Boris Yeltsin and The Most Important Supermarket Visit in History

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Podcast Transcript

The cold war was the defining event of the second half of the 20th century. 

When exactly it ended has been subject to debate. Was it the fall of the Berlin Wall? Was the day the Soviet Union was dissolved?

There is an argument to be made that end might have actually occurred before any of those things, although no one knew it at the time. 

The event in question didn’t take place in Moscow or Washington but in a supermarket in the suburbs of Houston. 

Learn more about the most important supermarket visit in history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Cold War got its name because it wasn’t a hot war. The Soviet Union and the United States didn’t engage in a direct military confrontation. 

The fact that there was never a shooting war was a good thing, as each side had thousands of nuclear weapons. 

Instead of a direct military confrontation, conflict during the cold war shifted to other venues. 

Sports became an area of competition. When the Soviets beat the Americans in basketball at the 1972 Olympics, it was a big deal. When the Americans beat the Soviets in hockey in 1980, it was a big deal.

The chessboard became a battleground when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spasky for the world chess championship. 

The competition wasn’t just cultural.

There were proxy military conflicts all over the world in places like Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, Lebanon, and Korea. The Americans and Soviets might not have been shooting at each other, but they had people shooting at each other on their behalf.

The space race was a technological competition. The Soviets put a satellite and a human into orbit first, which scored them points, and then the Americans landed someone on the moon. 

Ultimately, however, the competition between the two countries was economic. Communism and capitalism are economic systems. While this never got the attention of the other things I just mentioned, at the end of the day, economics was the thing that set the two systems apart. 

The Soviets were able to get wins in some areas of culture, technology, and even in some proxy wars. The fervent communists truly believed that they had a superior economic system that was better than capitalism. 

This became very apparent in 1959 during the famous Kitchen Debate between Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and US Vice President Richard Nixon. 

In a cultural exchange, both countries set up exhibitions in each others country. When the American exhibition opened in Moscow, it included cutting-edge technology, such as color television sets. 

As Kruschev and Nixon walked around the American exhibit, they began an extremely loud and spirited argument in front of reporters in a mock-up of a model kitchen. 

They argued about the necessity of many of the gadgets on display and then Kruschev told Nixon, “This is what America is capable of, and how long has she existed? 300 years? 150 years of independence and this is her level. We haven’t quite reached 42 years, and in another 7 years, we’ll be at the level of America, and after that we’ll go farther.”

The state of the Soviet economy was sort of a known mystery. Everyone knew that it didn’t perform as well as western economies, but no one was quite sure exactly how well or poorly it was performing. It was like looking at a blurry picture of a person. You knew it was a person, but you couldn’t see any details. 

Even though the western economies weren’t secretive about their economic data, the Soviets didn’t know much about the American economy either. It wasn’t that they couldn’t get the freely available data, it was that they didn’t want to share it or publicize it internally. 

As such, the only people in the Soviet Union who really knew what life was like in America were diplomats who had been stationed there or people who worked in the intelligence service. 

Soviet television would occasionally show scenes of life in the United States, but what was shown was always carefully selected. They would usually show street scenes, often of crowded urban areas, to try to paint the country in a negative light.

What they never showed was the interior of a supermarket.

Just as the Americans had a fuzzy image of the Soviet economy, the average Soviet citizen had a fuzzy view of the American economy. There were rumors which were passed around from person to person about all the things which could be found in the west, but no one really knew for sure. 

This included most Communist party officials. 

The vast majority of party members were just as much in the dark as the common Soviet citizen. However, they also had a vested interest in buying into Soviet propaganda, at least superficially. Also, given their status, they often had access to better-quality stores and housing.

Here I need to introduce one, Boris Yeltsin. 

You have probably heard the name Boris Yeltsin before. He became the first president of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 

However, before that, he was a communist party official. He had a good career. He worked his way up the ranks, and in 1985, he was appointed as the equivalent of the mayor of Moscow. 

He was later appointed to the Politburo where he became the first politburo member in Soviet history to resign in 1987.

In 1989, in the first real sort of free election in Soviet History, he was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union as a delegate from Moscow. 

In September 1989, he went on his first trip to the United States. 

It needs to be stressed that in September 1989, Boris Yeltsin wasn’t that big of a deal. He wasn’t yet the leader of Russia. He was simply a member of the legislature. 

So his visit wasn’t a state visit. He had guides to show him around, but it wasn’t as if Gorbachev was visiting. This is important because no one would have gone out of their way to try to impress him, and he knew that. 

His trip started in New York City. He saw the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, and other attractions. He wasn’t really impressed.

He then flew to Houston to visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center. On Saturday, September 16, 1989, he was shown mission control for the space shuttle and a mock-up of a space station. Again, it was very nice, but nothing that was world-shattering. 

However, after his visit to NASA, he made an unusual request. 

He wanted to visit a supermarket. A regular, local supermarket. 

Because this was an impromptu visit for a low-level representative from a foreign country, there was no way the Americans could possibly throw together some fake store just to impress him.

His American guides didn’t think it was that big of a deal, so they called a local supermarket. Randall’s Foods, just off El Dorado Boulevard and Highway 3 in Clear Lake, Texas. 

The manager on duty that Saturday was Paul Yirga. He was told that a VIP would be showing up in about 15 minutes and should get ready for his visit. 

Yeltsin and his entourage arrived at the store, met the manager, and were given a tour of the store. 

What Yeltsin saw changed his entire worldview and his life. 

The store was filled with food. There were thousands of products of every type. Multiple options for almost every product. The meat and produces sections were filled with fresh products. 

Yeltsin was fascinated by the frozen foods section, in particular Jell-O pudding pops.  

He spoke to customers and asked them through an interpreter what they were buying and how much it cost.

He even has some free cheese samples which were being given away.

There was nothing special about Randall’s Foods in Clear Lake, Texas. It was a typical American supermarket. 

However, Boris Yeltsin never saw anything like this before. 

When he left the store, he flew to the next stop on his tour, which was Miami. 

However, on the flight, he was despondent and hardly said anything.  He reportedly had his head in his hands and was gently sobbing. 

After a long silence, he said, “What have they done to our poor people?’

His visit to Randall’s Foods stuck with him and had a profound impact. He kept thinking about his visit over the next several years as the Soviet Union fell apart and he became the leader of the new Russian Federation. 

In his autobiography, he wrote, “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.” 

Perhaps the thing which shocked him the most is that the choices the average American had were greater than those of the highest-ranking Soviet officials. Yeltsin noted, “Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,”

One of his personal aids, Lev Sukhanov, said, his trip to Randall’s Food was when the “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed” inside him. 

If you search for a Boris Yeltsin visit to a supermarket in 1989, you will not find a video from his trip to Texas. Instead, you’ll find him visiting a store in Moscow with empty shelves, which pretty much explains why he found his store visit in Texas to be so profound.

What he learned from his visit stuck with him over the next several years as he became the leader of Russia. It played a small part in shaping the economic reforms in Russia and the future trajectory of the country. 

Boris Yeltsin passed away in 2007 at the age of 76, having served as the president of Russia for over eight years. 

Randall’s Food was purchased and is now a Food Town. 

Yeltsin’s visit was actually turned into a comedic opera called “Yeltsin in Texas”.

It is amazing how something so mundane as a visit to a supermarket can have such profound and far-reaching impacts. Yet, that is exactly what happened in 1989. 

The man who was to become the president of one of the largest countries in the world was swayed by fresh produce, cheese samples, and Jello-O pudding pops.