While Boris N. Yeltsin struggled to settle the worst political unrest in Russia since the fall of communism, two Howard County firefighters whizzed around the outskirts of history.
Escorted by Russian police throughout Moscow, Battalion Chief Raymond Faith and Lt. Herman Edwards avoided much of the unrest that gripped the capital city during the past few weeks.
The two Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue officers were part of a six-member delegation visiting Russia from Sept. 17 through Sept. 26 as part of a firefighters exchange program that brought Russian firefighters to the United States last spring.
Other firefighters represented fire stations from Montgomery County and Boston.
Unrest brewed in Moscow early in their trip when President Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Parliament on the night of Sept. 21.
Lieutenant Edwards recalled the grim expressions on the faces of his hosts the next morning.
"They were quiet, sad and long-faced," Lieutenant Edwards remembered. "They said there had been a problem during the night. That Yeltsin had suspended Parliament and that protesters were out."
The group's schedule was altered and made conditional on where demonstrators decided to hold protests. "All we did was ride by them," Lieutenant Edwards said. "They were very protective of us."
Even without the political turmoil that seemed about to erupt into civil war, the trip to the former Soviet Union turned out to be a lot more than the pair expected.
"I had a different opinion of Russia before," said Lieutenant Edwards, who works in the Savage station. "I thought they were hardhearted and noncaring to the rest of the world. I found that to be the total opposite."
But it isn't the unstable political climate, the vodka or the borscht that's ingrained in their memories, the men said. Instead, the hospitality of their Russian hosts, especially during their country's uncertain future, was what they found most impressive, the two said.
"I enjoyed every day," Chief Faith said, sitting at his desk at the Long Reach station. "They were a very friendly group of people and made us feel like we were part of them."
Lieutenant Edwards said the friendships were toasted to vodka, with about 16 people toasting each meal.
"We couldn't handle it," Lieutenant Edwards said. "They could go through 12 to 15 bottles of vodka a day. It didn't affect them because they were used to it. They really rolled out the red carpet," he said.
The American group was housed at a plush hotel reserved for visiting dignitaries. Most meals included vegetables, pork, cheese, borscht, caviar and vodka.
Chief Faith was impressed by the reach of the Moscow fire force, which covers 37 districts -- an area larger than the state of Maryland. He said some of the Russian equipment is antiquated.
But otherwise, firefighting techniques and innovations, such as a giant escape shoot made with a protective cloth material, make the Moscow firefighters as creative as any of their American counterparts, he said.
One notable difference is that Russian firefighters are also part of the military force and can be called to duty at any time by the president.