THE best and brightest at the Mikoyan Design Bureau, makers of the some of the most-sophisticated fighter aircraft in the world, spent their time and energy last year trying to make a machine that pulls the stem out of a pear. ``We worked hard and we made such a machine,'' recalls leading designer Alexander Orlov. ``It works, but it doesn't work well.''
This is only one of many examples of how the Soviet Union has tried to carry out a much-ballyhooed plan, proclaimed two years ago by Mikhail Gorbachev from the rostrum of the United Nations, to convert the country's massive military industry to peaceful purposes.
At best, it has been a fitful process, a noble goal carried out in typically inefficient Soviet fashion. At worst, it has been a deliberate charade.
How did the men who invented the MIG fighter end up pulling pear stems? Or why did the Tupolev Design Bureau, designers of passenger jets and bombers, devote, in their words, ``a lot of blood'' to making a spaghetti machine?
The ``conversion'' was carried out through the well-established system of centralized command. Without regard to technology or marketing skills, each of the nine Soviet ministries carrying out defense production was assigned a civilian industrial task. The Ministry of Aircraft Industry was told to build a food processing complex near Donetsk in the Ukraine. The bureaucrats at the ministry in Moscow turned around and gave each of its serfs - from the aeronautical designers to the aircraft factories - a new civilian task.
For Andrei Kandalov, the diemaker who worked his way up to No. 2 at Tupolev, real conversion would mean devoting their time to making civilian aircraft, for which there is a crying need.
``It's not our work - we don't know the technology,'' he says about the various food industry tasks they were assigned.
Why not refuse, Mr. Kandalov is asked. ``I can say it's ridiculous, but I can't say I won't do it,'' the frank-talking Daddy Warbucks look-a-like answers. ``That's the system.''
The ``system'' is the Soviet military-industrial complex, made up of an estimated 5,000 enterprises and research institutes. For decades, those inside the system have gotten the best of everything, whenever they wanted it.
If Tupolev needed some special materials or a supplier was late in filling a contract, ``we went to the [Communist] Party comrades,'' Kandalov explains. ``They pushed the button and everything came - it was very simple.''
But starting three years ago, the blizzard of changes under Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika (restructuring) has been felt even inside the complex. Sporadic supply problems began starting three years ago.
Now many plants have just discontinued shipments of materials such as plastics, resins, rubber, and paints. Now, when they go the party for help, ``nothing happens.''
At the same time, defense orders, which used to provide three quarters of Tupolev's work, have dropped. It is now about half, says Kandalov, and in three to four years, ``it will be 25 percent maximum.''
The entire Soviet aircraft industry, with central government urging, is desperately seeking Western partners and Western money to replace its lost business. Western businessmen discussing joint deals to modernize Tupolev jets with their technology can now visit the vast complex of computer labs, work sheds, and test facilities whose very location alongside the Yauza River in northeastern Moscow used to be a secret.
Mikoyan officials report a 20 percent drop in orders, encouraging them to offer their latest MIG fighters for sale at Western air shows.
Others are trying new business, such as joint venture of Sukhoi, a military aircraft designer, with Gulfstream to design a supersonic business jet.
Despite the turmoil, Kandalov does not yearn for a return to the order of the system. Tupolev would fare much better as an independent company, he believes.
``I don't see any way out if you don't make everything private,'' he says with disarming directness.
``If it's yours, it's yours. If it's the people's, it's nobody's.''