Natasha Kashirina Remembers
I met Samantha in July of 1983, toward the end of my summer camp session in Artec. I remember that leading up to her arrival, everyone in camp was very excited and even a little apprehensive. Most of the kids at camp had never met an American before, let alone an American who was also a personal guest of the leader of the Soviet Union! We tried to imagine what Samantha and her parents would be like as we made our way to greet all of them at the airport. I must admit that our imaginations ran a little wild. When we finally saw a smiling, thin, pretty girl emerge from the plain, one of the campers behind me sighed in astonished relief, “She looks just like any girl I know!” After this all of our concerns and worries were swept away and a whirlwind of joyous excitement followed.
Samantha was a curious child and wanted to know and see everything! Every aspect of our lives was of interest to her. Everything from our daily routines and the food in the camp cafeteria to all of our activities, including the daily dorm clean-up, she found fascinating. My friends and I had a million questions for Samantha in return. We wanted to know about her home, her school, her friends, what games they enjoyed, etc. I don’t remember ever discussing politics or speaking about our governments; we were just hungry to know about kids’ lives on the other side of the planet. Sometimes campers wanted me to interpret for them and to express to Samantha how important it is to keep peace between our countries, but it seemed to me an unnecessary thing to say to a friend with whom one has not even had a single argument. That we all wanted to live in peace was a given.
During the three crazy days that Samantha spent at Artec, she and I learned that we had much in common. We both loved splashing in the sea and diving for pretty pebbles and seashells, we both thought that boys were pests, we both loved animals, and we both disliked cafeteria food. When it was time for Samantha and her family to leave for the next stop on their journey, my hometown of Saint Petersburg, we agreed to meet each other there to spend one more day together. I was proud to share with her my favorite summer spot in my city, Petergoff; a magical place full of opulent palaces, fountains and whimsy. In return, after the excursion to Petergoff, Samantha and her family invited my mom and me to join them for lunch at their hotel, where Samantha and I played together and were just silly for a while. We tried on ballet shoes that she received as a gift from one of the Kirov Ballet prima-dancers the previous evening, and we hammered out a duet of “Chopsticks” on an antique piano that we found in the hotel. We were both very happy on that day and felt like we never wanted to part nor ever say goodbye. However, life took its course and that day was the last time that I saw Samantha in person.
After Samantha left the Soviet Union, I received several postcards from her, one of them from Japan. In it she wrote to me about her work in the area of child diplomacy and she posed this question: “If kids like us can become friends just by getting to know each other and by spending a little time together, then what are our countries really arguing about?” This message of peace and friendship resonated with people around the world. In Russia, Clubs of International Friendship began to grow and thrive throughout the country. Club members worked tirelessly to reach out and meet people from other countries, people just like them but on the other side of the “Iron Curtain.” We all believed that the tiny threads of human connection that we were making - multiplied by thousands of us - would make a difference in narrowing the abyss that government ideologists created between our countries. I became president of one of these clubs, hoping that in my own small way I too could support and strengthen the movement that Samantha had started. Our club met with foreign tourists regularly, hungrily learning about their way of life, showing them ours, and building personal connections and friendships.
After Samantha’s tragic death in 1985 there was a sense of despair in many of us, as if the guiding light and the inspiration for the peace and friendship movement had been extinguished. I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I say that all of Russia mourned Samantha’s passing as if she was the country’s own daughter. At that time I received countless letters from children and adults alike, from the far reaching corners of all of the Soviet Republics. Those letters were full of promises to keep Samantha’s legacy alive and to continue to strengthen people’s diplomacy through individual efforts. In Saint Petersburg we got a new boost of hope when we found out that Jane Smith was continuing to promote Samantha’s vision for the future through the work of the Samantha Smith Foundation. For years this organization provided opportunities to children from many countries to get to know one another personally by spending time together in camp, in the United States. I had the pleasure of spending time in such a camp in Samantha’s home state of Maine, working as a counselor in 1991. It was one of the most wonderful and rewarding experiences of my life.
Nowadays as the nations of the world seem to move ever farther apart, I can’t help but think about what Samantha would be doing to counteract this drift. For my part, as an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles, every year I share the story of Samantha with my students. I encourage them to learn as much as they can about the world beyond our borders and about the different people in it. We write letters to pen-pals in Russia as well as exchange artwork and photos. And so in our small way, my students and I try to follow Samantha’s example and make the world a better, less divided place.
As adults we know that children are our future and that it is therefore our obligation to preserve this planet for future generations. Children in turn often inspire us to live our lives with patience, kindness and courage; and they bless us with joy, tenderness and an endless sense of wonder. What we teach our children about others and about reaching across borders to make human connections will influence their actions when they take the reins of power of this great country, as they inevitably must.
Samantha’s legacy to this country must be preserved and it must persevere. We must teach our children that individual acts of kindness and friendship count, that it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to reach out across the divide and to create unbreakable ties that can mend the discords of our governments and strengthen the common bonds between our people. We must let our children know that it is possible for one child to connect two countries, even when their leaders are at odds. And when our children firmly know that this is so, and when they own this the way that Samantha did, lasting peace becomes truly possible.
This piece was written by Natalia Kashirina Rosston - for the opening of the Samantha Smith commemorative exhibit at the Maine State Museum in August of 2015.