Some Plane Thinking by Americans Meeting in the Heart of Moscow

Glenn Vanstrum is an anesthesiologist at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego

MOSCOW, May 28: This afternoon, 3,500 physicians from 55 countries were getting settled into the Hotel Russia, which overlooks the Kremlin and Red Square. For many, this was their first trip to the Soviet Union, let alone the first trip beyond the Iron Curtain.

As we were wandering about the city, many were surprised to notice a small, single-engine plane winging its way at low altitude over the cobblestones. After circling a bit, the plane, to the onlookers' surprise, dropped its nose and landed smoothly next to the Kremlin, where it sat comfortably, not far from our hotel.

One woman in our party took photos. An Indian physician kept close count and noted that, after 12 minutes had elapsed, some official Soviet vehicles surrounded the plane and pilot. How curious, we all said, and that was that.

May 29: Today is the first day of our congress, the seventh annual meeting of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. We are dedicated to learning about and teaching the medical effects of nuclear explosions and war, and were happy to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. Eleven San Diego area physicians and four UC San Diego medical students are on the trip.

The keynote of our congress is taken from an Albert Einstein quote: "If mankind is to survive, it will require a substantially new manner of thinking."

We all listen to many eloquent speeches. Much of our thinking, new or old, is, however, related to the incident of the day before, which has hit the international press in a big way.

Apparently, that plane was rented in Helsinki by a young West German, Matias Rust, who deviated from his flight plan and evaded the entire Soviet air defense shield to land in the heart of Moscow.

The woman who took those photos is doing some thinking, as well, on how to spend the money she has received from the news services for those wonderful pictures. As a Muscovite would say, now that's a capitalist at work, in the heart of Soviet Russia.

May 30: More conferences today, large meetings and small. Dr. Dmitri Venedictov, head of the Soviet Red Cross, gives one reason why his people don't like the Strategic Defense Initiative: "We don't trust your computers."

We also visit a trauma center in Moscow. I ask if helicopters are used for trauma transport as in San Diego. No, I am told. The Moscow blood bank is supplied, interestingly, by cadaver blood. When you die in the Soviet Union, you make an automatic 12-unit contribution within six hours, unless you died of infection or cancer.

The real treat of the day is dinner at a rowdy local restaurant, with a real Russian rock band. Although I cleverly push vodka and try to pry secrets from the many locals with my reasonably intelligible Russian, nobody displays the slightest interest in small planes. They are too intent on having a good time.

May 31: Today I attend a debate between Jack Matlock, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Bowman. I hope both will shed some light on that light plane, for the topic is the Strategic Defense Initiative, and I sense that there is some connection.

Matlock, with his years of Russian language and history study, is the master diplomat. His voice was the oil over troubled waters. With strategic reduction of nuclear missiles, he says, we must have a defense to prevent a first strike. We will not use SDI as an offensive system. Trust us, he implies. He promises that we will scrutinize the program with three rigid criteria: efficacy, survivability and cost effectiveness.

Bowman, director of advanced space programs (the then-secret SDI) under Presidents Ford and Carter, begins his talk with a military description of laser-based defense. I wondered initially if he was going to disagree with Matlock, as he seemed to radiate that confident military bearing, that love of gadgets, deployments and trajectories.

After convincing us of his utter command of the subject, he showed how vulnerable those fixed satellites are, how exquisitely accurate the laser's path must be and how simple it would be to do an end run below the stratosphere--just as Hitler evaded France's Maginot Line by going north and around it through Belgium. The way to do it would be with low-flying, non-detectable cruise missiles or bombers.

"This sounds a lot like something I saw on Red Square the other day," the person next to me whispers. I sense a real gap of faith between the speakers.

June 1: Carl Sagan, noted physicist and author, discusses space with us. He wants to divert that macho destructive space weapon effort toward peaceful exploration of places like Mars. Sagan also questioned the United States' abilities to detect small aircraft, reminding us that a squadron or so of such airplanes cross our borders every day, bearing, rather than daft young West Germans, bales of marijuana.

Sagan reminded us of the chilling aftermath of a nuclear war, in which firestorms created by the bombs would generate incredibly high temperatures and throw enough soot into the atmosphere to chill the planet and quite possibly cause the extinction of Homo sapiens.

June 2: The skies are clear over Moscow. Conferences over, it's time to shop. Unexpectedly, we meet an odd pair of diplomats, one Soviet, one Swiss, in the liquor, caviar and Havana cigar store.

Amiable fellows preparing for a party, they give us the scoop on that light plane. As we drive on mad errands through the winding diplomatic section of Moscow, the tale unfolds, and we learn of the firing of the Soviet minister of defense and the commander of the air defense.

June 3: On the flight back, more rumors: A one-million-Deutschmark bet sweetened the pot for Rust. The KGB, which controls the border, looked the other way. Rust will be set free soon.

I harken to the words of a source who should know: "In Soviet Russia, nothing is for sure. Every event has five or six levels of meaning."

Dr. Bernard Lown, president of the international physicians' group, has met with Gorbachev while all this was going on.

"There are two major obstacles to East-West peace today: secrecy on the part of the Soviet Union and the unholy alliance of the military-industrial complex in the United States, about which Dwight Eisenhower warned us," Lown told Gorbachev.

"That is why we now have glasnost. Now you must stop your militarization of space," the Soviet leader replied. "We will renew our nuclear test moratorium at any time, if the offer is reciprocated."

On the plane high above the Greenland icecap, I tiredly try to find a way to tie the many events of the past week together. Machiavellian summit politics, nuclear winter, first strikes. All these grim issues meet headlong with images of faces: fellow anesthesiologists from the Soviet Union and Germany, Graham Nash and Stephen Stills making music with a Soviet folk band, the innocent look of our UCSD medical students.

It is the people and not the ideologies that really count, I conclude.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World