the phenomenon shaped the way that the world’s borders are governed and helped forge our current refugee system. While the notion of defection helped spur the creation of aid organizations and policies assisting people fleeing repressive regimes, it also hardened borders by reinforcing the idea that asylum should only be granted to migrants with clear political claims. This approach has left many people today who are fleeing economic or environmental devastation effectively stranded at our borders.
What do you enjoy most about being in the field?
I truly enjoy the opportunity to travel, but what I love most is the thrill of finding something unexpected in the archives. While archival work can be tedious and involves sifting through many dull files, occasionally you do find documents that shed new light on your research question, or even change your understanding of the subject altogether. It is these discoveries that make historical research so rewarding. One discovery I made when looking into the history of defection was that many of my subjects had complex motivations for fleeing and mixed feelings about their country of asylum. Some, in fact, sought to return home. This discovery led to another, related finding: that while the Soviet Union and the United States competed for defectors, they found them rather difficult to manage. By the end of the Cold War, the two superpowers were working together to regulate borders and make spontaneous movement more difficult.
What are some memorable (funny, scary, surprising, etc.) moments from the field?
I had the opportunity to be among the first researchers to examine the KGB files that were declassified by Ukraine and Georgia in recent years, part of an effort by both countries to distance themselves from the Soviet past. These files comprise criminal cases launched against defectors, border enforcement records, and surveillance operations conducted inside the Soviet Union and abroad. In both countries, I was graciously assisted by local archivists, who were striving to preserve, organize, and make these documents more accessible despite persistent funding difficulties. I was fortunate to complete my research before the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. However, I still think of my colleagues in Ukraine, who today are continuing their efforts to preserve their country’s history, even in the face of a brutal war.
When is fieldwork frustrating, challenging or overwhelming?
Nearly every day in the archives brings its own frustrations and challenges. It is often hard to find what you are looking for, and when you do, the information is usually incomplete. The extent of what we don’t know about the past can be overwhelming. However, there is still the promise of discovering something new, and unexpected finds can be as useful as expected ones, if not more so.
How does fieldwork complement the work you do elsewhere?
My work in the archives would not be possible without the work of other scholars working on the history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War more generally. KU Libraries has an excellent collection of recent and classic books examining both subjects from a variety of different perspectives. Reading these books helped me hone my research topic and make sense of much of what I found in the archives. Being a historian is sometimes a solitary pursuit, but you are always part of a collective effort to understand the past.
First photo: University of Kansas researchers conduct fieldwork in prairies, rivers, streams and mountains. The #KUFieldWorks series follows researchers on their fieldwork adventures.
Second photo: In May 2023, Erik Scott traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, where he conducted a series of interviews with basketball players and officials from the Soviet and post-Soviet periods.
Third photo: The archives of the Soviet KGB in Ukraine are located in central Kyiv, inside the offices of the current Security Services of Ukraine .
Fourth photo: Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs Archive houses the declassified records of the Soviet KGB. Among its collection are the belongings of Soviet spy chief Lavrenti Beria, shown here.