Building an embassy in Moscow: nails, mortar, politics

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Willie Canaday was not surprised when 500 Soviet workers recently walked off the job at the new United States Embassy site in Moscow. ''It's just another in the moves of the political chess game surrounding the Embassy construction,'' says Mr. Canaday, who worked on the Embassy project as the State Department's manager of planning and logistics. ''It's just part of a pattern of noncooperation, which included problems of getting materials through customs, poor production, and poor construction quality.''

Canaday, last month reinstated as the Tampa-supervisor of the US Army Corps of Engineers, says he had seen the dispute coming during the last of two years he spent in Moscow. His only surprise was that it had not come to a head earlier.

But most of the construction problems he faced while working on the $120 million-plus, 10-acre Embassy complex had little to do with East-West antagonism , he says. Work on the Embassy is going faster than work on many surrounding buildings.

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It's just the way the Soviets do business, he says. And how a building is constructed tells something about how a society is constructed, he notes.

For example, negotiations on how the work should be done could require a monumental effort.

''The first time I went to a negotiating session, I went alone with an interpreter,'' he says. ''I was surprised to see I was facing 22 Soviets, yet no one on the Soviet side could make a decision.

''Every decision had to be reduced to diplomatic protocol,'' he says. ''That meant everything had to be written and rewritten in both languages.''

Under an agreement between the two nations, all of the Embassy's basic structural work had to be done by Soviet workers and equipment directed by Soviet contractors, he says. Yet sometimes it would take three or four months to get the type of worker needed for a particular job.

''The workers have no incentive, no pride in their work,'' he says. ''They're poorly trained, and they lack adequate tools to do quantity and quality construction.''

The contractors lacked the authority to get construction machinery delivered on time, he says. All the workers were pulled away from the project to prepare for the 1980 Olympic Games, and all the trucks needed for excavation disappeared during the potato harvest.

Canaday says he had thought the Soviets were trying to step up the work because their new Embassy compound in Washington is nearly completed, and it can't be occupied until the American Embassy in Moscow is finished.

But on May 26 Soviet workers stopped construction to protest the use of X-ray equipment Americans have imported to check construction quality. ''The new French Embassy had a balcony fall,'' Canaday says. ''That made us want to do the testing.''

Also, there probably was political motivation for the X-ray check. The X-ray equipment would look for listening devices possibly hidden by Soviet workers in the building's structure.

The Embassy was scheduled to be finished by the end of 1983, he says, but it is less than 50 percent completed. He estimates that by 1985 American diplomats may be able to move from the cramped, decrepit pre-Revolution building that serves as their Embassy.

The delays don't necessarily mean that the Soviets are giving Americans trouble just for the sake of superpower politics, Canaday says. All of the construction he saw in Moscow was moving as slowly or slower.

''We are much further along in our building than others started at the same time,'' he says.

''Nothing in Moscow finishes in less than five years,'' he says. ''They're building instant slums because construction takes so long and the quality is so poor that they (the buildings) begin to deteriorate before they are finished.''

But Canaday says Soviet inefficiency in building should not lull Americans into thinking the Soviet military threat to the West has been overstated. ''Soviet technology and materials are geared to two things: their space program and their military,'' he says. ''The chosen people are in the space and military industries.''

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