KGB Seized Penfriend Letters?

A fascinating piece of postal history


 


Has this envelope possibly been opened and resealed?  One of the marks matches up, but the other two don't seem to be exactly right.

The time was September, 1989.  Gorbachev was in power and perestroika was in full swing.  The cold war was thawing and a radio station, based in Moscow and broadcasting all over the Soviet Union, called 'Radio Youth', was running a special promotion called 'Let's Be Friends'.  This program encouraged Soviet children to write a letter, preferably in English, that would be passed to a child of similar age in the United States, with the expectation that the two children would be pen-friends.

The Soviet children mailed in their letters to the radio station's Moscow address.  It would appear that they were instructed to show their age and the 'Let's Be Friends' slogan (as well as their name and address) on the outside of the envelope, thereby enabling the station to simply sort and send on the letters without having to open any of them.

The writers are both boys and girls, usually ranging in age between 10-13, although one boy was only six and one other person showed their age as 19.  This means that the writers would now be in the general range of 22-25.  Most of the letters are in English, although a few writers wrote only in Russian - maybe the letters were intended to go to Russian studies classes here in the US?

The letters are short - one to two pages - and the English sometimes endearingly imperfect (but very good for young children - sometimes so good that I wonder if they have been helped by their parents or teachers).  Occasionally the writer would also include a photograph, sometimes black and white and rarely in color.  The children wrote from cities all across the USSR.

Curiously, a few of the writers, although of course asking for a reply, don't include their reply address, although it is always shown on the outside of the envelope.  Unfortunately, if the recipient couldn't read Cyrillic writing, the address would be very hard to decipher!

And now for the mystery.

Everything you've read so far is factual, based on an analysis of 200 of these letters.  What follows is speculation.

In June 2001 I noticed an eBay auction, in which the seller claimed that, for some unknown reason, the KGB seized 60,000 of these letters before they could be sent on to the west.  The seller went on to explain that recently these letters were released and, in a manner not originally countenanced, some of them were sold at auction and made it on to the US.  The seller had purchased 500 of them which he sold in several eBay lots.  I managed to secure a few of these myself.

They were received still sealed (or possibly resealed by the KGB!) in their envelopes.  I looked at them in fascination, trying to see evidence of them having been opened by the KGB.  Some of the writers went to considerable lengths to securely seal their letters, using glue in addition to the adhesive on the envelope itself, and some even put pen marks on the flap so as to make it more obvious if the letter had been opened and resealed.  As best I could tell, none of the envelopes had definitely been opened (see picutre on the left).

But - were these letters really seized by the KGB back in September 1989 (all the postmarks are in the mid/late Sept 1989 period)?  At first I immediately believed this to be true - presuming that the KGB had some sort of desire to minimise contact with the west, and, of course, simply believing the eBay seller's claims in his auction description.

Then, I noticed a strange thing.  I discovered that I had some covers, dated around the same time, sent to the same radio station and apparently to do with the same program, already in my cover collection.

My first thought was that maybe these covers had slipped past the KGB, or maybe they were finally released through a different source.  Or maybe the KGB let the program run without interference for a while, then stepped in when it became so popular.  There were lots of possible explanations.  Indeed, if you have a reasonable collection of covers, have a look in your collection, and maybe you have a cover or two to this address yourself (expand the images above to see the address more clearly.  If you do, please let me know anything you might recall about where and when you acquired the cover.

What was, to start with, already an interesting story became an even more interesting story, and I wanted to know more, and also felt somewhat uncomfortable about the KGB story.  I asked the eBay seller, who became somewhat uncommunicative now that he no longer had any more covers to sell, and being as how his major specialization seemed to be selling coins not Russian covers, he couldn't/wouldn't tell me any more, and didn't want to disclose where he bought the covers from himself <sigh>.

I asked around various experts, and no-one knew anything about this one way or the other.  However, one senior member of the Russian philatelic community, a Russian himself, had these comments to make :

Complete rubbish!  The greatest power of the KGB was that just a few people actually saw them but everyone knew that they exist and everyone was afraid of them, rather like the shadowy imagined dangers in a dark room.  Indeed, I think many rumours about the fearful capabilities and omnipresence of the KGB were distributed by the KBG themselves!

The reason that these covers disappeared and then reappeared is more likely to be very simple and to have no connection with the Security Services.  After all, in 1989 they were busy with absolutely different things than children's correspondence. Radio "Yunost" broadcasts nationwide and the manager who arranged the "Let's be Friends" promotion was probably not really thoughtful about how many letters they might receive, or what they would do with them. Probably what happened was that they had received a couple of letters from US children and said in a program about how they had US children wanting Soviet penfriends, and while they expected maybe 50 or 100 replies, they ended up getting something more than 60,000!  I expect that the whole mail department of the radio station was probably only a couple of people, the problem then became - who will deal with all this mail?  How to send it, one by one, to 60,000+ American children individually?  Or to send in bulk to an organization in the US to be distributed on to children? (And probably they did not know any US youth organization that would have agreed to accept such a huge number of letters for further distribution?).

It seems to me most likely that instead the letters were just placed in a storeroom somewhere and left, untouched.  Perhaps a few got sent on to US children, but the rest were left alone, no-one knowing what to do with them.  Then, maybe, a year or so back, perhaps the radio station was moving offices or just clearing out old material and the letters were rediscovered and someone simply took them and sold them for a quick profit.

