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An Interview with Natella Boltyanskaya, Scholar in Residence

Today’s interview is with Natella Boltyanskaya, a scholar in residence working with Peter Roudik, Assistant Law Librarian of Congress for Legal Research, at the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.

Describe your background

I am a journalist. I have always been interested in the history of the Soviet human rights movement. In 2013, I started working on a documentary series about Soviet dissidents for the “Voice of America” radio station. I presented my documentary series to various audiences in many countries, including the Library of Congress in 2015. As a journalist, I have good skills in finding people who have valuable information. For example, ten people from different countries visited the Soviet Union (USSR) between 1968 and 1988 to protest against human rights violations. Seven of them are still alive. I found five of them in Norway, Italy, and Belgium, and interviewed them.

In 2016, I was a short-term scholar at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a Starovoytova fellow, researching international support to Soviet dissidents. When my fellowship came to an end, I applied for a residency at the Law Library of Congress to continue my research. International support received by Soviet dissidents is a complex matter, so I decided to focus on the support and help that US legislators provided to the Soviet dissident movement.

What is your academic/professional history?

Since 1991, I have been working at the Russian independent radio “Echo of Moscow” as an anchorwoman. I witnessed, and to a certain extent participated in, many historic events of the post-Soviet Russia: the failed coup d’état of 1991, the Moscow bloodshed of 1993, and the 1996 presidential elections, etc. As a radio journalist, I interviewed many newsmakers during Russian financial crisis in 1998, the terrorist hostage-taking at a musical theater (in Moscow), and the 2004 school siege in the city of Beslan, and many other important events in modern Russian history. I interviewed many extraordinary people, mainly human rights activists, political prisoners, foreign activists, journalists, NGO volunteers, and government officials, who supported the Soviet dissidents and helped to spread the word about human right abuses in the former Soviet Union.

I have also created and aired several programs on Russian history, and lectured on the history of the Soviet opposition to the communist regime. In 2014, Moscow Helsinki Group awarded me its human rights prize, for “the development of human rights protection traditions among young people.” In 2016, I spoke at the Human Rights Day celebration at the Law Library of Congress.

How would you describe your research project to other people?

My current research explores the means and extent of the support that was provided by American legislators to the Soviet human rights movement. The discovery of original documents led me to a better understanding of the full story, starting from the first acts of solidarity by American people shortly after World War II, and ending with national legislation restricting economic cooperation with the USSR due to their poor human rights record. In other words, it is a story of sanctions which is quite relevant for the modern world.

It was extremely important for my research to find documents demonstrating how on numerous occasions American legislators acted to advance the human rights agenda and keep Soviet leaders accountable for not meeting their international obligations. The most famous example is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, and I was able to explore the history of its adoption here at the Law Library. Naturally, not every legislative initiative was successful; however, all of them, even those which did not go through had a great impact, both in the USSR and internationally.

The analysis of those initiatives might prompt solutions to the human rights problems of today. While researching political and economic sanctions imposed by the United States on the Soviet Union in order to force it to respect the rights of its own citizens, I was able to locate materials on how the Congress addressed other recognized methods of dealing with human rights breaches in foreign nations, such as sending troops, bringing in refugees, and supporting local activists and protesters externally. These materials will make my research comprehensive and perhaps suggest some new approaches that would respond to present-day social and political challenges.

Why did you want to conduct research at the Law Library?

There were several reasons – both practical and romantic. American libraries are a treat for any researcher – many databases are available; everything is comfortable, and the workplace is well-equipped. I have worked in many of them. The Library of Congress is truly a top tier library. The Law Library of Congress is a very special place, where you can work with the documents showing American lawmaking processes in full detail. It is an ideal place for my research.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library of Congress?

The magnitude of its collection. Almost 3 million volumes in different languages. It is amazing.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I am a singer-songwriter and I have recorded six CDs and published a book of poetry comprised mostly of lyrics to my songs.

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