On April 25th 1983, the Soviet Union released a letter that Russian leader Yuri Andropov had written to Samantha Smith, an American fifth-grader from Manchester, Maine, inviting her to visit his country. Andropov’s letter came in response to a note Smith had sent him in December 1982, asking if the Soviets were planning to start a nuclear war. At the time, the United States and Soviet Union were Cold War enemies.
President Ronald Reagan, a passionate anti-communist, had dubbed the Soviet Union the “evil empire” and called for massive increases in U.S. defense spending to meet the perceived Soviet threat. In his public relations duel with Reagan, known as the “Great Communicator,” Andropov, who had succeeded longtime Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, assumed a folksy, almost grandfatherly approach that was incongruous with the negative image most Americans had of the Soviets.
Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov was born on June 15th 1914. His father was a railway official and his mother the daughter of a wealthy Moscow businessman. Andropov was educated at the Rybinsk Water Transport Technical College. He joined the Komsomol in 1930. He became a member of the Communist Party in 1939 and was First Secretary of the Central Committee of Komsomol in the Soviet Karelo-Finnish Republic from 1940 to 1944.
During World War II, Andropov took part in partisan guerrilla activities in Finland. From 1944 onwards, he left Komsomol for Communist Party work. In 1947, he was elected Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Karelo-Finnish SSR.Andropov moved to Moscow in 1951 and joined the party secretariat.
Two days after Leonid Brezhnev’s death, on November 12th 1982, Andropov was elected General Secretary of the CPSU, the first former head of the KGB to become General Secretary. His appointment was received in the West with apprehension, in view of his roles in the KGB and in Hungary. At the time his personal background was a mystery in the West, with major newspapers printing detailed profiles of him that were inconsistent and in many cases fabricated.
Andropov’s letter said that Russian people wanted to “live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbours on the globe, no matter how close or far away they are, and, certainly, with such a great country as the United States of America.” In response to Smith’s question about whether the Soviet Union wished to prevent nuclear war, Andropov declared, “Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are endeavouring and doing everything so that there will be no war between our two countries, so that there will be no war at all on earth.” Andropov also complimented Smith, comparing her to the spunky character Becky Thatcher from “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain.
Samantha Reed Smith was born on June 29th 1972, in the small town of Houlton, Maine. At the age of five, she wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth II to express her admiration to the monarch. When Smith had finished second grade in the spring of 1980, the family settled in Manchester, Maine, where she attended Manchester Elementary School. Her father taught literature and writing at the University of Maine at Augusta, while her mother worked as a social worker with the Maine Department of Human Services.
She accepted Andropov’s invitation and flew to the Soviet Union with her parents for a visit. Afterward, she became an international celebrity and peace ambassador, making speeches, writing a book and even landing a role on an American television series. In 1985 she co-starred with Robert Wagner in a television series called Lime Street.
In February 1984, Yuri Andropov died from kidney failure and was succeeded by Konstantin Chernenko; the following year, in August 1985, Samantha Smith died tragically in a plane crash at age 13.