Well!  What a different explanation that is!  :)

Maybe we'll never know the truth.  Maybe the KGB did seize them, maybe they sat abandoned and neglected in the radio station for twelve years.  But don't you think this also adds to the mystery and interest associated with them?

Exciting Update :  I asked a friend of mine in Moscow to see if he could get in touch with someone at the radio station and hopefully get some honest answers to what had happened to these letters.  He advised as follows :

I got in touch with the head of the Information Service of the Radio Yunost - that lady worked in 1989 at the station. She told me that, as she remembers, usually all letters were sent to their destinations. If it were a major campaign (with a political flavor) then it had to be duly financed (for the international postage etc). So really she could not throw any light at that case.

Then I contacted the head of the Advertising Section at the Radio Mayak - another state-run station. That lady had also worked at the Radio Yunost and she remembered a number of different public campaigns they ran in the late 80s. According to her, apparently there were too many letters addressed to the US pen-friends, so after initial designated sum for the international  postage was used the remaining letters were just thrown away - just like that.

Maybe someone decided to keep a portion of them and later on sold some letters. Both of the ladies deny any involvement of the "clock and dagger" specialists.

This explanation seems the most convincing, and also explains how some of the covers were already in circulation.  My first source commented on this further information :

It was really interesting to read. I've found that apart from human factor I'd forgot about finances, - Radio Yunost is a state owned company and every editorial team has a fixed budget arranged BEFORE an action, - if they were out of money for postage they had no chance to get even a penny extra!

And then, maybe ten days after I first heard back from my Moscow friend, he emailed me again.  It appeared that the people at the radio station had reflected further on their initial claim that all letters were sent on to their destinations.  He wrote :

I just got a call from Radio Yunost about those letters to US pen
friends in 1989.  Apparently some letters, those in English, were resent to
the USA. But as I was told there were too many letters in Russian, that
could not be sent anywhere as nobody would understand them but
Russian-speaking people only. Literally there were sacks full of letters
coming every day. So after a while they were just thrown away.

Hmmm.  Well, at least there is a partial admission now that 'sacks full of letters' were thrown away.  However, the claim that letters in English were mailed on to the US while only those in Russian were thrown away does not withstand close scrutiny.  All of the letters I received were unopened!  No-one could know what language they were written in.

A Further Update, April 2012 :  In April 2012, I received an email from a lady now living in California.  She writes :

While searching internet, by chance, I found your site. I have to admit that with great interest I read your article about Russian letters from children various ages who tried to find friends in USA or else were. 

I was one of them, now I'm 40 years old and reside in California...

I can tell you it was a movement of finding the truth behind thick curtain. People behind closed doors where listening foreign radio stations in order to find out more information about nearby "neighbors". In 1986 I lived close to China border but I can't find any other books about China at the library but encyclopedias with boring statistics...

I think you are very true about most of these letters, they where sent from no were just to find out real atmosphere in Russian households. My parents advised me not to write any replies due to political reasons but most of my friends continued correspondence and several times went to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

I would like to purchase few of them from you just to hold that piece of history... since I was that naive girl once in my life time.

So there it is, the probable answer to the mystery (although, of course, if the KGB did seize the letters, it is quite likely that the radio station staff would not want to admit this - you'll note how my Moscow friend doesn't even want to use their name, even now!).  And a contact from one of the letter writers, too.

While not as 'exciting' as the (now seeming to be fictional) tale of the KGB seizing the letters, it is still an interesting truth and an insight into life and customs in Soviet Russia in 1989 - which was a time of great hardship as the entire economic system of the Soviet Union was unraveling and causing severe shortages of even life's essentials.

I find these letters fascinating and even somewhat haunting - when I think of the innocent and hopeful optimism expressed in these letters, and then consider the twelve nightmarish years that were to follow, I can't help but think about what happened to the boys and girls who wrote the letters - what type of people they turned out to be and what type of life fate dealt them.  Did they ever wonder why no-one replied to their letters?

And what a contrast between the idealistic comments in the letters and the brutal mistreatment that the letters actually received.

Maybe you'd like to correspond back to one of the writers and tell them what happened!  Several of the writers mentioned that stamp collecting was a hobby of theirs, though whether that is still the case is anyone's guess.  People change address less frequently in Russia than in the west, so there is a good chance that your reply will actually make it to the person who wrote the letter 12 years earlier.

Whether you just keep the letter or actually write back to the author, it is a very special opportunity for you to have a cover and the original letter still inside it in your collection that - who knows, just possibly maybe was seized by the KGB!

Asking price

Basic letter, chosen at random, in Russian with no enclosures $1.50
Letter, chosen at random, in English with no enclosures $2.50
Letter from a girl in English with no enclosures $3.00
Letter from a boy in English with no enclosures $3.00
Letter from a girl in English with a photo enclosed $5.00
Letter from a boy in English with a photo enclosed $5.00
Address translation into English and a Russian return address label that you could use to send a reply, along with some notes on how best to send mail to Russia and the former Soviet Union $1.00

Please click here to send me an email if you'd like to buy one or more of these fascinating letters.

 

This page last modified on April 27, 2012