Samantha Smith, an 11-year-old American girl, begins a two-week visit to the Soviet Union at the invitation of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Some American observers believed that Smith was merely being used by the Soviets for their own propaganda purposes, while others saw her visit as a positive step toward improving U.S.-Russian relations.
In April 1983, the Soviet government released a letter written by Smith to Andropov as part of a school project. In the letter, Smith asked Andropov about his country and whether he wanted peace with the United States. Surprisingly, Andropov answered the letter personally, assuring Smith that he had the greatest friendliness toward America and wished only for peace and mutual understanding. He ended by inviting Smith to come see the Soviet Union for herself. The fifth grader accepted Andropov’s offer and the trip was set for July 1983. Almost immediately, Smith’s family was flooded with letters from Americans, most of whom supported Samantha’s decision. Many, however, sharply criticized her upcoming visit, claiming that it was merely a propaganda ploy by the communists. To some extent, they were right: Andropov clearly saw the Smith visit as an opportunity to try to dispel some negative impressions of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Andropov also was clear about wanting closer relations with the West, and his invitation to the small girl was one way of indicating this desire.
During her two weeks in Russia, Smith was treated as a VIP and given a carefully arranged tour of the Soviet Union. However, she also found time to speak to groups of Soviet citizens who made no attempt to hide some of the problems facing their nation, particularly food shortages. For her part, Smith absolutely charmed her hosts and became a famous figure almost overnight. Arriving back in the United States two weeks later, she indicated that she firmly believed that the Soviets “want no harm to the world, just like us.” When asked whether she would like to live in Russia, she praised her communist hosts but declared that she would “rather live in my own country.”