MOSCOW, FEB. 29 -- A union leader in the Kremlin's defense industry announced to a committee of the Supreme Soviet legislature today plans to beat the nuclear era's equivalent of swords into baby carriages.
Holding aloft a photo of a lacy perambulator, Sergei Shuklin told generals and Central Committee members that the U.S.-Soviet treaty on intermediate nuclear forces means "we are now transferring the Votkinsk machine-building plant from military production to 'peace' production, to a people's economy." He said the factory in the Urals will switch from building SS20 missiles to the baby carriages.
"Are you sure you will be able to meet demand?" one committee member asked. Carriages and other baby equipment are in short supply here. "We will do our best to see that you have no complaints," Shuklin said.
The Soviets' longstanding production of SS25 long-range nuclear missiles also takes place at a plant in the huge Votkinsk industrial complex. SS25 production is not restricted by the INF treaty. The United States fought successfully in the INF negotiations for the right to station teams of inspectors outside the plant still building the SS25, because it is outwardly similar to the SS20 missile banned by the pact.
Shuklin said other conversions are under way. The Votkinsk complex is also producing washing machines -- "probably 400,000 a year," he said. A plant in Petropavlovsk will make bicycles, and an enterprise in Volgograd is building underwater oil-drilling equipment.
Shuklin held up color photos of washing machines and bicycles. Some members of the committee -- which included military leaders Vitali Zhurkin and Nikolai Chervov and scientist Roald Sagdeyev -- responded with ill-concealed grins.
Then Giorgi Kornienko, chairman of the committee and first deputy of the Central Committee's international department, announced that he was the proud owner of a Feya washing machine built at Votkinsk.
"I am quite satisfied with its performance, too," Kornienko declared.
Assuming the treaty is ratified, teams of U.S. inspectors will be posted at the retooled plant in Votkinsk and can visit Petropavlovsk and Volgograd.
For the last few weeks, the Foreign Ministry has invited foreign and Soviet correspondents to these hearings. Such open meetings are unprecedented, according to ministry officials. While the hearings on the INF accord now being held in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have featured sharp debates on verification and the treaty's implications for NATO, the meetings here have been uncontentious.
Today, a dozen reporters were driven by bus through the gates of the Kremlin to the stately Supreme Soviet building to assume seats along the wall while about 30 Soviet officials testified in favor of the treaty and further disarmament. There were no nay votes and none was expected. Metropolitan Filaret of the Russian Orthodox Church in Byelorussia and Minsk, described the INF agreement as an essential "first step" on the "road to peace."
"Nuclear war is against God and against mankind," said Filaret. "The Soviet Union's believers hail all the practical steps to remove and lessen the risk of outbreak of nuclear war."
Soviets at the meeting said this was the first time they could remember a representative of the church speaking in the Supreme Soviet on behalf of believers.
Movie-maker Elem Klimov, who is the head of the film-makers' union, referred to the American television movie "The Day After" and the Soviet production "Letters From a Dead Man" as positive "weapons" that influence public opinion on arms limitation. He suggested that the two countries develop a dual television broadcast, or tele-bridge, "to show everyone the destruction of these missiles."
"The Shakespearean question 'to be or not to be' in the nuclear age has become 'to live on this earth or not to live,' " Klimov said.
But the afternoon belonged to Shuklin and his baby carriages. No one probed the ability of a factory to convert from the production of missiles to prams without layoffs. And no one mentioned an article published last month in Pravda in which workers at the plant in Volgograd expressed some ambivalence about the changes there.
"No doubt, it's a pity to destroy these machines, this work," an engineer told the Communist Party newspaper. "Europe of course will be cleansed, that's good. Can there be a different opinion? So many weapons have been produced in this world that it's horrifying. On the other hand, if we hadn't had these missiles, the West would not have talked with us as equals. Most importantly, I am confident that we have enough strength left to bring anyone to reason."