Opening Doors for Survival during the Cold War
The Cold War in the 1980s was very scary with some Westerners calling for ‘Better Dead Than Red’. Something had to be done to counter the Big Lie of fake news that ‘we’ Westerners could not live together in peace with ‘they’ the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear war was imminent.
I immediately wondered how bridge-building, peace-making, and friendship arrangements could help get to know the stranger. My friends and I approached the Canadian External Affairs and other departments to see if we can use their reception rooms to host Soviet champion skaters and scientists.
‘This was never done’, they said, ‘We can’t set a precedent.’ What then were we to do to facilitate learning and help change public opinion as with the Hundredth Monkey phenomenon?
My home was a friendly place and could accommodate up to 60 people. So in 1984, I opened the doors for Living Room Discussions on Saturday afternoons from 2pm to 5pm, with 17 sessions ending in April 1985 with an Adventure Peace Tour to the Soviet Union.
Speakers came from the Soviet Embassy, the Consulate and the Press Office, with open invitations to over 60 groups in the Ottawa area. Themes included: semantics, education, constitution and political system, women, the arts (culture, theatre, cinema and ballet), environment, social services, family structure, east-west trade, defence and military policy, foreign policy, literature, agriculture, religion, media, longevity and health, and a general review. As an anthropologist, I used the metaphor of stepping into the shoes of the other as well as going on an exotic journey into a strange land, with weekly stops along the way.
For many participants, this was the first time to personally meet Soviets on a person-to-person basis, thereby helping to dispel many misconceptions about our northern Soviet neighbour.
For some of those who came one or two times, they came away with little change in their perspectives — their readings and lectures at the university did not fit the findings of the direct experience and so they went along with their professors’ views. Whom was one to believe?
While CBC TV did a good job in reporting on one of the sessions, a competitor CJOR-TV sent a reporter one day before the next session and came out with a sensational story targeting us with being a training ground for spies. As a sensational Big Lie, the report discredited us as a bona fide friendship project and had an effect in disrupting the discussion sessions.
The adverse publicity had little effect in dampening interest for the Peace Tour. We got a full house with 33 Canadians and one American joining the tour of some of the most exciting cities of Leningrad, Moscow, Volgograd, Tbilisi, Baku, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Sochi. Participants ranged in age from the mid-20s to 82, and came from a cross-section of major peace movements, religious groups, ethnic organizations, as well as civil servants and those in private business.
What united us was a common concern for the survival of our civilization on planet earth and the hope of giving our children an opportunity of growing up in a world without wars. In practical terms, this meant No First Use, the Freeze (to stop the arms race), and genuine efforts towards disarmament and peace. That to me is the real meaning of peace.
With fake news in today’s Cold War world, are we not repeating again the dangerous lies about our northern Russian neighbours and others?
When will we ever learn?
By: Koozma J. Tarasoff, anthropologist, ethnographer, historian, writer and peace activist. (firstname.lastname@example.org).