In 1983, America and the USSR were in the throes of the Cold War. At home, president Reagan was rattling his chains at the nation, insisting that the Soviet Union posed an existential threat not only to the USA but to the entire world. It was around this time that a fifth grader from Manchester, Maine began an unlikely correspondence with Russian leader Yuri Andropov.
The fifth grader, named Samantha Smith, wrote a letter to Andropov in 1982 asking him if he was overseeing plans for a nuclear war with America. Andropov, nicknamed “The Great Communicator,” responded to her letter at length.
Andropov struck a much gentler tone in his public discourse with Reagan and other world leaders than his predecessor Brezhnev did. It was a contrast with most Americans’ perception of Russians as frigid, hostile people.
Today in 1983, the USSR released Andropov’s response to Smith’s letter. He said that the Russians wished to “live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors 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.”
Andropov went on to address Smith’s worry about nuclear war. “Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are endeavoring 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 compared Smith to the Becky Thatcher character in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and invited her to visit the USSR.
She accepted his offer. Along with her parents, she flew to Russia for a visit. In the process, she became internationally famous. In subsequent months, she worked as an ambassador for peace. She made public speeches, wrote a book and appeared on television. Her bright future was cut short, however, when she died in a plane crash the next year. She was only thirteen years old at the time.
Andropov died in February of 1984 from kidney failure. Konstantin Chernenko succeeded him.
Despite this heartwarming anecdote, Andropov was no kindly grandfather. Before he assumed leadership of the USSR, he was instrumental in stamping out the Prague Spring, suppressing dissidents like Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and was Chairman of the KGB between 1967 and 1982. One of his first acts as Soviet leader was to expand the KGB’s powers and to silence dissidents. He also once claimed that “the struggle for human rights was a part of a wide-ranging imperialist plot to undermine the foundation of the Soviet state.”