The Contest for Human Rights: Soviet Soft Power Through Détente, Reform, and Collapse, 1973-1991
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CitationKerley, Elizabeth Carol. 2016. The Contest for Human Rights: Soviet Soft Power Through Détente, Reform, and Collapse, 1973-1991. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation examines Soviet approaches to human rights as a soft power issue across three periods of challenge and innovation: the mobilization of international human rights criticism in the 1970s; the launch by Mikhail Gorbachev of projects to transform the Soviet Union’s domestic life and international standing; and the progressive fragmentation of the USSR along national lines in the period 1988-1991. Through an assessment of late Soviet human rights strategies and their relationship to domestic practice, and drawing on the “spiral model” proposed by Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink (1999), it illustrates the ultimate dependence of human rights norms’ meaning and effectiveness on the broader argumentative context in which they are situated. It complements existing literature on human rights in the Soviet Union, transnational activism, and the Conference on Security in Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) process by focusing on establishment Soviet approaches to the concept, while also looking beyond the internal theoretical content of Soviet human rights discourse.
Drawing primarily on archival sources, this work examines the evolution of the Soviet relationship to international human rights norms with a focus on the institutions and individuals responsible for mediating and articulating the Soviet relationship to international human rights norms on a day-to-day basis: diplomats, scholars, Communist Party officials, and representatives of the centrally directed “public organizations” that provided a Soviet entry point into international civil society. From this perspective, it shows how Mikhail Gorbachev’s rejection of the once tightly scripted and heavily compartmentalized Soviet approach to international human rights discussions both enabled a sweeping expansion of the USSR’s soft power project in the area of human rights, and catalyzed its transformation. It further demonstrates, using a case study of the Ukrainian republic, how national leaders coopted the central government’s use of human rights initiatives as a means of establishing international legitimacy, and outlines central Soviet authorities’ redirection of human rights critique towards new problems of minority rights and federal relations in response. Major themes of this work include the changing relationship of international norms to domestic practice; the role of authorized Soviet “public” groups in an evolving society; and the mutual relationship between international human rights diplomacy and late Soviet contestation over national statehood.
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