Children’s Crusade. How ‘innocent youths’ can be used

Since the Cold War, politicians have used children as pawns in their PR games to win sympathy across both sides of the debate.

The term contained in the title evokes a distant past. In 1212, two expeditions set off from Europe for the Holy Land. What was special about them was that they involved children whose mission was to convert Muslims. Not with fire and sword, but with their own innocence.

In the end, the venture failed. And the world wasn’t kind to the little crusaders. Disease consumed some, while the waves of the Mediterranean swallowed others. There were also those who managed to reach the Middle East, but became slaves there.

The "Children's Crusades" are still taking place today. However, their aim is no longer evangelisation, but the dissemination of fashionable politics in the world – such as radical environmentalism. Its proponents propagate extreme oikophobia – an aversion or fear of home surroundings or familiar environments. In their eyes, humanity is a mortal threat to nature. The most famous example of this phenomenon is, of course, the work of Greta Thunberg (she started as a 15-year-old, but today she is an adult) and her young followers.

In this context, what US Cold-War-era child protester Samantha Smith did can also be considered a “children's crusade”. July 7 this year marks the 40th anniversary of the arrival of this young American woman in Moscow. In the autumn of 1982, before this journey began, Samantha, with the approval of her parents, sent a letter to the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union himself, Yuri Andropov. Samantha was 10 years old at the time.

This was a period of rising Cold War tensions. On the one hand, US President Ronald Reagan decided to use the arms race to finish off the “evil empire”, while on the other, in the USSR, after the death of the infirm Leonid Brezhnev, the face of the era of stagnation, the screws began to tighten. The aforementioned Andropov, who had previously been in charge of the KGB, took over as state leader. This experienced army general was the Soviet Union's ambassador to Hungary from 1953 to 1957. In 1956, he organised the bloody pacification of the national uprising by Soviet troops in that country.
American girl Samantha Smith (right) with her friend Natasha Kashirina from Leningrad at the Artek Soviet pioneer camp in 1983. Photo: Photoagency Interpress / Russian Look / Forum
When Andropov came to power, visions of global nuclear war were rife in the mass imaginations of the West and East. This was expressed in the acclaimed 1983 American feature film with an all-star cast, “The Day After”, which depicted the terrible consequences of a nuclear confrontation.

Fears of annihilation got to Samantha Smith. The image of Andropov in the US media as a politician pushing for global conflict worried her greatly – so much so that she decided to write him a letter. In this correspondence, she asked the General Secretary why he wanted to conquer the world, or at least her homeland. She also addressed the following message to him: “God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please lets [sic] do what he wanted and have everybody be happy too.”

Samantha's letter was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda. However, she did not receive a response.

  Undeterred by this, the American girl turned to the USSR ambassador to the USA by letter, asking if Andropov would answer her. As a result, in the spring of 1983, the Soviet leader finally got back to her in writing. Andropov assured Samantha that the Soviet people – in line with what, he claimed, Vladimir Lenin himself had taught them – did not want to attack any country, and that they wanted only peace. In addition, the letter included an invitation for the American girl to visit the USSR, so that she could see for herself that the Soviet people were in favour of international friendship. Summer, a time of warm, sunny holidays, was suggested as the date for the visit.

And so Samantha travelled to the Soviet Union with her parents. The Soviet media enthusiastically reported on her tour of the USSR in July 1983. Samantha toured Moscow and Leningrad. In the capital of the USSR, among other activities, she visited Lenin's Mausoleum and laid flowers at Yuri Gagarin's grave and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. She publicly shared the thought that the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution is to the Soviet people what George Washington is to Americans.

But the highlight of the programme turned out to be Samantha's stay in Artek, the famous pioneer camp in Crimea. Instead of comfortable hotel conditions, Samantha chose to stay with the pioneers to get a taste of their daily lives. Care was taken to make her feel at home. Her company consisted of children with English language skills. A picture of Samantha in pioneer attire with her Soviet peers demonstrated how much she liked Artek.

Andropov, the old KGB fox, knew what he was doing. The American girl was shown the Soviet version of the Potemkin villages. The Kremlin ensured that Samantha was enthralled by the façade specially constructed for her visit. As a result, she promoted a positive image of the USSR in the West. She said that in the Soviet people were just like her compatriots and did not want war.

The US press wasn’t as enthusiastic about Samantha Smith's trip behind the Iron Curtain. On her return from the USSR, the young “ambassador for peace” breezed through the American media. What was important, however, were the voices criticising Samantha's escapade. Quite simply, many people in the US realised the obvious propaganda nature of the action taken by the Soviets.

Accusations reached Samantha that she had become a tool of the Kremlin. And she tried to refute them in interviews. She stated bluntly: “I believe they used me. But if it was even propaganda, it was propaganda for peace.” Hearing that she had not seen everything in the USSR (by implication, what her hosts did not want to show her), she commented: “When receiving guests at my place, I wouldn't show them a cluttered, dusty basement either.”

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Such cursory, embarrassing arguments can, of course, be put down to her young age. After all, political maturity is not a trait of teenagers. Nevertheless, Samantha would not have been able to make a career for herself without adult support. And she owed it to her parents' commitment. They supported their daughter's naïve message because, by all accounts, they believed in it themselves. The Smiths turned out to be a family of the Kremlin's 'useful idiots'.

In 1985, Samantha Smith and her dad were killed in a plane crash in the US state of Maine. Conspiracy theories circulated in the Soviet Union that it might have been an assassination organised by the CIA. According to them, the teenager was supposed to have endangered American policymakers with her initiatives (we could say: her “children's crusade”). Ultimately, however, the investigation showed that no one premeditated the crash.

Although the USSR collapsed three decades ago, there are two post-Soviet states across Poland's eastern border whose leaders are using the methods employed during the Cold War by politicians such as Andropov. They are, of course, Russia and Belarus.

One of the reasons for triggering the migration crisis on the border between Belarus and the European Union was to provoke a reaction from various opinion-formers in Poland who, in the name of a peculiar humanitarianism, would demand that the country's authorities take in people from Asia sent by Alexander Lukashenko's regime.

And this is exactly what happened. When the Polish state decided to defend itself against the Belarusian hybrid attack, it came under fire from left-wing and liberal circles. They allegedly had no regard for the security of their country. They adopted the logic of emotional and moral blackmail. After all, they argued, among the Asians forcing their way across the Belarusian-Polish border are mothers with children. How can you not let them in? This is cruelty, they shouted.

In this way, Poles were played by Lukashenko – just like Samantha Smith's parents were played by Andropov. Fortunately, there was Ronald Reagan during the Cold War. We can only hope that in Poland, too, politicians will prevail who put a sober assessment of the state of affairs above naïve sentimentalism.

–Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by Roberto Galea
Main photo: The Children's Crusade, 1212. Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library / Forum
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