The press conference at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., was progressing well. The Soviet Ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, had, by now, spoken. Bill Marriott, the chairman and president of Marriott Corporation was just about to conclude his remarks. "This joint venture between the Marriott Corporation and Aeroflot Soviet Airlines will be the first contract food service operation in the Soviet Union involving a Western company . . . We are delighted to be joining forces with Aeroflot, the world's largest airline, in this cooperative effort . . . "
Marriott did not depart from his prepared text. He read it as it was written - straight and sober, without embellishments. He runs his company in the same manner. He is not a risk-taker by nature. Creativity and spontaneity are seldom seen in such men. I would imagine he does not suffer fools for long either. He is a man of probity and competence. He is reserved and self-contained.Jon Huntsman, Chairman and CEO of Huntsman Chemical Corporation, followed Bill Marriott to the podium. Huntsman, a boyish-looking 51 years old, was at ease with himself and the audience. As he began to speak it was obvious that his comments were his own. An audience can immediately detect such things. He read from his own hand-written notes on 3X5 cards. "General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan have created a framework for mutual trust and cooperation. We applaud these statesmanlike moves toward improved bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and the United States.
"This alliance provides a basis for the Bill Marriotts and the Jon Huntsmans of America to expand our businesses and share our dreams with the Soviet people . . . "
Huntsman succeeded in lifting the tone of the news conference at least a couple of notches because he sounded more like a diplomat than a capitalist.
The last person to address the group was the Director General of Aeroflot, Vladimir A. Nacharov. His young face had a decent and likeable appearance about it. His large build and red cheeks gave the impression he preferred the out-of-doors to embassy press conferences. As he read in Russian from a printed text he was assisted by an interpreter.
"Aeroflot Soviet Airlines carried last year over 118 million passengers, with approximately 4,000 flights on international routes. We fly to over 3,000 cities within the Soviet Union. We wish to remain competitive in every way with other international carriers. We want to be effective and profitably operate our in-flight food service. Only Marriott could meet our requirements. We welcome the contributions of our American friends . . . "
I found it a curious thing how everyone who had spoken tactfully avoided the obvious, that is, the in-flight food served on Aeroflot has to be, consistently, the worst of any air carrier in the history of commercial aviation.
It was only during the question and answer session that someone, a television correspondent, was brave enough to hint at this problem.
QUESTION: "Mr. Nacharov, why do you need Marriott's food and management skills? Aren't you already feeding your Aeroflot passengers?"
The Russian interpreter explained the question to Mr. Nacharov. He slowly walked to the podium, paused for a moment and then offered a one-word answer, "Sometimes!"
When I left the Soviet Embassy that pleasant afternoon in January, I had a strong feeling that there was something new in the temperament of the Russians I had listened to and observed that day. The Slovanic disposition toward brooding heaviness and suspicion was absent. They had put themselves out to be pleasant. At times they had even risked humor. They had smiled not only for the cameras, but for everyone else.
The press conference confirmed something everyone seemed to sense - the Soviet system was undergoing great change. The possibility of peace never seemed more promising.
Indeed, it was difficult to observe all that had gone on this day and not conclude that the nose of the capitalist camel was beginning to be pushed some distance under the socialist tent.
Hopefully, the long night that had descended upon Mother Russia in 1917 was finally at an end.