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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boys' Lives Twisted by Political Tug-of-War

Pyotr Kozmin was only 9 months old when sheriffs snatched him from the hands of his mother at a Chicago train station and turned him over to child-welfare officials.

It was 1957, deep into the Cold War, and Pyotr's parents, Georgy and Nadezhda, refugees from World War II Europe, were trying to return to the Soviet Union. But the Cook County Family Court objected to them taking Pyotr and his three brothers.

The weeping parents continued with their journey. It would take two years of tedious custody hearings, framed by heated diplomatic give-and-take and propaganda volleys, before the four boys - all wards of the court because their parents had been treated for bouts of mental illness - joined them in Moscow. "The beginning of my second life," Kozmin recalls, musing over a tangled saga of family ties, politics and law.

Back in Russia, the family's celebrity status won them a new apartment in downtown Moscow while the boys, steeped in American culture, were educated at a special school. But the spotlight dimmed, and the family descended into poverty, moving to Ukraine to join family there. Pyotr Kozmin and another brother differ today on whether the momentous move from America was worth it.

The case of the Kozmin boys, as Chicago newspapers then called them, suddenly sounds like today's news. Their odyssey in some ways parallels the tug of war over Elian Gonzalez ,the 6-year-old who was shipwrecked as he and his mother fled Fidel Castro's Cuba and whose relatives want to keep him in the United States against the wishes of his father in Havana. Both cases were colored by Cold War-style rivalries and politics, and both raised a basic question: Do American notions of freedom override the desire of a parent to raise his child, even in a dictatorial state?

In the case of the Kozmin boys, a judge ruled that they could not be kept in the United States just because the parents "embraced a creed not in keeping with our own" - that is, communism.

"Although we feel our principles and philosophies are better for the civilized, peace-loving world, it is not in keeping with the American principle that we should force ... belief in them."

That ruling set a new course for the Kozmin brothers, whose lives already were ruled by dramatic twists of fate.

The boys - Pyotr, Yury, Pavel and Rostislav - are the sons of a Russian soldier and a Ukrainian mother, both of whom were slave laborers in Nazi Germany. The parents were stranded in the American-occupied zone of Germany at the end of the war, and arrived in the United States in 1950 after winning asylum. Three of the boys were born in Germany, Pyotr in the United States.

In Illinois, the parents suffered from mental illness, and two of the boys, Rostislav and Yury, were placed in an orphanage. The younger ones, Pavel and Pyotr, spent time with a foster family. Their memories are of baseball and football, cowboys, Elvis and the Mickey Mouse Club. "The culture was printed on us," Pyotr says.

After their release from treatment, Georgy and Nadezhda Kozmin decided to return to the Soviet Union. Josef Stalin was gone, replaced by the reforming Nikita Khrushchev. But Illinois contested the parents' demand to take the children with them. A family court judge said that if the Kozmins left, "We can give them no guarantee when or if the children will be united with them."

Chicago newspapers referred darkly to the parents' desire to "return behind the Iron Curtain." Stories hinted at cloak-and-dagger pressure on the Kozmins by Soviet diplomats. Meanwhile in Moscow, Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, complained that the children were being left "to cannibals in Chicago." Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that keeping parents and children apart "violates the generally accepted principles of humanity."

Finally, the family court reversed itself, and the children - all sporting baseball caps - flew to the Soviet Union on Aug. 26, 1959. A Chicago paper reported the story glumly under the headline, "Kozmin Boys Bid Good-by To Baseball." In Moscow, officials, well-wishers and photographers rapturously greeted their arrival at Vnukovo Airport.

The celebrity status carried over for a time in the Soviet Union. At a special boarding school, teachers took care to develop the boys' command of Russian, which none of them spoke. "We were made into a showcase," Pyotr says.

But the celebrity faded, and secret police inquiries into their activities and censorship of their mail began. A life of poverty followed. Forty years later, the question lingers: Would the boys have been better off in the United States? For Pyotr and Rostislav, at least, opinion is split.

Pyotr believes he benefited from the Soviet Union's attention toward artistic development. He is a ceramist and painter, with a studio filled with boldly colored paintings of nudes and cats.

Observers, he says, claim to see Western and Russian influence in his work. "I was able to realize my potential," Pyotr says.

Pyotr, 44, enjoys a bonus from his status as a native-born American. He holds a U.S. passport, making travel outside of Russia easy. He has shown his paintings in the United States and lived in New York for 18 months in the early 1990s. "I liked it, but I am more comfortable here. A little money goes a long way. Moscow, New York. It makes no difference. Both have an exciting pulse," he says.

Rostislav, 53, and the oldest, thinks it would have been better for him to stay in Chicago. He was 12 when he traveled to Moscow and already highly Americanized. As a boy, he was quoted as saying he wanted to be a cowboy. "I liked the orphanage. The people were very good. I felt American," he recalls. "I saw the square houses in Moscow and I thought they looked like jails. I spoke English here, and no one knew what I was saying."

His education was hampered, he believes, by his American background. The KGB "misplaced" key identification documents, which kept him from getting higher education in Moscow. He worked in photography and music recording and as a disc jockey. At one point, he lost his job because the KGB accused him of playing unauthorized music, he says. "The KGB ruined my life," he says.

Rostislav, 53, now ekes out a living as a fisherman on the Sea of Azov in Ukraine. Going to America "is only a dream," he laments. He has no passport, no money. He still prefers to be called Richard, the name given him at the orphanage.

Yury is in business in Ukraine; Pavel works there as a waiter.

Both Pyotr and Rostislav look sympathetically on Elian Gonzalez's plight. Despite differing assessments of their life in the Soviet Union, they believe the Cuban boy ought to be reunited with his father. "It's a hard question," Rostislav said. "But if the father is a good person, the boy should go back."

"The boy must be returned," Pyotr says. "Maybe it will seem like a propaganda loss in America, but it is not important. Things change. Maybe things will change in Cuba. America can't decide for the boy."

But that won't be the end of the story, Pyotr cautioned. He predicts that Elian's life inevitably will be distorted by his status as a symbol, currently of exile freedom in Miami, later possibly of revolutionary steadfastness in Cuba. "Being a political tool," Pyotr says, "is not something I would wish on anyone."