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In 1986, as the Cold War neared its end, Harvard featured a Soviet prison camp of its own.
The Conservative club had built a gulag camp in the Yard that remained standing throughout the academic year, protesting human rights abuses in the U.S.S.R., recalled Charlene H. Li ’88.
According to Li, who likened the protests to those of the recent Occupy movement, students adhered to a schedule to ensure that the encampment was constantly occupied so that University officials would not tear it down.
Harvard’s lone gulag marked a tangible link between Harvard students and the Cold War, the decades-long standoff that separated the United States and its NATO allies from the Soviet Union and its satellite nations in Eastern and Central Europe. This connection was otherwise often lost on students focused on daily campus life.
“People were preoccupied with more mundane things, like ‘How am I going to do on my Ec10 exam?’ and ‘Who am I going to meet on Friday night?’” said Scott W. Horsley ’88. “It was probably the same thing in Moscow or East Berlin.”
Nevertheless, the tense political atmosphere of the epoch permeated campus, making its influence felt in numerous aspects of University life.
As an academic institution, Harvard played an important role in fostering cross-cultural awareness and dialogue between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
A SPACE FOR DISSIDENCE
The University was home to a number of émigré professors, who had fled the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe for a place to voice their opinions openly.
One of these was social sciences professor Liah Greenfeld, who had fled the U.S.S.R. with her family when she was 17. For intellectuals like herself, “the [Soviet] lack of freedom was unbearable,” she said.
These professors often published perspectives critical of the Soviet Union, as they “had strong commitments to individual rights and liberties and strong indictment of the totalitarian or Soviet system of government,” said Frank E. Sysyn, who taught Soviet and East European studies on campus between 1976 and 1988.
Featuring voices like Greenfeld’s, the many research contributions to Russian and European Slavic studies that Harvard’s Russian Research Center and Ukrainian Institute facilitated were not always appreciated on both ends of the spectrum.
“The soviet Union did not like the attention [Harvard] paid to dissidence within the Soviet Union, to the striving of European peoples to autonomy, and to various Eastern European cultures,” Sysyn said.
As a result, he said, many Harvard students researching Soviet countries were frequently denied access to important works.
Sysyn said he thought that this censorship made work in this area more attractive to students, who were already interested in studying the Soviet system.
STUDYING THE SOVIETS
To meet student interests, Harvard had created a regional studies program focusing on the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
The two-year masters program offered courses that aimed to provide students with a background in the history, cultures, languages, and politics of the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe.
Courses offered under the program included “The Soviet Political System” and Sysyn’s “The Other Europe: A Cultural History Of Eastern Europe.”
Lubomyr Hajda, who became the program’s academic coordinator in 1978, recalled a growing applicant pool that reached between 75 to 100 interested students in certain years.
Students showed marked enthusiasm toward the Solidarity movement in Poland, Czech writers who spoke of autonomy and dissidence, and emigration rights of Jewish Soviet citizens, Sysyn said.
According to Sysyn, funds from Washington supported the study of critical languages, namely Russian and Eastern European tongues, after the U.S.S.R’s development of the atomic bomb and deployment of Sputnik shocked the United States.
Meanwhile, nationalist groups hoping to preserve their cultures funded the study of European countries that had been swallowed by the Soviet Union.
THE LIMITS OF EXCHANGE
in addition to new paths of study on campus, Harvard worked to offer opportunities abroad. In 1988, the Harvard Center For International Affairs’ Student Council organized a Harvard-Soviet student exchange.
The trip allowed 12 undergraduates, one graduate delegate, and one professor to travel to Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, and Prague.
In conferences at Kiev State University, U.S. and Soviet students discussed concepts such as nationality and the American Dream.
A group of 12 soviet students also visited Harvard the following fall.
At the time, however, Harvard affiliates benefiting from the direct exchange with the U.S.S.R. still questioned the impact of these programs.
Anna V. E. Forrester ’88, one of the students in the group, recalled being skeptical of the effects of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s recent perestroika and glasnost policies promoting openness, transparency, and democracy.
“i didn’t know if what i was getting from the Russian students was genuine in terms of their ideas and what they had to say,” Forrester said. “People were inculcated with party ideas for so long—I couldn’t tell if they were just sprouting the new party line.”
Greenfeld echoed similar sentiments about a conference in London in 1987, during which she had met Moscow intellectuals.
When she asked the Soviet group if they were rejoicing over newfound freedom brought about by perestroika, she said, one member of the group became angry.
“Freedom! You talk about freedom!” she yelled. “There is no sausage in Moscow! And you talk about freedom?”
Soon after the Class of 1988 stepped off campus, the remaining structural tensions burdening the relationship between the two countries would shift.
CHANGES ABROAD AND ON CAMPUS
One year after her graduation and far from the gulag camp in Harvard Yard, Li found her- self in Amsterdam on November 9, 1989, the pivotal date that saw the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Two days later, Li took a train to visit the site of the wall firsthand and found her worldview altered.
“It completely changed everything i had ever studied—my whole world,” she said. Li had written her senior thesis on U.S. foreign policy toward declining dictators; now, these dictators were losing power. “The view of the political world that we grew up with and went to college with very quickly changed,” Li said.
Although students such as Horsley noticed “a certain amount of elation watching crowds on top of Berlin wall," the fall of the Soviet Union brought with it other instabilities.
But the end of the Cold War might have marked the beginning of a new mindset on campus—one of optimism for a different future, something Li felt when she returned to Harvard Business School three years later.
“There was a new sense of hope for peace,” she recalled.
—Staff writer Melody Y. Guan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MelodyGuan.
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