Monday, April 01, 2013

How Randall's grocery store ended the Cold War

The Cold War in part ended when Russian leaders realized how badly Socialism had failed. From the obituary for former Soviet premiere Boris Yeltsin, an anecdote about grocery stores:

During a visit to the United States in 1989 he became more convinced than ever that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its centralized, state-run economic system, where people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. He was overwhelmed by what he saw at a Houston supermarket, by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote in his biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000): “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.” He added, “On his return to Moscow, Yeltsin would confess the pain he had felt after the Houston excursion: the ‘pain for all of us, for our country so rich, so talented and so exhausted by incessant experiments.’ ”

He wrote that Mr. Yeltsin added, “I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans.” An aide, Lev Sukhanov was reported to have said that it was at that moment that “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed” inside his boss.

It wasn't so much that American stores were all that good, but that Soviet supplies of consumer goods were so incompetently managed. However, he did make it into one of the better grocery stores -- the old Randall's in Clear Lake, where I grew up, in Houston:

Having not a lot to do, he came to America for his first visit. Yeltsin toured the Johnson Space Center, and on his way back to Ellington for a flight to his next stop, Miami, the lifelong commie decided he wanted to visit an American store. In his travels, Yeltsin did that a lot-suddenly altering his schedule to pop in for a visit. His entourage came to this shopping center, possibly because there is a liquor store here. He entered Randalls.

Except for the fact that he chose the time and place for his impromptu visit, the communist pol might have thought it was a set-up deal to impress him. After all, it was the Russians who invented the Potemkin villages-a term derived from Prince Gregory Potemkin who built model villages to impress Catherine the Great on tours of her vast domain. They were facades, fakes to impress the czarina with the prosperity and happiness of the serfs. Such suspicions reached to the highest levels of the Soviet government. When then-Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny visited Austria in 1966 and saw the bounty of Viennese markets, he remarked, "Look how well they set things up for my visit."

Yeltsin had no such illusions; but he discovered that he had other illusions, which needed adjusting. For 20 minutes he wandered the aisles and commented, "Even the Politburo doesn't have this kind of choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev."

...In his autobiography, "Against the Grain," Yeltsin describes the experience as "shattering."

"When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."

Yale Richmond, in his essay "Cultural Exchange and the Cold War," quotes Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "After Yeltsin visited that Houston supermarket, he became a reformer."

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