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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Far Away Places #3(a)

St. Petersburg, Russia

Raise your hand if you are well-read enough to know what these students are doing:

OK, you can put your hands down now. If you said "duck and cover," then you know your 1950's history. The students are practicing getting to safety in the event of a nuclear attack from then arch-enemy, the USSR. Seriously, did we think that this would really work?

Now, if you are old enough to have actually participated in one of these drills, then you can sit back and take a nap as you are, like me, getting too old for all of this excitement.

That was the way it was during the cold war. Lots of posturing and sabre rattling. Times were tense, brinksmanship was defined in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The iron curtain went up. We knew who the enemy was. Eastern Europe was off limits.

Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, this followed by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. In 1996, I had a chance to make a business trip to Russia. I had met Professor Yuri G. at a conference in Hannover, Germany and he invited me to visit the St. Petersburg State Technical University for a compressor conference. Two of us from Trane made the trip to see just what we might learn. From our former enemies. I really had that thought, what with having lived for more than 45 years in the environment of duck and cover, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Berlin Wall.

We stayed not too far from the University and had planned to take the subway to the conference. However, we were met at the hotel and taken by car. It seems the subway tunnel on the line had collapsed and there was a difficult-to-negotiate switching from subway-to-bus-to-subawy to get around the impediment. Turns out someone in city government decided to save money by shutting down a big refrigeration unit that ran all of the time. What they apparently missed was that the machinery was keeping the marshy ground around a section of the subway tunnel frozen. Once the ground thawed, it wasn't long before the cave in. In any event, we missed all of that and arrived at the university in style. Here's the name badge I was given. The bold letters in the center spell out my name phonetically in the Cyrillic alphabet. The CWA at the bottom is "USA" and the words just above that say "Trane Company."

The conference was conducted in Russian and while the two students assigned to assist us during our stay – Kirill and Olga – whispered highlights during the sessions, we missed most of what was said. But, we had come to talk about work at the University and that went quite well. We met a number of people there, including an older professor (I'm that old now) who told us, among other things, how he would spend months making instruments that we could simply buy in large quantities for our work. Things were not easy for anyone we met during our visit.

When the conference was over, there was a banquet. This is apparently required of those hosting meetings in Russia. You WILL have a banquet for everyone to get together and celebrate the completion of the program. There were long tables with food and drink, lots of drink. As the meal was winding down, the president of the University got up and began to speak. Kirill told me that he didn't know much about compressors, but was hoping that we had found the conference valuable and thanked us for coming. He said more than that. A lot more. He talked long enough for most everyone at the tables to stop paying attention. But, when he was finally finished, he lifted his glass to offer a toast. Everyone in the room IMMEDIATELY stopped talking, took up their glasses drank the toast with him.

After this, Professor G. spoke. Kirill informed me that he was talking about highlights of the conference and saying how pleased he was at the quality of the papers and the interest showed by all of the attendees. And, as with the University president, he said a lot more. But he too eventually got to a stopping point and so raised his glass, a gesture that everyone had apparently been waiting for as they once again followed suit without hesitation.

A few more people, including some conference attendees, repeated this process and we were making quite a dent in the liquid refreshment that had been set out on the tables. At some point, I decided that I should get up and say a few words on behalf of the foreigners in attendance. I discussed this with Kirill who agreed it would be a fine idea. My plan was to say a few words and have Kirill translate. Then, I would bring out the full measure of my Russian vocabulary, and tell everyone in their language, "It has been very nice. Thank you very much. Cheers!" I thought it went quite well.

When I was done and I had sat back down in my seat, the professor whom I told you about earlier, the one who made the instruments, leaned over and whispered to me, "That was very good. But, it was SHORT!" Oh well, now I know. And I've been trying to make up for that too-short speech ever since.

That was a memorable moment, but it was the other things I learned about this clever man that made the greatest impression. He had, as it turns out, survived the siege of Leningrad, which lasted for 872 days. It was an event that cost 1,500,000 people their lives and those who survived did so in spite of dreadful conditions. He said that near the end of the siege, families received a daily ration of a single hunk of black bread about the size of your fist. He had a card in his wallet, certifying that he was a siege survivor.

I learned a little about how he made his special pressure transducers. He talked about how St. Petersburg (nee Leningrad) had blossomed as an educational and cultural city and we chatted about engineering stuff. He was pleasant and interesting to talk to, this "former enemy." Makes you wonder how we come to view other people that way. And how we can even get moved to lay siege to cities where people like him live and work.

As happens to me all too often, I have forgotten his name. But I remember his story, his lesson in resilience. And, how he led me to making after dinner speeches of proper length. Please, do not hold that against him.

Next, another story from my visit to St. Petersburg.

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