Sunday, July 16, 2006

Back in the USSR 

Let me begin by thanking King for his invitation to write for this blog. Hopefully I will be worthy of the opportunity. In keeping with King's frequent Eastern European themes, I have a post about the former Soviet Union.

Back in 1982, a ten year-old girl, Samantha Smith, wrote letters to President Reagan and to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov. The letter to Andropov asked why he wanted to conquer the world. Here is a portion of Andropov's reply:

It seems to me - and I take it from your letter - that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling in some way Becky - Tom Sawyer's friend from the well-known book of your compatriot Mark Twain. All kids in our country - boys and girls alike - know and love this book.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union endeavor and do everything so that there be no war between our two countries, so that there be no war at all on Earth. This is the wish of everyone in the Soviet Union. That's what we were taught to do by Vladimir Lenin - the great founder of our state.

I understand that Mona Charen's book, Useful Idiots How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, addresses the Samantha Smith episode, although I have not gotten to the library to check it out. I will have to save that for another post.

I have long wondered whether Andropov actually read Mark Twain or whether this was a calculated propaganda ploy. I will have to defer to actual scholars (SCSU or otherwise) on whether Mark Twain is widely translated and read in the former Soviet Union. But is Becky Thatcher sufficiently fleshed out as a character for Andropov to make the parallel with Samantha Smith? What do we know about Becky from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer other than the fact that she was Tom's first love and the daughter of a judge? If he had said that Smith reminded him of Laura Ingalls, we would immediately think of the mischievous middle daughter who is always stirring the pot with the adults in her life. But the reference to Becky Thatcher is puzzling. It seems to be designed to convince the American public that 1) the Soviets read Mark Twain, just like us, and 2) Yuri Andropov is a kindly old grandfather who is nice to little kids.

Whether or not the former KGB chief ever enjoyed a Mark Twain novel, this overture should have been seen by the American public as downright creepy. Remember the time Saddam Hussein tried to get five year-old British hostage Stuart Lockwood to sit on his lap? Same kind of thing. �Despot� and �good with children� do not belong in the same sentence.

The Samantha Smith letter and subsequent trip to the USSR was eerily similar to a late 1970s play, Peace Child. The play is set in a peaceful future utopia, with a flashback to the present day when two children from the opposing superpowers forge a bond that ends the Cold War.

Some local kids who went to the Soviet Union to perform Peace Child were invited to speak to the Social Studies classes in my high school. The performers sat on the stage and tried to convince us that the Soviets weren't really all that bad. One girl wore a beret (of course) and spoke in a lispy self-important manner, much like the Daffy Duck cartoon character. She made reference to how the �guards� were not all that scary and that the traveling performers �just blew 'em off.� Apparently she was referring to customs agents because she said that one of the �guards� questioned her why she was carrying a tape with the song �Back in the USSR� on it. She related how she told them it was a really good song and actually sang the first verse for them.

A quaint little story about a quaint little country where they check your cassette tape song list at the airport. Either that, or the failure of a peace activist to see oppression right in front of her beret.