EDITOR’S NOTE: Burien resident Fred Feiertag’s column for The B-Town Blog will help you start your week every Monday. He will be sharing his observations, travel stories, wanderings and more…
There we were, in Moscow, Russia in 2004. Not speaking for the other Boeing folks with me, but I was boggled by where I was.
You see I am a veteran of the Cold War. From my earliest days I was taught that Russia as the heart of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was the embodiment of the existential enemy of my country, home, and very life. My father worked to test the first jet bombers to defend us, he went on to work to build the earliest ICBMs to carry nuclear fire to the heart of the evil empire. I learned to duck and cover in school. I worried that we had no fallout shelter. I lost sleep when missiles in Cuba triggered the drum beats of apocalypse. My older brother went off to the Army and disappeared into a military intelligence black existence. Years passed and as I grew up I KNEW that Russia was my enemy. They were godless, without a human soul, and would see me killed or enslaved.
Then it was my turn to be in the military and follow my brother’s footsteps. I served in obscurity and to this day I feel compelled to not share much of those days. After army service I went to the University of Washington and earned an engineering degree and was promptly hired by Boeing. In the years I worked for them I had the privilege to work on many projects. I actually started on the Minuteman missile program and several other defense programs. The culmination of that time was the B-2 stealth bomber. Some time after I left that project, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Around ten years after that I found myself in this new hotel in Moscow. I had been told when I left the Army that I would be banned from visiting any place on a list of communist countries. The penalties associated with this list were dire. Before this trip I asked for and received special clearance allowing me to travel. I couldn’t have felt stranger had I been on Mars. These feelings would persist throughout this entire experience.
We had a fine breakfast in this modern stylish hotel and were collected in a handful of shiny black sedans. We came to understand that the safety of foreigners on business was under continuous threat from criminal activity. Robbery, assault, and kidnapping were a sad result of the collapse of many social systems. The police were hardly being paid and sadly were finding better income from criminal elements.
Our days during this trip followed a carefully planned schedule. Our hosts were a group of Russians from the Boeing Russia team. They spoke fluent English and were technically capable as well. After a briefing about what each of us were expected to do and some cultural guidance, we were off to visit.
The soviet system was so fundamentally different from the USA. Everything was centralized with centralized controls. This means that we could visit one laboratory’s workplace and we would see essentially all that Russia had in that area. For example, my focus was to be at a place called VIAM. This acronym translates to All-Russian Research Institute of Aviation Materials. VIAM is easier to type. This means that any and all materials research relating to aviation is done at one place in Russia. This pattern applies to almost everything in the communist society. For me it meant I could see all the Russian’s material testing capability in one place, mostly.
Our team would visit several of these centralized institutes in the Moscow area over the following two weeks. While I had an assigned focus, we all visited the full gamut of labs. Each was interesting and I’m fortunate to have been able to see them. Some were right in the city and some were varying distances into the surrounding area. After the first visits a common pattern was starting to emerge. The staff at these places were all very highly trained professionals. Few had less than doctorate level degrees and even lowly technicians had what we would recognize as masters degrees. I quickly felt seriously out classed by the people I would be working with.
On the other hand, their life under the communist system was very tough. Housing, clothing, food, transportation, all were inferior by a wide margin to what we would think as normal. I was very impressed that in spite of this many of the people I met had a dry sense of humor and were technically very capable.