Remembering Samantha Smith

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25 years ago today, 13-year-old Samantha Smith died with her father in a plane crash in Maine. When she was 10, Samantha Smith made international headlines when she wrote a letter to the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov and he wrote back. He invited her to visit, and she did. Anchor Marco Werman recalls the story with the BBC's Lina Rosovskaya.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is The World. Samantha Smith only lived to be 13. But she lived a very eventful life. When she was 10, Samantha Smith did a simple thing that made international headlines. She wrote a short letter to the new Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. Amazingly, he wrote back. And he invited Samantha to visit the Soviet Union, which she did. Lina Rosovskaya is with the BBC Russian service in London. She's been writing about the story of Samantha Smith. Smith and her father were killed in a plane crash on their way home to Maine 25 years ago today. And Lina, some listeners may not remember Samantha Smith and her letter. Let's hear what she wrote to Yuri Andropov. It's voiced-over here by an actor.

SAMANTHA SMITH: Dear Mr. Andropov. My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren't, please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight. Sincerely, Samantha Smith.

WERMAN: So, Lina Rosovskaya, you spoke with Samantha's mother in researching the story for today's anniversary of Samantha's death. How did this girl come to the idea of sending that letter in the first place?

LINA ROSOVSKAYA: Her mother Jane, who still lives in Manchester, Maine, the place where Samantha came from, she told me it was very casual. She said, okay, one Sunday afternoon they're sitting at home and they have the Time magazine on the table and there is a big picture of Andropov on the magazine cover and Yuri Andropov had just been elected the new leader of the Soviet Union because Brezhnev had died. So, there was this article kind of profiling Andropov and then Jane Smith, Samantha's mother, said, oh it would be nice if this guy had some new ideas for our countries to just make peace and not start a war. And then Samantha suddenly said, so why don't you write him a letter. And Jane replied, why don't you write him a letter. And then the next thing is, Samantha goes off and she comes back with a letter addressed to Moscow, the Kremlin, Mr. Andropov.

WERMAN: And as if that wasn't enough, astonishingly Yuri Andropov replied to Samantha's letter several months later. Here's a bit of his reply. Again, this is voiced by an actor.

YURI ANDROPOV: Dear Samantha. I can tell by your letter that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot, Mark Twain. Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. I invite you to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, visit an international children's camp, Artek, on the sea. And see for yourself. In the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples. Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life. Yuri Andropov.

WERMAN: I mean Lina, it's almost too good with all those references to Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain. Do we know for certain that Andropov actually replied? I mean was this ? I mean how sophisticated was the Soviet propaganda machine at the time?

ROSOVSKAYA: You know when I read this and when any Russian reads this, of course, we have doubts. I mean I'm not sure. I mean Andropov was [INDISCERNIBLE], he was also ill from almost from the very beginning of his tenure as the Secretary General, the leader of the Soviet Union. So I'm not sure he had the time to write this reply. He ended up not having the time to actually meet his guest Samantha when she did come to the Soviet Union. It doesn't matter whether Andropov wrote it, but most of the experts of the history experts, and [INDISCERNIBLE] I spoke to said the Soviet Union was at the brink of its resources in this Cold War. And maybe they were really sending a positive signal by seizing on Samantha's letter and kind of trying to use this to show we are friendly, want to be friends.

WERMAN: So, Samantha did go the Soviet Union on Andropov's invitation. Was taken to that young pioneer's camp for children on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea. What happened ultimately? I mean did some dividends pay off for the Soviet Union?

ROSOVSKAYA: I think, and that's what Jane told me, because I asked Jane Smith, Samantha's mother, asked her so did you feel that your daughter was being used for propaganda and you were being used for propaganda? And she said, yeah, we probably were being used, but ultimately Samantha probably achieved her goal because after her visit ? I mean first of all, as Jane put it, she said the Soviets saw us. Samantha came there with her father and mother to the Soviet Union and the Soviets saw an American family, quite normal, nice. And on the other hand, Americans on their television screens, they were all of a sudden seeing those children swimming in the Black Sea, playing in that pioneer camp that you mentioned. So yeah, there was, I think it was despite all the propaganda it was like just ? it was at a human level, pro, positive thing. And after Samantha died 2 years later in an air crash, this string of school children exchanges and student exchanges intensified. So yeah, it kicked off the whole like series of events. And then I think in the end as one girl told me, they were no longer writing those letters and taking part of the peace movement to actually fight for peace. They were actually doing this because they wanted those exchanges, they wanted as she put it, chewing gum. They wanted jeans. It became all very materialistic, but it was ? Samantha kind of ? to some people, Samantha just opened this door to capitalism.

WERMAN: It's interesting what you were saying about Americans watching these kids in the Soviet Union swimming. So humane. And it was an education for Americans, for Samantha, for the Soviet kids and adults she met with. I'd like us to listen to a bit of tape of the Russian woman at the camp on the Black Sea who's kind of looking after Samantha. Here name is Olga Sakhatova and we must remember that there had been years of propaganda from both the USSR and America and Ms. Sakhatova says of the time, this was how kids in Russia and, of course, the United States knew each other was through these stereotypes. So, here's a telling bit of Olga Sakhatova talking about this perception.

OLGA SAKHATOVA: We all definitely knew that all Americans are wide exploiters of poor black people and there are a lot of prostitutes in New York and unemployment is very high. And all American capitalists are trying to bomb our country. That's what we thought about them. What they thought about us, and I found out later, was that there are a lot of bears in Red Square in Moscow and it's covered with snow, yes. And Russian woman are terrible. They are [SOUNDS LIKE] ugly first of all is what they said ? they thought about us. They all wear uniforms, they don't shave their legs and, of course, they are all trying to start war against America. That's what we thought about each other.

WERMAN: So, Lina, a real eye opener for both sides. Now, after 25 years, how is Samantha Smith, the last Samantha Smith, remembered in Russia today?

ROSOVSKAYA: You know, she's remembered very, very positively. I spoke to lots of people from historians to just ordinary people and everyone was saying the same thing. Maybe at the time I was skeptical. I thought this was all PR, propaganda. Now, I think it was just a girl naïve in her way, but also idealistic and she did the right thing. It's a shame she lost her life so early.

WERMAN: Lina Rosovskaya, with the BBC Russian service in London. Thank you very much.

ROSOVSKAYA: Thank you.

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