Year
1983

Andropov writes to an American fifth-grader

The Soviet Union releases a letter that Russian leader Yuri Andropov wrote to Samantha Smith, an American fifth-grader. This rather unusual piece of Soviet propaganda was in direct response to President Ronald Reagan’s vigorous attacks on what he called “the evil empire” of the Soviet Union.

In 1983, President Reagan was in the midst of a harsh rhetorical campaign against the Soviet Union. A passionate anticommunist, President Reagan called for massive increases in U.S. defense spending to meet the perceived Soviet threat. In Russia, however, events were leading to a different Soviet approach to the West. In 1982, long-time leader Leonid Brezhnev died; Yuri Andropov was his successor. While Andropov was not radical in his approach to politics and economics, he did seem to sincerely desire a better relationship with the United States. In an attempt to blunt the Reagan attacks, the Soviet government on released a letter that Andropov had written in response to one sent by Samantha Smith, a fifth-grade student from Manchester, Maine.

Smith had written the Soviet leader as part of a class assignment, one that was common enough for students in the Cold War years. Most of these missives received a form letter response, if any at all, but Andropov answered Smith’s letter personally. He explained that the Soviet Union had suffered horrible losses in World War II, an experience that convinced the Russian people that they wanted 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.” 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 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. This is the wish of everyone in the Soviet Union. That’s what we were taught to do by Vladimir Lenin, the great founder of our state.” He vowed that Russia would “never, but never, be the first to use nuclear weapons against any country.” Andropov complimented Smith, comparing her to the spunky character of Becky from the Mark Twain novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “All kids in our country, boys and girls alike, know and love this book,” he added. Andropov ended by inviting Samantha and her parents to visit the Soviet Union. In July 1983, Samantha accepted the invitation and flew to Russia for a three-week tour.

Soviet propaganda had never been known for its human qualities. Generally speaking, it was given to heavy-handed diatribes and communist cliches. In his public relations duel with Reagan—the American president known as the “Great Communicator”—Andropov tried something different by assuming a folksy, almost grandfatherly approach. Whether this would have borne fruit is unknown; just a year later, Andropov died. Tragically, Samantha Smith, aged 13, died just one year after Andropov’s passing, in August 1985 in a plane crash.

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