Michael KreponCold War Secrets

Not all, Cold War secrets have been revealed. The time has come at last to reveal one more.

During a particularly nasty chapter of the Cold War in the 1980s, an amazing couple from New Hampshire, Jim and Carol O’Rourke, took it upon themselves to set up a Track II channel for up-and-comers in the United States and the Soviet Union to discuss our differences. Their creation was called The Forum for U.S.-Soviet Dialogue. The concept was to take turns meeting in the USSR and the USA. Every dialogue would have about three venues, so that the participants could get a glimpse of each others’ country beyond Moscow and Washington. I was fortunate enough to attend a few of these dialogues, where I learned things about the Soviet Union that I couldn’t find in text books.

Through these dialogues, I became friends with Kim Holmes, Joe Collins, and many others, including a political science professor at Pepperdine University named Dan Caldwell. Don’t be fooled by Dan’s professorial veneer. Disregard his regimental stripe tie. At the cellular level, Dan is a Merry Prankster. He never hung out (to my knowledge) with Ken Kesey, but we made some mischief together in the former Soviet Union.

Dan and I were obsessed by the pins that Soviet citizens wore. Pins of Lenin as a young man, worn by the Komsomol, and pins commemorating important events. Dan and I were drawn to pins of tanks and rockets, but we were absolutely obsessed with the baby Lenin pin, which might properly be worn by toddlers. What made the baby Lenin pin so special was the magnificent sweep of his hair. I suppose I’d feel the same way about a pin of Ben Franklin in his formative years. Can you picture Franklin with a full head of hair? This was what made the baby Lenin pin so special.

Back then, Soviet cities were dotted with kiosks that sold beverages, some basic necessities, and pins of various sorts. In the evenings, fueled by powerful drink, Dan and I would canvass the streets in search of baby Lenin pins. We bought whatever we could find, to the puzzlement of street vendors.

What to do with a surplus of baby Lenin pins? Dan and I formed a secret society, revealed now for the first time: The Order of the Baby Lenin. What would merit being inducted, wearing this badge of honor, and being able to add the honorific “OBL” after your name? Some secrets shall remain undisclosed.

Track II dialogues are particularly valuable when official lines of communication are constrained. Even when these channels open up, Track II dialogues are a superb training device for a rising generation of security-oriented analysts. The functional equivalent of the Forum for U.S.-Soviet Dialogue with respect to China is ISODARCO, an NGO founded in 1966 by two Italian physics professors, Edoardo Amaldi and Carlo Schaerf. I’ve learned much from attending a few of the ISODARCO meetings in China in years past – one of the rare opportunities where U.S. nongovernmental experts and members of the Chinese national security and nuclear establishment can mingle.

Given how poor communications are between China and the United States, the foundation world could provide a major service by creating more opportunities for U.S. and Chinese analysts to meet.

Comments

  1. krepon (History)

    A reader, Chaz Perin, helpfully found a baby Lenin pin for sale on ebay:

    http://cgi.ebay.com/vintage-Baby-Lenin-Photo-pin-Red-Star-Plastic-Pin-/120581381620?pt=Vintage_Costume_Jewelry&hash=item1c1335ddf4#ht_500wt_1038

    The price seems a bit steep.
    MK

    Best,

    Chaz Perin

  2. Pat Flannery (History)

    I don’t know the spelling of it, but phonetically, those pins are called “za-notch-key”.
    I picked up quite a few when I was in Moscow and Leningrad back in 1978.
    They served as something like coin or stamp collections do in the west, as keeping coins in particular would have been seen as suspicious by the Soviet government.
    They were also one of the few things the little street kiosk vendors in those two cities were allowed to sell. The vendors were retirees and the handicapped that the government allowed to do a very limited form of capitalism to supplement their income.
    I indeed did have the baby Lenin one at one time, and thought it pretty odd also; sort of the modern incarnation of an icon of the infant Jesus from Czarist times (IIRC, there were more than one design of the baby Lenin ones, and it was fairly popular subject for the pins) The workmanship on the pins went from pretty clunky to real little works of art, and I got interested enough in them that I purchased quite a few related to Soviet space exploration from Alex Panchenko back in the 1990’s that I have pinned to a stuffed bear wearing a space helmet with “CCCP” on it at the moment.

