When Johan Galtung, who is widely regarded as the father of peace research, founded the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo in 1959, he and his colleagues sent copies of their working papers to a number of institutes around the world, including the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) in Moscow. They received acknowledgements from many quarters, but never heard from IMEMO. It was as if the papers disappeared in a black hole, leaving no trace. Despite this lack of feedback, the members of the Oslo team persistently kept sending their papers on alternative approaches to peace and security to IMEMO throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1979, Johan Galtung attended an international conference at [MEMO. During a break, the librarian approached him and asked, "Are you Professor Galtung? I would like to show you some-thing." She took him to the basement in the library, opened a locked room, opened a locked cabinet inside the room, and showed him a pile of papers. Here was the entire collection of papers that he and his friends had been sending over the years. So this was the "black hole." Surprisingly, the papers were worn out from having passed through many hands, edges bent and torn, with portions underlined and numerous notes in the margins.
Last year, Vladimir Petrovsky, then the Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister, came to Oslo to see Johan Galtung, gave him a big hug and said, "I really wanted to tell you how grateful we were for all your papers that you kept sending us. During the Brezhnev era, I was part of a group of young scholars at IMEMO who met frequently to discuss new ideas, and we studied your books and papers intensively, among others. We knew that our system needed reform, and that the time for change was coming. You provided us with valuable new concepts and concrete ideas of how to proceed."
We have indeed seen drastic changes in the former Soviet Union, and throughout eastern Europe, initiated by Gorbachev in 1985. They have many sources, but new ideas developed by Western peace movements-on human rights, economic and political participation, nonviolent conflict resolution, security based on mutual cooperation instead of threats and confrontation, conversion of military industries to civilian use, and non-provocative defense postures -which seeped into the former Soviet Union through various discrete channels and apparently found receptive ears, have played an important role.
Can individuals make a difference for the course of the world, or are their efforts insignificant compared to the major trends of history like the movements of a single molecule in the wind? It is clear that if the situation is not ripe for change, if nobody wants to hear new proposals, one individual can make little difference. But if people are unhappy with their present conditions and search for new approaches, a good idea, persuasively argued, can go a long way. Yet even when an opportunity for major change arises, someone must seize it or it may be missed. Similarly, if one plants a seed in the desert, nothing will grow. But even in the most fertile soil, under the best climatic conditions, nothing will grow without any seeds. As this account shows, we never know for sure whether an apparent desert may not hide fertile ground just below the surface, in which one seed can over time give rise to a whole forest. Even if we do not see the results of our efforts for peace immediately, we should not give up, because they may bear fruit some day in unexpected ways.
Dietrich Fischer is a peace researcher and professor at Pace University.