Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

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Book Talk. Defectors: How the Illicit Fight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World
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Please join the Harriman Institute for a book talk by Erik Scott, author of Defectors: How the Illicit Fight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World. Moderated by Yana Skorobogatov.

Defectors fleeing the Soviet Union seized the world’s attention during the Cold War. Their stories were given sensational news coverage and dramatized in spy novels and films. In contrast to other migrants, defectors were pursued by the states they left even as they were eagerly sought by the United States and its allies. Taking part in a risky game that played out across the globe, defectors sought to transcend the limitations of the Cold War world.

Recently published by Oxford University Press, Defectors: How the Illicit Flight of Soviet Citizens Built the Borders of the Cold War World, is the first history of defection on a global scale. The book charts a global struggle over defectors that unfolded among rival intelligence agencies operating in the shadows of an occupied Europe, in the forbidden border zones of the USSR, in the disputed straits of the South China Sea, on a hijacked plane 10,000 feet in the air, and around the walls of Soviet embassies. Surprisingly, the competition for defectors paved the way for collusion between the superpowers, who found common cause in regulating the spaces through which defectors moved. Disputes over defectors mapped out the contours of modern state sovereignty, and defection’s ideological framework hardened borders by reinforcing the view that asylum should only be granted to migrants with clear political claims.

Although defection all but disappeared after the Cold War, this innovative work shows how it shaped the governance of global borders and helped forge an international refugee system whose legacy and limitations remain with us to this day.

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 (OUP, 2016) and editor of The Russian Review.