    • krepon (History)

      Pat:
      And I thought I spent a misplaced youth collecting baseball cards…
      MK

    • Scott Monje (History)

      znachki (значки).
      Singular: znachok (значок).

      If I recall correctly, the baby Lenin pin was a symbol for the pioneers, the CPSU equivalent of the cub scouts.

  3. 3.1415 (History)

    Unless China can produce a Sputnik moment, United States will not treat China in the way that it treated the USSR. The lack of respect, mingled with a desire to keep the eager student from learning more and growing stronger, makes the US-China security dynamics not so conducive to frank exchanges, either official or non-official. From China’s perspective, such exchanges are not that useful. They have been tried before. The Nuclear Express book summarized the Chinese sentiments quite well. The problem between US and China is a political one. China wants to become number 1 and United States does not want to become number 2. A war is most likely out of the question, thus giving the US limited options in the business model that it excels. If the goal is an orderly transfer of power like the one between the British Empire and the United States, the best solution is to promote more cultural exchanges to increase the understanding of each other’s politics. China’s business model is rather simple: keep the cost of peace down, and use the savings to maximize profits. This business model is very much aligned with corporate interests in the United States. And those are the people that China has no trouble mingling. Nobody wants to mingle with people who do not want to do business with you anyway.

  4. anon (History)

    A China that wants to ascend in its regions of interest will inevitable collide with a US that demands global obedience. Who is right and who is wrong? Who is more “American”?

  5. Allen Thomson (History)

    > I don’t know the spelling of it, but phonetically, those pins are called “za-notch-key”.

    Znachki, singular znachok (значки, значок). I have a couple of very cool KGB ones I picked up in Izmailovsky Park. For all I know, they could be genuine.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Ah the fond memories of watching the McNeil News Hour during the Cold War when the Soviet delegation would always have some sort of pin or another. Usually a Soviet flag. As a teenager that always stood out to me as gawdy. Imagine my shock when American politicians and officials started wearing American flag pins after 9/11. Then when we made an internal security aparat modeled after the KGB. Then when our foreign policy started looking like the arguments from the “Socialism in one country” days. It must be a human constant. When you adopt a messianic foreign policy, you have to wear your flag on your person for everyone to see.

    I’ve already also noticed Iraqi vets wearing their fruit salad on civilian overcoats just like the old vets from the Great Patriotic War.

    So … where do I get my baby Paul Wolfowitz pin?

    • Pat Flannery (History)

      The thing that always hit me as so subtly funny was the giant size of the officer’s caps compared to those in the west.
      You stuck one of those on Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov and it looked like something out of Monty Python…in fact, if it weren’t for the fact that this whole dysfunctional government could imprison and kill people not through some sort of ruthless cunning, but rather through systemic incompetence and bureaucratic red tape, you would have indeed thought you were inside of some Monty Python sketch and not reality.
      Joseph Kafka was made for the USSR, and vice-versa. 😀

  7. Pat Flannery (History)

    One advantage of collecting them in the USSR was that it was a pretty cheap hobby in the case of most pins; new ones were being issued all the time, and many cost only 15 Kopeks per pin. At the official (and laughable) $1.60 to one Dollar/Ruble exchange rate of that time, that meant around a quarter apiece.
    Oddest thing I brought back was a shoulder patch from the section of the military that was in charge of firing chemical warfare rockets and missiles.

  8. MarkoB (History)

    Funny that Americans are making fun of Soviet era pins when I doubt no candidate could get elected in the US without the obligatory flag pin; the bigger the better. Is that some kind of sign about the state of contemporary democracy? Who really started that trend? Could it have been, God forbid, Ronald Reagan?

    • 3.1415 (History)

      Both teams wore the same kinds of suits and used violence or the threat of it to compete. A little pin serves the understated purpose of differentiating the teams without disturbing the aesthetics of the suit. It’s like inserting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

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