Samantha and the Soviets

Samantha Smith's extraordinary visit to the Soviet Union ended on an anticlimactic note. The 11-year-old schoolgirl from Manchester, Maine, had hoped for a face-to-face meeting with her Soviet host, Yuri Andropov. But he told her he was too busy to meet her. Could it be that Samantha's unpredictability gave him pause?

We'll never know. But it isn't surprising that the Kremlin leader's door is not open to American or even Soviet schoolgirls. What is surprising is that the Russians invited Samantha and her parents for a two-week visit after she wrote a letter to Mr. Andropov on the subject of peace. The Soviets are not given to such public relations exercises. So the whole affair suggests that Moscow is increasingly sensitive to its public image in the West and is making an effort to improve it, even taking risks with the visit of an outspoken American girl.

Just how much propaganda mileage the Soviets actually got out of the visit is hard to gauge. There were plenty of Western news photographs and headlines. From the Kremlin's standpoint, anything which helps dispel the image that Soviets are warmongers and that the Soviet Union is nothing but a vast concentration camp is a plus. Still, the Russians have much to learn about the art of PR. Some Westerners may have been turned off by the aura of mass activity at the Artek youth camp in the Crimea or by the heavy-handed official nature of Samantha's activities. A little more spontaneity and informality - a stay with an ordinary Russian family, say - might have been more impressive.

And what says Samantha? You can bet the Russians - as well as the folks Down East - are waiting to hear.

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