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Looking To Do A Good Deed? Tweet A Babushka!

  • Daisy Sindelar

"No matter what's going on with politics, people do not change," says 22-year-old Vera Golikova, holding some of her postcards. "People really want to be good to each other."

"No matter what's going on with politics, people do not change," says 22-year-old Vera Golikova, holding some of her postcards. "People really want to be good to each other."

With their sensible shoes and underweight pocketbooks, little old ladies are hardly a key demographic in the cynical world of big-business advertising.

But Vera Golikova, a 22-year-old advertising student in New York, says they were the first thing she thought of when a professor urged her to create an "emotional connection" with her work.

"It's not just about selling things," says Golikova, a St. Petersburg native who last month launched Tweet A Babushka, a project aimed at sending friendly messages to lonely pensioners in Russia. "You should feel great when you make an ad. And I felt great when I made this."

Tweet A Babushka allows people in the United States and elsewhere to send cheerful, 140-character messages to babushki -- and their male counterparts, dedushki -- living in retirement homes across Russia.

"Someone in America is thinking of you," one recent message read. Another said: "Thank you for being part of the awesome generation. You have made life wonderful for us all."

For those confounded by the image of a Russian babushka navigating a Twitter account, no need to worry: Golikova personally takes the tweets offline, translating the messages into Russian and transcribing them by hand onto colorful greeting cards sent by good old-fashioned snail mail.

"I wish you a happy, wonderful, and shiny day," reads one of the cards that Golikova is sending out. "I'm trying to imitate the traditional handwriting," she says.

"I wish you a happy, wonderful, and shiny day," reads one of the cards that Golikova is sending out. "I'm trying to imitate the traditional handwriting," she says.

Golikova, who graduates this month from City College of New York, says the project allows well-wishers to raise the gentleness quotient at a time when the Russian-American relationship is, as she puts it, "in the crapper."

"No matter what's going on with politics, people do not change. People really want to be good to each other," she says. "And that's why I think that you can sort of be a diplomat by just sending this tiny little message to a babushka somewhere and making her realize that an American person is thinking about her."

Golikova, who left home at 16 to study in Finland and the United States, says she was inspired to create Tweet A Babushka after reading about Babushka Lida, the Moscow pensioner who became an unlikely star in March when a video of her singing French chansons in a metro station went viral, drawing hundreds of thousands of viewers.

Lida's flash of celebrity, which earned her a backstage meeting with crooner Charles Aznavour, also served as a sobering reminder for Russians of the difficult lives faced by the country's pensioners. Aleksandr Chernykh, the young Kommersant reporter who filmed the elderly babushka, wrote that Lida's father and brother had died in World War II, that she shared a tiny apartment with her granddaughter and infant great-granddaughter, and that she spent much of her day walking around Moscow alone.

One of the Soviet-style postcards designed by Golikova. "The babushkas deserve something special," she says.

One of the Soviet-style postcards designed by Golikova. "The babushkas deserve something special," she says.

Golikova, whose grandmothers and grandfather remain in constant communication with her parents and younger brother in St. Petersburg, said Babushka Lida's plight left her feeling melancholy.

"This is the story of one old lady -- just one -- and there are so many old people that don't really have anyone," she says.

"It was amazing how just a video of an old lady singing became such a huge thing in Russia," she adds. "But I think the reason for that is that it's sort of in everyone's DNA to know what older people went through for our country. That's why Victory Day" -- the May 9 commemoration of Russia's World War II victory over Nazi Germany -- "is still such a huge thing for Russians. Even if you're not the most patriotic person."

Tweet A Babushka is still in the early stages of development. Golikova recently sent out her first package of cards to the Moscow-based charity organization Starost v radost, or It's Nice To Be Old, which provides volunteer support -- including letter-writing campaigns -- for invalids and pensioners living in 120 retirement homes across Russia.

Each of the cards includes a return address, in hopes of establishing eventual two-way communication. Golikova, who posts photographs of outgoing missives on Twitter, also hopes that the project can eventually be expanded to allow foreign visitors to donate to organizations like Starost v radost.

The young Russian says she has yet to encounter a person who doesn't know what a babushka is -- a familiarity she credits, in part, with the Babushka Dog meme that briefly seized hold of the Internet last year.

In the meantime, Golikova's printed out her own custom-designed cards -- "the babushkas deserve something special" -- and put a couple of Russian friends on notice if penmanship demands get so heavy that her hand starts to cramp.

"My Cyrillic handwriting isn't very traditional," admits Golikova, who knows her handwriting may fall under strict scrutiny from babushki on the receiving end. "So I'm trying to imitate the traditional handwriting -- you know, the one you learn in school that looks extremely pretty. I'm doing my best, for sure."

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