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Russia's Nuclear Warriors  

Topol M "We were on the doorstep of a mighty nuclear arsenal." Above, a TOPOL M astride a Russian mobile missile launcher.
The Director's Story:
Behind Russia's Nuclear Front Line

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Inside the base, a closed city of 20,000 people, we met the roketchiki. In a building on the main square, which was still dominated by a gilded statue of Lenin, we were ushered into a vast and formal hall in the officer's club. With Pozner and Nadelson, I faced an array of two dozen officers arranged around a semicircular table. For two hours, we questioned one another, and we began to connect with some individuals. The three of us film people were immediately intrigued by a confident colonel with a gold tooth, and by a bright young lieutenant who clearly understood English. Most of the officers had seen the film I'd made with the American missileers, and they weren't especially impressed by what they'd seen of their opposite numbers. "They only do this job for about four years," one man said. "For us, this is a lifelong commitment."

The sense of pride we encountered at that first meeting was to run through our filming. The base was shabby, and life was clearly tough for the roketchiki. We were told that a colonel in charge of massive nuclear strike forces earns less than $60 per month. But compared with the desperate village just outside the gates, a tangle of muddy lanes and decaying wooden houses, life on the base was clearly privileged. And we were regularly made aware that despite the hardships of life for the missile forces, the roketchiki have preserved their feelings of patriotic duty. We filmed the missile forces' entertainment troupe singing a hearty anthem about "the defense of the motherland through the rocket's fierce flame," and for all the inescapable echoes of a Mel Brooks fantasy, it was impossible to deny the sense of commitment and dedication.

Evgeny Pavlov Lieutenant Evgeny Pavlov

The roketchiki had proposed some individual officers to be filmed, but accepted without question when we chose instead to feature the gold-toothed Colonel Petrovsky and the bright young Lieutenant Evgeny Pavlov. To my surprise, we had as much freedom to choose our characters as we'd had on the base in America. In both countries, we had an accompanying escort when we filmed—in the U.S., a Press Office sergeant, in Russia a silent and rather forbidding security man. Neither of them prevented us asking anything, but I was startled to find the Russian escort less attentive than his American equivalent. He rarely showed up for our interviews, whereas in Wyoming, our press officer sat in on every conversation.

Eleventh-hour breakthrough
As I'd always expected, it was in gaining access to operational areas that we had our greatest problems. In the U.S., after careful negotiation, we'd been able to get up close and personal with the missileers in their underground launch control capsules, and with the Minuteman missiles in their silos. In Russia, we were dealing with a deeply ingrained culture of secrecy. As we came to the final week of our filming, it became clear that something of a struggle was going on behind the scenes. The base commander, a chunky and likable veteran, was keen to open every door and show his pride in the roketchiki. But despite Pozner's lobbying on the base and in Moscow, some of those doors remained closed. It seemed that we were part of that top-level conflict between missile people eager to display their abilities, and powerful military rivals anxious to cut the roketchiki down to size.

Topol Command Center Inner sanctum: The TOPOL command center
On our final afternoon, we had a breakthrough. On a few minutes notice, we were suddenly taken out to a missile launch control center. The base commander had either won his battle—or taken a considerable risk. We filmed deep underground in the tunnels built to withstand a direct nuclear strike, and I felt I was back in the depths of a Cold War nightmare. But the undeniable fact that I was there and filming with a Western crew meant that the Cold War was over, and we had all moved on.

We had to survive one final banquet with the roketchiki. We struggled to control the vodka attack and stay coherent for the final speeches. As we were leaving, Colonel Petrovsky unpinned his missileers badge and gave it to me. In the end, my overwhelming feeling was identical to the one I'd had at the end of filming with America's missile squadrons. Given these monstrous weapons still exist, thank goodness the keys are in such sane and responsible hands.

Leslie Woodhead
Leslie Woodhead, producer of the NOVA program "Russia's Nuclear Warriors," has made numerous documentaries since the 1960s. Recent efforts include a film about the Srebenica Massacre, which won Grand Prize at the Banff TV Festival, the Amnesty U.S. Documentary Award, and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. Woodhead also recently completed a nonfiction feature, "Endurance," about an Olympic gold medal long-distance runner. See Woodhead's thoughtful piece on the making of the NOVA program "Holocaust on Trial."

Photos: (1-7) WGBH/NOVA; (8) Courtesy of Leslie Woodhead.

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