MURFREESBORO — An MTSU scholar will go to Russia this summer to conduct research into one of the strangest incidents of the Cold War.
Emily Baran, an assistant professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts, will leave the United States on Saturday, June 10, to investigate the “Siberian Seven,” a group of Pentecostal Christians who sought refuge in the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1978 to avoid persecution by the Soviet regime.
Baran’s two-month stay in Russia is funded by a $6,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. While she already has perused newspapers and other publications in this country, including the papers of the Rev. Billy Graham, Baran will use the trip to visit the State Archive of the Russian Federation.
“It’s a challenge for … historians to get themselves over to the archives where they need to do their research, and this kind of funding is just absolutely essential to doing significant work on topics in the Soviet Union,” Baran said.
In June 1978, eight Pentecostals from two Siberian families made a mad dash for the American Embassy in Moscow in a last-ditch effort to gain religious freedom. One was tackled by Soviet guards, beaten and sent back to Siberia. However, the other seven made it into the building.
This put both countries in a no-win situation. The U.S. could not get the Pentecostals out of the USSR without exit visas, which the Soviets largely refused to grant until the final years of the Soviet Union’s existence.
For the Soviets, the standoff brought increasing world attention to their continuing crackdown on the practice of any religion, especially Christianity. While religious organizations could seek registration with the government, the restrictions that came with registration were so limiting that they were tantamount to banning religion altogether.
“You couldn’t hold religious services in public,” said Baran. “They had to be in a designated house of prayer. You couldn’t perform charity work. You couldn’t proselytize. You couldn’t hold special youth group or children’s activities.”
In 1982, following a hunger strike, one of the “seven” had to be hospitalized. After she recovered, she was returned to her home, but the publicity surrounding her plight finally put pressure on the Soviets to negotiate in good faith. Ultimately, the seven and several dozen other Pentecostals were allowed to leave the USSR in June 1983.
“It touches on a lot of bigger issues, in particular, this transnational movement by Christians in the West, in Europe and the United States, and Soviet Christians to try to work together on issues of human rights and religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain,” Baran said.
While the implications for world and religious history are important to Baran, it is equally important to her to make sure those who endured the ordeal are paramount in her work.
“I think their story is just so compelling on a human level that I want to be able to tell it in a way that doesn’t lose that, that retains a very personal dimension,” she said.
Baran earned her bachelor’s degree from Macalester College in 2003 and her master’s degree and doctorate from the University of North Carolina in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Her areas of expertise include the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet world, religious history, human rights and church-state relations.