Beneath the surface of the northern Russian landscape, a few miles from ancient churches and grazing cattle, lies the blunt white tip of nuclear destruction.
The SS-11 intercontinental missile has not intruded on the outside world in the 15 years or more since it was placed in its silo 150 miles northeast of Moscow.But it retains the power to destroy New York, Los Angeles or any other American city in minutes.
"This missile is on full military standby. It's fully armed," Major Gen. Ivan Vershkov said Thursday on a trip sponsored by the Soviet Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry. The Soviet decision to show the missile to foreign reporters was unprecedented.
"Your presence here is indeed a step toward trust," he said. "If someone five years ago told me a group of correspondents, including foreign correspondents, would meet me by a missile silo, I wouldn't have believed it." The single-warhead SS-11 is among the oldest of the Soviet strategic forces. Western military references list three types of SS-11s and estimate the Soviets have deployed about 440.
The U.S. Defense Department says their range is 6,600 to 8,000 miles, putting any intercontinental target within their reach.
The missile is based at what Western analysts call the Teykovo missile range, surrounded by the historic towns of Suzdal, Rostov, Yaroslavl, whose ancient churches remind one of life centuries before nuclear weapons.
Vershkov said residents know only that a military installation is in the area.
Soviet military officers said the decision to show the missile was made by the general staff of Marshal Sergei F. Akhromeyev, the Soviet military chief, within days of a reporter's query. The officers said they learned of the visit six days before it began.
Akhromeyev was shown a U.S. Minuteman II missile in the United States this summer. Vershkov, a 49-year-old veteran of Soviet rocket forces, said reporters were shown an SS-11 because it is analogous to the Minuteman II.
U.S. officials have visited more than 100 missile sites while monitoring Soviet compliance with the treaty eliminating medium-and shorter-range missiles, which was ratified in May.
"I wouldn't have thought we would have gone through 115 inspections, poking into sensitive areas, without some kind of minor tension," Gen. Roland Lajoie, director of the U.S. Arms Control Inspection Agency, said this week. "I find the Soviets uncommonly flexible and supportive."
But Vershkov made it clear that many questions about the SS-11 missile, the command center, and the soldiers who man it were forbidden.
Reporters were taken to the top of one silo, whose dark green lid about 20 feet square was rolled to one side to uncover the white SS-11 inside, and to an empty silo about nine miles away.
They saw the top of the 60-foot missile but not the command center, which Vershkov said was several miles away. They saw no soldiers except for a small group of top officers.
Even officers in the control center don't know where the missiles are targeted, he said.
Vershkov, a Communist Party member who lavished praise on Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's foreign policy, refused to detail his responsibilities .
When a television reporter asked how close a nuclear missile would have to land to destroy the site, he responded, "Why do your viewers need such details?"
U.S. and Soviet negotiators are making slow progress in negotiations to halve their arsenals of long-range nuclear weapons.
The general said he and his soldiers would not be upset if the SS-11s were destroyed under a new treaty.
"I'll find work. I have an engineering degree, and the country needs working hands," he said.