Burlington County Times
BUSINESSMAN'S VISITS TO RUSSIA ENLIGHTENING...
By Fredda Sacharow
Of the Times Staff
September 3, 1975
"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
"My first trip to Moscow, I didn't venture more than two blocks from my hotel. And it was because I misunderstood the system."
Since January, 1973, James Metcalf has traveled to the Soviet Union 29 times - or about once every seven weeks. Each visit he's made as chairman of the board of the Cheston Company of Westampton has lasted between four and seven days, with an occasional two-week stay during longer periods of business negotiations.
His primary purpose has been to sell specialty steels to the Russian factories through the medium of the Foreign Trade Organization. A secondary gain has been a growing knowledge of the people and folkways of a country traditionally shrouded in mystery, rumor and half-truths.
"Through my association with engineers I have met several families and spent many dinners and social evenings with them. The press in the United States has given the impression that the people are not allowed to meet with foreigners," said the white-haired businessman before leaving recently for another noon flight to Moscow. "This is just not true.
"There is a total misunderstanding through the American press on whether or not the people are watched. I'm sure that if my name were Scoop Jackson, I'd be watched while I was in Russia. But my name is James Metcalf, I'm a businessman, and I am not watched."
It took him four or five visits, he recalled before he felt comfortable in the Communist country. He stayed close to his hotel throughout the first winter, but when summer came and the people began to shed their heavy coats and closed looks, he ventured further afield. Several times he has rented a car and driven - on his own- up to 1,400 miles deep into the country.
"And I've never had anyone check on me," he stressed.
What he found, he added was a people with strong positive feelings about their country, and Metcalf is dismayed that recent interviews with Russian exiles and emigrants may have painted too bleak a picture about life behind the Iron Curtain.
"Russians are by and large patriotic; they have good feelings about their country. I don't find people condemning the system, even though there are so many things they may not like. There's no graffiti-even in the men's rooms-and you won't see anyone carrying a sign that says 'Down with Brezhnev." Metcalf observed.
The reason for this, he believes, is a combination of official and unofficial policy. There has been a relaxation of the totalitarian law of Stalin, but some government controls linger.
"It's a carryover of the system itself, which does not allow bad press or open dissent. It's no longer published, but it's understood."
"I'm not saying they have a free and open society, but they DO have a more open society than the (American) press would have one believe. They don't have the freedom to dissent openly against their government--and I don't think they want it," Metcalf said.
The Willingboro man also found that the Soviets enjoy a fairly comfortable way of life.
"Their standard of living in terms of material things is very low. Their standard of living in terms of security, culture and arts and medical care is very high," he observed.
And, universally, the people he meets are interested in knowing about America: its cars, music, school systems, penal codes. Their impressions about the United States are often amusing to Metcalf.
"The average person there thinks we are one massive industrial area, with not a single bit of green left. They feel we are overly conscious about money and material things. And I can see from reading our magazines how they could get that impression very fast," he said.
Metcalf, who has employed several Russian Jewish emigrants as translators, acknowledged that the Soviet Union does have what he called a "Jewish problem."
"In talking to a non-Jew, you find a prejudice similar in nature to the prejudice I saw in the South the against blacks. I'm positive the government doesn't want it-it's not an official thing," Metcalf said. He noted that the majority of the nations top scientists and surgeons are Jewish.
As for emigration, Metcalf said, the official Soviet policy is to allow a person to leave the country for purposes of family reunion. The Jewish person, with relatives in New York or Israel, often has a better chance to emigrate than his non-Jewish neighbor.
"Not that that many Russians WANT to leave," Metcalf hastened to add. The majority, he said, are satisfied with a way of life that includes state-subsidized housing, government-supported cultural arts and no unemployment.
"And it's unheard of to be mugged in Moscow," the businessman said.
Metcalf, whose company supplies specialty steel to satisfy Russia's market for heat resistant and stainless steel said, ("Their capacity to produce standard steels is quite good; their capacity to produce specialty steel is quite limited." He feels that the United States would benefit from increased trade with the Communist country.
"There is little question that the Soviet Union has an excellent amount of raw materials. With the world finding its abundant sources drying up, it will have to turn eventually to Russia. We have not exploited this market because the world economy has not yet asked for it.
"We must establish a meaningful trade with the Communist countries. We have no choice. And as we begin to do so," Metcalf predicted, "tensions will drop as we begin to understand the other person's point of view."