I know the title probably isn't proper English, but last night I was watching an interesting documentary about the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team. It brought back a memory (actually a few) that has to do with the first Russian I ever met. In 1992, this was a pretty big deal, since the cold war was still very much a reality—though starting to come to an end. At this time, most Americans had never met a Russian before, and our perceptions about them were shaped very strongly by the media and politics of the time. They were "the other country", way on the other side of the world.
Back in the United States, I was helping Disney’s marketing department as a “Pool Rep.” during one of the resort’s major press events. For this particular one, I was assigned to host a TV station from New York that was here to cover and participate in the Goofy Games. This had nothing to do with my job as an Imagineer—it was just pure fun. The Goofy Games were an event that pitted together teams of 4 or 5 against each other in a series of silly competitions throughout the Walt Disney World Resort. Each team was assigned a WDW “pool rep.” who acted as their host/liaison while they were here. Typically, if I remember correctly, the teams consisted of a local group from whatever city—usually a news anchor and some other local TV personalities. In addition, they were encouraged and allowed to bring a high profile celebrity with them as well.
One day, I was standing by with my team from NY, waiting for one of the competitions to begin. I started chatting with one of the gentlemen from team next to us and to my surprise, learned they were from Russia! What made it even more fascinating is the person I was speaking with—the first Russian I had ever met—was Sergei Krikalev. You probably don’t know his name, but Sergei is a Russian Cosmonaut, and most notably, particularly at the time, was famous for having set the record for one of the longest tenures in Space—albeit unwillingly.
As detailed in a 1992 Washington Post article:
Cosmonaut 3rd Class Sergei Krikalev, stuck in a space station as an orbiting hostage to budget problems on the ground in Russia, returned on Wednesday to a bewilderingly different country than he left 10 months ago.
The cosmonaut, who was blasted into space 313 days ago by the former Soviet Union, landed in Kazakhstan, one of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States that was formed in December.
The 34-year-old flight engineer appeared dizzy and had to be helped from his spacecraft by soldiers.
While he was circling the Earth in the Mir space station, the Soviet Union fought off a coup, changed leaders and went out of existence.
Nicknamed the ``space victim`` and ``the man who is sick of flying`` by the media while he waited to be returned to Earth, Krikalev has been compared to science fiction characters who suddenly find themselves catapulted into a new century.
Even his home town changed its name while he was in space-from Leningrad to St. Petersburg.
Scheduled to return in October, Krikalev spun around the Earth 16 times a day while economic, territorial and bureaucratic battles raged below.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia and Kazakhstan began to fight over how to administer the huge Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan`s government tried to charge massive fees for use of the space complex, and Russia -- already strapped for money -- worked out a deal to launch the first Kazakh cosmonaut in return for easier access to the cosmodrome and the atmosphere above it. The agreement, however, caused another delay, because the Kazakh cosmonaut was not experienced enough to replace Krikalev as flight engineer.
Financial problems also forced a delay in Krikalev`s retrieval from space. Glavkosmos, the Russian space agency, has been selling space rides to other countries to raise money, and could barely afford to send supplies the 240 miles outside the Earth`s atmosphere to keep Krikalev and other cosmonauts well-fed.
I remember speaking with Sergei for several minutes as we were killing time and waiting for our turns. I didn’t know his name either, when he first introduced himself—but as soon as he explained who he was, I knew right away—his story had been all over the news. He was incredibly cordial and had a sense of humor about his experience. I remember him making a comment about how Disney World in America was the last place he thought he would be when he was circling our planet just a few months earlier. I certainly never imagined I would have the chance to meet and talk to him.
Meeting interesting people like Sergei was one of the coolest things about working at Disney, whether as an Imagineer or in some other capacity. In this case, it was a Russian Cosmonaut—other times it was sports stars, musicians, movie and TV celebrities, and even a Miss America thrown in there. I’ve got some other interesting encounters I’ll be sharing with you as well…