CHITA, Russia -- A camouflage-green U.S. Air Force cargo plane lumbers out of the sky and onto a runway here deep in Eastern Siberia, bearing plastic cups of Lunch Bucket lasagna -- microwavable, of course -- and No. 10 cans of cherry pie filling.
Everyone who is anyone in Chita is here, waiting on the runway, hungering more for the sight of Americans than for the granola bars they bring as humanitarian aid. The last U.S. military plane landed here in 1942, a local historian says. It didn't bring Dinty Moore stew. It brought Wendell L. Willkie, dispatched by President Franklin Roosevelt during World War II for a goodwill tour of the Allied countries.
Chita (pronounced chee-tah) is one of 64 former Soviet cities receiving a token of Operation Provide Hope, the highly publicized U.S. intercontinental airlift that ended last week.
It is a long way from anywhere. It's near Mongolia, six time zones from Moscow, on the edge of the Russian Far East. When it's 9 a.m. in Baltimore, it's 11 p.m. in Chita. What Baltimoreans call bitter cold, the people of Chita call a heat wave. In winter, the temperature goes 20 to 30 degrees below zero.
"In June, summer has not yet arrived," says Sergei N. Samoylov, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's envoy here, "and in July it is already gone."
Chita, a city of 350,000, is full of the paradoxes of today's Russia. It is rich in gold and copper and has nearly all the elements on Mendeleev's chart -- but it can't feed itself.
The Trans-Siberian Express railroad provides superb transportation, but no supplies are reaching here. Chita is paying dearly for years of reliance on the collapsed Communist central economy: The old ties have been broken, and new ones have not yet been formed.
It rests on the edge of a land filled with crisp clear lakes, where virgin pine and spruce forests shelter elk, sable, bear, lynx and beaver. Yet the pollution is dreadful. Blocks of ice chipped from the streets and shoveled into piles look like a geological survey, one black grimy stratum upon another, rippled with traces of white.
As far from Moscow as it is, Chita is a testament to the thoroughness with which the Soviet Union applied its terrible sameness. The forlorn, disintegrating Soviet-era tenements overshadow traditional log houses with intricate gingerbread.
Just two years ago, a U.S. military plane trying to fly here would have been shot down. Chita then was a closed city, home to a vast Soviet army force. A thicket of communication towers stands near the airport. Nuclear missiles lace the hillsides, no doubt pointing toward China to the southeast. The issue still is sensitive enough that the crew of the American C-141 -- led by Air Force Capt. Steven Scheri of Silver Spring, Md. -- is sternly warned not to take any pictures of the airport or nearby Aeroflot planes.
The provisions they bring traveled from Saudi Arabia, where they were part of the supplies for the Gulf War, then by ship to Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and by train to Frankfurt, Germany. Captain Scheri and his crew flew to Frankfurt from New Jersey, where they are attached to the 18th Airlift Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base.
America is sending military leftovers to the people of Russia as part of Operation Provide Hope. In Chita, the recipients of this largess were grateful, if somewhat bewildered.
They are the descendants of exiles -- the czar sent the protesters known as the Decembrists here in 1825, and Chita has been a long stop on the gulag ever since. People here are strong and resourceful, and they want to help themselves.
"Aid is great, but it's not a way out," says Ella Selutina, 52, a chemical engineer. "A cup of soup will not save us."
Salvation, she says, will come only with outside technology and expert advice. The American aid is meant to buy a little time for that and to send a message: America and Russia are allies again.
Operation Provide Hope is only a trickle, swallowed quickly by an enormous country. Other countries are doing more. While the FTC United States sent 64 flights with 2,200 tons of humanitarian aid worth $60 million, Europe has sent that much in a single day at the height of its assistance. And flying in the food is an enormous expense.
But an American waiting here to greet the flight is hoping to turn the assistance into more than a one-time occasion.
The six-man U.S. distribution team in Chita is headed by Mike Slifka, an Air Force major assigned to the On Site Inspection Agency. The OSIA is responsible for enforcing arms control treaties with periodic visits to nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union.
The OSIA inspectors were chosen as advance men because of && their experience with the area. Major Slifka was here in 1988, when he arrived on Aeroflot and was whisked into a van, driven straight to mountain silos, and kept well away from the city and its people.