11 May 2022
This stamp was issued by the Soviet Union in 1985, writes Chris West. The story behind it takes us back to the Cold War, and has both a positive edge and overtones of sadness.
The girl featured is Samantha Smith from the US state of Maine.
She was ten years old in 1982, when relations between the Soviet bloc and the West were deteriorating at a terrifying speed.
She decided to do something about this, and wrote to the newly elected General Secretary of the Communist Party (i.e. the Soviet Union’s premier), Yuri Andropov, asking what he was going to do to prevent global war or, if he wasn’t, why he wanted to have such a conflict.
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The letter was published in the party newspaper, Pravda – but Samantha received no reply. Not a quitter, she contacted the Soviet ambassador in Washington. In March 1983, Andropov wrote back.
An interesting reply
The reply makes interesting reading.
Andropov expresses his hatred of war, citing the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1942. He claims that his country wants to ‘live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbours on this earth’ and abolish nuclear weapons. He invited Samantha to visit Russia, an invitation she and her family took up in June of that year. She did not get to meet Andropov, as he had become seriously ill with the liver complaint that would shortly kill him.
Needless to say, the story generated a great deal of cynicism. People were reminded of Lenin’s quote about the need for ‘useful idiots’.
A few months after Smith’s visit, the world would come closer to nuclear war than it had done for two decades, when a malfunction in Soviet monitoring technology gave a false warning of an American attack (it was only due to the intelligence and bravery of a Russian officer, Stanislav Petrov, that a response was not launched).
The gradual end of the Soviet Union
Andropov’s own track record was also examined.
He had been Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the brutal putting down of the 1956 uprising in that country. He ended up a KGB General. His brief reign was notable for its suppression of internal dissent. Yet I wonder if he, like some senior figures in the Soviet leadership at that time, wasn’t aware of the writing on the wall for his sclerotic, cruel system.
Two years after he wrote that letter, Mikhail Gorbachev would be in power, attempting to reform the creaking Union and dismantle its weapons.
I sense sadness in Andropov’s reply.
Is a dying old man hinting to a sparky young girl that his generation has failed to live up to its ideals and hoping the next one will do better? Or is it just well-crafted propaganda?
A stamp story tinged with tragedy
A greater sadness in the story is that Samantha did not live much longer than Andropov.
She became a ‘goodwill ambassador’, inspiring young people in other nations to work for peace. In a speech at the Children’s International Symposium in Japan she suggested that the leaders of Russia and America swap granddaughters for two weeks a year.
But in August 1985, she and her father were killed in a plane crash. This stamp was issued in her memory that December.
Perhaps an even bigger sadness is the dismal failure, so far, of that new Russia to evolve into the kind of nation that, in his letter to Samantha, Secretary Andropov (or whoever wrote it) said he hoped it would.