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.


June 21, 2011

Yelena Bonner, RIP

Filed under: Israel, politics, Russia — Tags: , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 2:34 pm

Yelena Bonner was Soviet human rights activist and wife of Nobel Price laureate Andrei Sakhorov.  She passed away last Sunday, June 19th.  Mainstream obituaries highlight her heroic opposition to Soviet brutality:

Bonner’s life revolved around the political struggles that characterized the Soviet Union in the 20th century. She joined forces with Sakharov in the early 1970’s.

Bonner was born in 1923 in Turkmenistan into a family of prominent Communist Party officials, according to a biography posted on Harvard University’s website. Her father was killed in Stalin’s purges during the “Great Terror” of the late 1930s, and her mother was interned in a gulag for 10 years.

Bonner was twice wounded during World War II while serving as a nurse for the Soviet military. She became a physician after the war.

She married Sakharov, known for his work on the development of the atomic bomb for the Soviet Union, in 1972, according to the Andrei Sakharov Foundation website.

Following his work on the atomic bomb, Sakharov began publishing writings critical of Soviet politics.

Bonner followed Sakharov into exile in Gorky, in western Russia, in 1980. She was permitted to take trips to Moscow, which enabled her to smuggle Sakharov’s critical writings on the Soviet Union out of exile.

Bonner was convicted of “anti-Soviet agitation” in 1984 for smuggling Sakharov’s writings and lost her travel privileges to Moscow. She was confined to Gorky with her husband.

Mikhail Gorbachev ended Bonner and Sakharov’s exile in 1986 by inviting them to return to Moscow, according to the Andrei Sakharov Foundation.

Bonner, a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976, received the Rafto Prize in 1991 for her promotion of human rights in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia, according to the foundation.

What is said of her later years is either this:

She moved to the United States to be with her daughter after Sakharov’s death in 1989. She published at least four books on her life as a dissident, according to the Harvard website.

or this:

She never stopped speaking out about her country’s politics. In the 1990s, she sat on President Boris Yeltsin’s human rights commission until resigning to protest his military assault on Chechnya.

More recently, she challenged President Vladimir Putin’s human rights record. When a petition circulated in 2010 calling for Putin to step down, she was among the first to sign it.

Bonner was part Jewish, and kept her mother’s maiden name through her marriages.  She embraced her Jewish and Armenian heritage and Russian culture.  She identified with the Soviet refusnik movement of the 70s and 80s.  In her late years Bonner was a staunch supporter of Israel.  Here I turn to Israel Matzav:

Quoting Sakharov, Ms. Bonner reminded the 2009 Oslo Forum audience, “All wars that Israel has waged have been just, forced upon it by the irresponsibility of Arab leaders.” She expressed her “alarm because of the anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment growing throughout Europe.” Ms. Bonner also pleaded for the human rights movement to remember the plight of Gilad Shalit, asking her human rights colleagues why his fate doesn’t “trouble you in the same way as does the fate of the Guantanamo prisoners?…”

Were she a pro-Palestinian, Bonner would be the darling of Western intelligentsia.  Bonner was on the side of freedom in the defining conflicts of her age: she fought against Nazism and Communism, and spoke out against radical Islam.  A remarkable woman and a true hero, RIP.

Yelena Bonner

Yelena Bonner with husband Andrei Sakhorov

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