Forget nukes. Forget tanks. None of that mattered. It was an unscheduled stop at a Randall’s Grocery store in Houston that blew Boris Yeltsin’s mind.
It was September 16, 1989 and Yeltsin, then newly elected to the new Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, had just visited Johnson Space Center.
Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.”
Nobody in the USSR, not even those in the politburo, had such choices. Even more troubling, it wasn’t just a one-off. There were stores like Randall’s all over the damned place! On his flight to his next stop, in Miami, Yeltsin became despondent.
“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,” Yeltsin wrote. “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.”
I understand how he felt, as in 1989 I hosted a colleague from Moscow for a few days. On the way back to the house following a local event, I decided to make a quick stop at the local Fred Meyer store to pick up a few additional items for dinner, as the guy seemed to have an incredible appetite and I hadn’t been entirely prepared for that. Was that ever a mistake!
My “quick stop” ran to over two hours, as Ruslan had never seen anything like it. He had to visit every aisle; he marveled at the produce section, the meat and seafood, the dairy – even the toilet paper and paper towel aisle. “We have nothing like this in Moscow,” he confided. When he hit the clothing section and saw the stacks of Levis in every size imaginable, I thought he might have a heart attack.
It got to the point where I was considering grabbing him by the shirt-collar and dragging him out of there. When we finally got home and I had dinner going, he asked if we could return before he left, so that he could buy a few things for his family and friends. I think he got half a dozen pairs of freakin’ Levis, along with candies and jerky and some other stuff. I was just glad I hadn’t taken him to a larger Freddies – we’d probably still be in there.
It was a learning experience, though; it had never before occurred to me that what I take for granted amounts to a jaw-dropping experience for others.