This week a legendary American girl who helped bring the U.S. and the Soviet Union closer together would have celebrated her 43rd birthday. She remains a symbolic reminder for Russia and the U.S. that direct people-to-people contact can play a big role in bilateral relations.


Samantha Smith, with her parents Arthur and Jane Smith, of Manchester, Me., touring the Red Square in Moscow on Saturday, July 9, 1983. Samantha wrote a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov asking about peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Andropov wrote back to Samantha and invited her and her parents to visit the Soviet Union. Photo: AP

This August marks the 30th anniversary of the death of Samantha Smith, the famous young American “goodwill ambassador” to the Soviet Union, who perished in a tragic plane accident in 1985. She would have celebrated her 43rd birthday on Monday, June 29.

Today, as relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorate, the story of this brave little girl who helped bring the peoples of the Soviet Union and the United States a little closer together is once again gaining currency. Indeed, Samantha’s story underscores the need for original thinking and unorthodox solutions aimed at breaking the current impasse.

Young Samantha dared to write to the head of the “evil empire” — Yury Andropov, former head of the fear-inspiring KGB — at a time when the whole world balanced precipitously on the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

A super-power arms race, war in Afghanistan, missiles in Europe and the Strategic Defense Initiative brought many top officials (in the Soviet Union, at least) to the alarming conclusion that a nuclear strike was inevitable.

In that context, Samantha’s disarming letter was a thin ray of hope cast through dark clouds.

“Dear Mr. Andropov,” she wrote in 1982. “My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten 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.”

Samantha Smith, of Manchester, Maine, holds the letter she received from Soviet leader Yuri Andropov on April 26, 1983 in Manchester, Maine. Photo: AP

The letter was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, and Andropov responded personally, thanking her and inviting her to visit the U.S.S.R.

Her two-week trip in 1983 received broad international media coverage, and could even be said to have established its own type of peace movement — one organized around direct people-to-people contact. Her letter lifted a tiny corner of the “Iron Curtain” and ultimately helped set the stage for the “new thinking” of Mikhail Gorbachev and his history-changing perestroika reform movement.

Recommended: "30 years after perestroika: Lessons for the US and Russia"

The U.S.S.R. reciprocated by sending eleven-year-old Katya Lycheva to America in 1986. More trips followed, blossoming from individuals to groups. These visits by children helped break down stereotypes and showcase similarities between the two worlds.

In today’s Russia, many who were young at that time can now recall discussing these “ambassadors for peace” at school during political information classes, and collecting articles and photos about them. The group exchanges that followed, facilitated by the Samantha Smith Foundation, an organization established by Samantha’s mother, encouraged many to take a fresh look across the cultural divide.

Summer camps in Maine, antiwar musicals by Sergey Kazarnovsky, and a children’s magazine edited by a famous Soviet writer Yury Yakovlev became the tools of a new kind of soft power.

Only years later could those of us who participated in these activities realize the scope of the grand idea behind the exchanges, and feel the full weight of the responsibility that had been placed on our young shoulders.

The current state of U.S.-Russian relations looks unnervingly similar to the political environment of that time.

An arms race. Saber-rattling. War in Ukraine. Missile defense initiatives. A U.S. military buildup in Europe. Fresh plans to station rockets.

A climate of mistrust. Overwhelming propaganda clichés on both sides. The restoration of “Russian aggression” rhetoric.

All of this, unfortunately, has come to dominate the news cycle.

A new fence is growing. Certainly, in the age of the internet, and in a time of greater freedom to travel, citizens of both countries have more opportunities to learn about the “others” than before.

But the memory of Samantha — an open-minded girl with a charming smile — urges us today to consider a revival of real soft power initiatives.

All the mechanisms we need were invented 30 years ago.

The example of Samantha Smith shows that popular movements, and communication between real people, can reduce the impetus for rivalry among our leaders and help get relations back on track. Indeed, there may be no more effective method for promoting real, lasting peace and prosperity.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.