Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In 1982, a 10-year-old American wrote to the head of the U.S.S.R. He wrote back and she became our youngest diplomat.

Photo: Samantha Smith, greeted by Russian Young Pioneers at the airport in the Crimean Peninsula, Russia.
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Samantha Smith

What it’s about: In 1982, a 10-year-old girl wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov, the general secretary of the Soviet Union. He wrote back. Andropov invited Samantha Smith to the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, and she became a media darling as well as a goodwill ambassador. She became a world traveler, author, political commentator, and actress, all before her death in a plane crash at age 13.

Biggest controversy: Only a pending nuclear apocalypse. Andropov, who became general secretary in November of 1982, was a former KGB chief best known for crushing the Prague Spring and brutally suppressing dissidents. He referred to human rights as an “imperialist plot.” His predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, had a policy of détente (an easing of tensions that included the SALT arms treaty and the Apollo-Soyuz joint space mission), but Andropov reversed that policy and talked of developing weapons that could be launched at America from space.

With the West understandably nervous about their new chief adversary, young Smith asked her mother, “If people are so afraid of him, why doesn’t someone write a letter asking whether he wants to have a war or not?” Her mother suggested Samantha should be the one to write that letter, and she did.

Strangest fact: Andropov took a little prompting to reply. Soviet state-run newspaper Pravda published Smith’s letter, which congratulated Andropov on his new job, expressed the writer’s worry about nuclear war, and implored the general secretary to “please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war.” Smith insisted that “God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not fight over.” Not content with being published, Smith then wrote to the U.S.S.R.’s U.S. ambassador, asking if Andropov was going to respond.

Thing we were happiest to learn: He did. In April of 1983, Smith received a long letter from Andropov. He calls her “a courageous and honest girl,” comparing her to Becky from Tom Sawyer, “the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain.” He said her question about nuclear war “is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose.” He assured her that no one in the Soviet Union wanted war, as the horrors of WWII were still well-remembered there. He insisted he never wanted nuclear weapons to be used, and wanted to work towards abolishing them. He closed by inviting Smith to Artek, a camp on the Black Sea that hosted children from 70 (mostly communist) countries.

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Smith became an instant celebrity, going on The Tonight Show and Nightline. In July, she and her parents flew to Moscow, where they were stayed for two weeks. They traveled on to Leningrad, and then Artek. Samantha declared Russians friendly and “just like us.” She spent her time at camp rooming with nine girls who spoke English, swimming, singing Russian songs, and making friends. She became a media darling in both countries, even as some Americans sniped that she was being used for Soviet propaganda. Nevertheless, the trip led to 11-year-old Katya Lycheva visiting the U.S., and a book by Smith about the trip, Journey To The Soviet Union, and a subsequent goodwill trip to Japan.

However, she never met Andropov. The general secretary fell ill and only spoke to Smith over the phone. (She also phoned cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova and accidentally hung up on her.)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Neither letter-writer was long for this world. Andropov’s illness worsened; he was hospitalized in August of 1983 with renal failure, and would die the following February after only 15 months in office. (His successor, Konstantin Chernenko, lasted only 13 months, and under his successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, the next casualty would be the Soviet Union itself.)

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Smith fared better in the short term. She hosted a 1984 presidential election special fo the Disney Channel, which led to a guest-starring role on sitcom Charles In Charge, which led to a co-starring role on Lime Street, about a widower (Robert Wagner) raising two daughters and solving mysteries. Unusually for ’80s television, the series was filmed on location in London, and after taping the first four episodes, Smith and her father flew back to their home in Maine on a small airplane. Low visibility and poor communication between the pilot and the ground resulted in the plane falling short of the runway and crashing, killing all on board. Samantha Smith was only 13. At her funeral, she received condolences from Gorbachev and President Reagan, who praised her idealism and said that “millions of people, share the burdens of your grief.”

Also noteworthy: Lime Street was the latest in a string of shows where Robert Wagner solved mysteries; either Wagner or series creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason saw Smith on The Tonight Show and thought she’d be ideal to play the elder of Wagner’s two daughters on the show. Her stint as a media darling had proven her to be telegenic and likable. The series got lukewarm reviews, saying it was just more of the same from Wagner, who had already starred in similar shows It Takes A Thief, Switch, and Hart To Hart.

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Smith, however, got rave reviews. New York magazine called her “wonderful—gawky but sincere, life-loving, a saint with bangs.” She only lived long enough to film four episodes. The series had not yet aired when she died, and the producers decided to run the episodes Smith shot, and then simply drop her character. (Doing so without explanation would be jarring now, but it’s a time-honored television tradition.) They regretted the decision almost immediately, and after taping four episodes without Smith and airing just one, the producers asked ABC to cancel the show—a rarity in any era of television.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Smith had an unfortunate connection to another teenage actress who died young. At some point after her return from the Soviet Union, Smith attracted the unwanted attention of a stalker, Robert John Bardo. He traveled to Maine to try and meet her at one point, but was turned away by the police. After Smith’s death, Bardo transferred his unhealthy fixation to Rebecca Schaeffer. As a teenager, she starred in My Sister Sam, a sitcom where she played an orphaned teen being raised by her twentysomething sister. She also appeared in Radio Days, The End Of Innocence, and Scenes From The Class Struggle In Beverly Hills. In the latter, she appears in bed with a man; the scene threw Bardo into a jealous rage. He bought a gun, and tracked down Schaeffer’s address in Los Angeles. They had a brief conversation and she asked him to leave. He did, but returned an hour later and shot her to death. She was 21.

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At the time of her death, Schaeffer was auditioning to play Mary Corleone in The Godfather Part III. Julia Roberts had already dropped out of the role with a scheduling conflict; Winona Ryder would win the part but then drop out herself, leaving Sofia Coppola to play the role, to much critical disdain.

Further down the Wormhole: Before heading the KGB, Yuri Andropov had been the Soviet ambassador to Hungary. While Hungary’s best-known contributions to music come from classical composers like Liszt and Bartók, folk music is central to Hungarian culture. Folk is distinct from classical or popular music, in that songs don’t always have a known composer, and are passed along from performer to performer. Folk songs’ lyrics can be personal, political, or deal in mythology and legend. Which brings us back to former Wiki Wormhole subject legend tripping, which involves a pilgrimage to a site associated with a myth or tragic event. One such place is Ong’s Hat, an oddly named New Jersey ghost town that became the center of the internet’s first conspiracy theory. We’ll investigate the Hat and the myth surrounding it next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.