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
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
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
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 :
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
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?
: 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"
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,
could not be sent anywhere as nobody would understand them but
Russian-speaking people only. Literally there were sacks full of
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!
Basic letter, chosen at random, in Russian with no enclosures
Letter, chosen at random, in English with no enclosures
Letter from a girl in English with no enclosures
Letter from a boy in English with no enclosures
Letter from a girl in English with a photo enclosed
Letter from a boy in English with a photo enclosed
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
here to send me an email if
you'd like to buy one or more of these fascinating letters.