Obituary: Peter Dornan

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PETER DORNAN was a quiet and meticulous scholar who dedicated his life to making the voices emerging from the Soviet Union in the burgeoning samizdat movement heard both at home and around the world.

It was as a research analyst at the Munich-based station Radio Liberty in the 1960s that he realised more should be done to promote those inside the Soviet Union struggling for individual, political, social, national and cultural rights who, at great risk to themselves, were sending their writings out of the country.

To make better use of the material reaching the station, he pushed for the establishment of a Samizdat Unit, which he headed from its inauguration in 1968 until his retirement in 1988. He was the first editor of Materialy Samizdata, a weekly Radio Liberty publication that became the biggest collection of annotated documents not only on human-rights violations in the Soviet Union but on a range of other issues not covered in the official Soviet press.

Originally created for internal use, Materialy Samizdata was soon made available to external subscribers, becoming the main source of information for scholars and journalists interested in the subject of human rights violations in the Soviet Union and the various campaigns for greater rights.

To protect his sources from KGB retribution, Dornan declined to divulge how he acquired his texts and was always highly security- conscious. Only one or two trusted colleagues had the code to the colossal safe that sat in his office, while the originals of the documents were rarely let out of his control.

His unit received and published (in Russian) not only material from Russia but from and about Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states and smaller nationalities such as the Crimean Tatars. By the time of his retirement the collection - now housed in the Central European University in Budapest - had topped 5,000 documents.

Dornan's vast experience of handling samizdat documents gave him a feel for what was genuine and what was material planted by the KGB to discredit the dissident movement. Never once did he slip up. The only other documents he suppressed and refused to publish were the rantings of maniacs, virulent nationalists and anti-Semites.

The verification and publication of the often disparate voices coming through in samizdat helped these views become better known among Western scholars, who often resisted going beyond traditional Kremlinology and finding out about real life in the Soviet Union, but also within Radio Liberty itself.

Long derided as a CIA propaganda organisation, Radio Liberty was able to draw on these authentic voices to make its broadcasts more relevant to its audience in the Soviet Union and help to become a "domestic broadcaster" in a way that had been hitherto impossible.

"He really burned himself out," one former colleague recalled:

He knew no limits on working hours. He could work practically 24 hours a day deciphering badly printed or hand- written texts from Russia.

An academically extremely honest person, he would not release a document from Russia for publication without verifying all its information the best one could in the circumstances. For historical statements in samizdat texts he would go through all possible reference materials to check their reliability and would always attach footnotes to documents, expressing either his doubts as to the reliability of either the whole document or certain statements therein, or simply adding additional information.

Dornan gained his master's degree from the University of Chicago and - after a brief stint at the city's housing authority - undertook research on the Soviet Union at the University of Michigan and at the Ford Foundation. He joined Radio Liberty in 1956.

Because of his preoccupation with the handling of samizdat he never produced any major published work. His one contribution was a 60-page study of Andrei Sakharov, produced in the early 1970s.

Dornan - who never married - was dedicated to his unique profession. He renounced all thought of academic scholarship for the tedious but vital day-to-day work deciphering and evaluating the flood of uncensored documents that began to break down the Soviet information blockade.

His execrable spoken Russian and the fact that he never visited the Soviet Union did not prevent his becoming one of the most knowledgeable people anywhere about life there.

He was self-effacing to the last; his name appeared only rarely in print, but his patient behind-the-scenes work brought many voices of the oppressed from within the Soviet Union to the attention of the world. This is his legacy.

Peter Dornan, archivist: born 1923; head of Samizdat Unit, Radio Liberty 1968-88, died Springfield, Pennsylvania 1 November 1999.