sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

January 18, 2013

Odd Pen-pals

Filed under: parenting, politics, Soviet Union — Tags: , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 6:29 pm

For some mysterious reason American politicians are required to kiss babies.  We might be increasingly skeptical as a people, and we distrust both major parties, but, evidently, it’s still advantageous for the politicians to put their lips to germ factories.


I hope Obama’s latest use of children as props to advance specific agenda will backfire, and our leaders will stop stop hanging out with kids in general.  When announcing his executive orders intended to curb gun rights, Obama lined up a handful of kids.  The kids, evidently, sent letters to the President asking him to curtail the 2nd Amendment.

The first time I heard of an American kid writing letters to world leaders was in 1982.  I was 9 and the very photogenic Samantha Smith was 10.  The uninhibited Samantha sent a letter to Soviet General Secretary Yuri Andropov asking him to not have a war with the United States.  Although Andropov didn’t personally answer Samantha, her note was printed in Pravda.  Samantha persisted, contacting the Soviet ambassador to the United States.  After that Andropov printed his answer to Samantha in Pravda, and the girl’s family was invited to visit the Soviet Union.  The Smith family went on a guided tour of Moscow and Leningrad, and the girl spent a few day in Artek, the camp for the children of nomenklatura.

Samantha Smith holds up a letter

She was a minor TV celebrity and a news sensation in the States, but I doubt many Americans remember the girl, or even had heard of her.  She was, however, a huge star in the Soviet Union.  Since she had enormous propaganda value for the Soviet regime, she was put on state TV on heavy rotation.  An average Soviet person was taken with the affable American girl.  Andropov said that she reminded him of Becky Thatcher, and the country digged the comparison.  (Do American kids still know who Becky Thatcher is?)

I couldn’t understand how a girl of 10 could write to world leaders.  Unlike everyone else I knew, I did have a foreign pen-pal, a cousin in San Francisco, whose letters, when they arrived, arrived pre-read — it was obvious that somebody messed with the envelope.  I knew better than to write to foreign politicians, and I certainly wouldn’t correspond with our own Soviet higher ups.

Irina Tornopolsky did.  She was about the same age and, like me, lived in Kharkov.  Irina signed a letter to Andropov asking him to release her dad, a political prisoner, and allow her family to emigrate to Israel.  Although the letter was printed in the Western press, and it’s hard not to sympathize with her family’s predicament, Irina did not become a glob-trotting international celebrity.  Let her travel abroad, and she’ll defect.  Without strategically staged photographs, she was merely a footnote to a footnote in Cold War history.  Tornopolsky’s family later admitted that the message was written by a friend, and that the friend wanted to attract attention to the plight of refuseniks at the time when Samantha Smith was giving gushing interviews about Lenin being just like George Washington.

The very photogenic Katya Lycheva became the Soviet peace prodigy a la Samantha Smith.  She “wrote” to Reagan, and traveled around the world as a young “goodwill ambassador”.  Katya, of course, was widely believed by her compatriots to be a KGB stooge.

Promotional picture of Katya Lycheva. In case you are wondering, no Soviet kids didn’t play with stuffed globes and doves. We had normal toys, meaning all boys were encouraged to engage in imagination play with plastic guns. What do you do with a globe and a dove, anyway? The bird is not even half as good as your average Teddy bear, and the globe is a poor cousin of a soccer ball

I had questions about Samantha Smith, and my dad explained that Americans generally don’t feel constrained about approaching their politicians, but that particular girl was probably encouraged by her parents.  The girl didn’t live to figure out that she was used.  Samantha Smith and her father died in a plane crash in 1986.  The Soviet press immediately declared that the tragedy was a result of foul play — it wasn’t.  Anyhow, I doubt Samantha Smith’s surviving mother would agree with my dad’s assessment.

Gosh, what do I know?  Girls certainly like to exchange notes, and some American girls particularly unself-conscious.  I certainly don’t see my children approaching world leaders any time soon, and I see it as a good thing.  Their scribbles are most likely to be ignored.  Should they be particularly unlucky, they can be used as stage props, as Obama did to the anti-gun kiddos a few days ago.

We all know that the kids were thrust in front of the cameras in order to mix up our cool logic with emotion — or, to spell out the particulars, to get the wingnuts to shut up already — how in the world are the correct-thinking individuals suppose to win an argument?  I doubt any of these kids would be hanging out with the ‘Bamster, should their parents not approve and encourage their epistolary habits.  “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” is what we say about politics.  And yet it’s perfectly appropriate to drag kids into it.


  1. Very interesting post, thanks for it. I’ll admit to my large degree of ignorance. The only name that even rang a bell was Andropov. And even that required seeing the name to jostle the memory.

    have a great weekend!

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — January 19, 2013 @ 8:26 am

    • I think this story is a Cold War footnote, basically. I asked DH before I posted if he recalls any of the girls, and he said, no. A Russian woman my generation would remember Samantha and Katya because we were the same age and they were all over the media, and we didn’t have a lot of choice in the media we had (two national TV channels and another Ukrainian TV channel, for instance, and that’s it). I vaguely recall the Katya Lycheva with the globe and the dove picture from a Soviet paper, and I had to google Samantha Smith’s name.
      I had no idea about Irina Tornopolsky. Her letter was read on BBC somehow, presumably Russian Serive of BBC as well. It was done mainly for Western consumption.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 22, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

  2. We all know that the kids were thrust in front of the cameras in order to mix up our cool logic with emotion…

    The logic fallacy that Obama employed: appeal to the people. Very effective way to sway people’s minds. **sigh**

    Comment by Always On Watch — January 20, 2013 @ 5:09 am

    • Your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. I don’t think many teachers today bother to know what fallacies are, let alone explain them to their students.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 22, 2013 @ 9:57 pm

  3. Fascinating I had never heard of any of those girls.

    I wrote a letter to GHW Bush in 1989 or something. Anyway I asked him how the 1st Amendment gave the Government the power to make burning the flag illegal… that if we couldn’t burn it wasn’t that censoring our speech?

    I got a letter back and they thought I was FOR making a law to ban burning the flag. I didn’t respond… I figured that’s the way politicians are. My mother saved the letter.

    Comment by Harrison — January 20, 2013 @ 11:17 pm

    • I think it’s an interesting minor story (see my response to Linda).
      You’d think they’d employ people with minimal reading comprehension to go over letters.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — January 22, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

  4. We all exist to serve Dear Leader King Barack. It’s for the children.

    Comment by Infidel de Manahatta — January 21, 2013 @ 7:56 am

  5. […] Odd Pen-pals […]

    Pingback by Sunday Links: Facebook Friends Pics Edition Volume 50 — February 5, 2013 @ 6:58 pm

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