Samantha Smith ended her widely publicized visit to the Soviet Union Thursday without seeing the man who invited her, President Yuri Andropov. Before flying home via Montreal, the 11-year-old Maine schoolgirl told reporters she was not disappointed and voiced gratitude to her benefactor for some handsome presents. They included a samovar, a hand-painted box, and photographs of her stay.
But ordinary Russians, who have followed her progress through daily television and newspaper coverage, said they were puzzled that Mr. Andropov did not spare a few moments for the girl. Western diplomats said they were also surprised he had not taken the opportunity to gain some favorable publicity in the West by appearing with her in a ''kind uncle'' role.
When Samantha arrived two weeks ago, Soviet officials said a meeting was definitely planned toward the end of her visit. By last week that assurance had become a ''maybe.'' In the past few days they admitted a face-to-face meeting was unlikely. The reason given was that the Soviet leader was too busy.
But Western diplomats said the real reason was probably that Kremlin officials were worried about what Samantha might say after meeting him.
The cheerful schoolgirl has reacted admirably to being the constant subject of television and press cameras, showing a ready smile and little of the shyness that might be expected from a child of her age.
She has also shown she can be as open and frank as any other 11-year-old without realizing she might cause offense. After a visit backstage at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, she rushed out complaining loudly to reporters about the overpowering smell of sweat.
Andropov is evidently still in poor health more than two weeks after he missed the first day of an official visit by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl because of illness.
Earlier this week he held several rounds of talks with Hungarian leader Janos Kadar. Television film omitted the usual scenes of him greeting his guest. Instead, Andropov was briefly shown already seated at the conference table.
It seems quite feasible that officials may have worried that Samantha would be a little too blunt when prodded by reporters to give an impression of the leader's condition.
Even without the meeting, the Soviet authorities can probably count Samantha's visit a great propaganda coup. She was whisked around the country on an exhausting itinerary that began and ended in Moscow and included four days at the Artek Pioneer camp on the Black Sea and a visit to Leningrad.
The Soviet aim appeared to be quite subtle: to allow American television viewers to see the country through her eyes and show them that the Russians are normal people who can laugh and joke and have a good time. There is probably no other way they could have conveyed that message so effectively. Judging by the American public's interest in her trip, the venture was a great success.
A question that will probably remain unanswered is how the Kremlin picked Samantha in the first place. She was invited after she wrote to Andropov asking him why the Russians wanted to conquer the world and received a personal reply from him assuring her Moscow wanted only peace. But it is unlikely she was the only American schoolchild to have written to Andropov.
After seeing her polished performance, many Western diplomats speculated that the Kremlin may have done some careful and clandestine vetting of potential candidates to select a child so well-suited for the part.