A famous true story from the Cold War relays how Soviet leader Boris Yeltsin’s unscheduled visit to a Houston-area grocery store helped lead to the downfall of Communism.
Yeltsin happened to stop by the grocery store after a tour of the Johnson Space Center. Yet “it wasn’t all the screens, dials, and wonder at NASA that blew up his skirt, it was the unscheduled trip inside a nearby Randall’s” store, reported the Houston Chronicle’s Stefanie Asin in September 1989.
According to a 2017 retrospective from the Chronicle:
Yeltsin, then 58, ‘roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,’ wrote Asin. …’Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,’ he said. When he was told through his interpreter that there were thousands of items in the store for sale he didn’t believe it. He had even thought that the store was staged, a show for him. Little did he know there countless stores just like it all over the country, some with even more things than the Randall’s he visited.
Two months later, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and the fall of Soviet Communism became a cascade. Later, in his autobiography, Yeltsin wrote that trip to an American grocery store was what ultimately destroyed his belief in communism. “Two years later, he left the Communist Party and began making reforms to turn the economic tide in Russia,” the Chronicle notes.
The New York Times wrote of that visit in its 2007 obituary for Yeltsin:
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… ‘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 just Yeltsin — those who managed to flee Communist-run states had similar epiphanies in American grocery stores. Some people cried the first time they entered one in the United States. One Jewish man recorded in an oral history project tells of how, under Soviet Communism, to get foods like sausage you had to know someone with inside information.
“In America, when we would go in a supermarket like King’s Sooper, it was overwhelming to see so many products,” emigre Yankl Garelik told the interviewer in Russian. “It was like a holiday for us to go shopping for food and other things.”
In 1989 in Moscow, supermarkets looked like this:
I learned about the Communist grocery store phenomenon a couple of years ago, and it popped into my head recently as I took a round of shopping trips out here in the American heartland. In the United States, I am seeing things that remind me of those stories from the USSR: empty shelves, shorthanded staff, frazzled managers, shortages.
At one store, the manager checking me out kept apologizing profusely for the lack of staff, saying she couldn’t hire anyone. While checking me out, she took a call from a customer asking about items that were out of stock, telling the caller she didn’t know when they could get any in.
From people across the country, I’m hearing similar tales.
“The lady who helped load my couch into the back of my van was telling us she hired 39 people at once,” writes a colleague in a Western state on buying some new furniture. “Some of them showed up to orientation, and most of the ones who showed up to orientation never came back. They have signs like every 12 feet in the store saying they are hiring.”
“I spent 10 minutes in a CVS looking for someone to unlock the soap case before I gave up and left,” writes another person on the East Coast.
“I was at the hardware store last night, and they were completely out of a ton of basic plumbing fittings,” writes a correspondent in the South. “The restaurants are all short staffed. Nobody can get a well dug because they can’t find people to run the rigs. It’s a mess. In the rural areas around us, businesses are advertising job openings by calling them twice-a-month economic stimulus payments.”
Employers and other producers attribute the shortages to aftereffects of lockdowns, government subsidies paying people not to work, and now vaccine mandates causing working people to quit or be fired. CNN reports on shortages of new cars due to a lack of computer chips; coffee; jet fuel due to lockdowns and lack of tanker drivers; and school supplies.
Forbes notes that this is due to lockdowns and unemployment benefits FUBARing global supply chains: “The problem is all about shipping containers. They are stuck in the wrong places with empty containers sitting in ports where they can’t be filled and returned to ports where they can. This container shortage is causing a doubling or tripling in the cost to ship product.”
Hospitals everywhere are starving for employees. So are emergency services. High gas prices caused by the Biden administration’s anti-energy policies affect everything because everything must be transported. And this is going to continue well into 2022 at least, with prices likely to continue rising as a result.
“Making matters worse, the costs of shipping containers are drastically rising — three to 10 times higher than pre-COVID — due to demand. Small importers and retailers face limited availability as some larger retailers are pre-buying space on the containers in anticipation of the holidays,” reports Newsday. “…For retailers, the bad news is they have to buy more product so they don’t run out, but the ‘good news is they can charge more.’ ”
In other words, people and businesses need to keep stockpiling, and it’s helpful to know a guy who can hook you up with some supplies. Just like people did in the USSR.
Another eerie echo of the USSR is the attempts to enact vaccination blockades that will certainly not stop at being entrance papers linked only to a COVID-19 injection. The goal is for vaccine passports to become a comprehensive social credit system. That one’s acceptance of socially demanded behaviors can determine one’s access to employment or schooling is another dynamic endemic to communist countries like the USSR and today’s China.
We don’t want those social or economic systems here. Americans are discarding the lessons of communism’s atrocities at our peril.
Of course, the full force of national socialism as it occurred in the Soviet Union is far, far worse than not being able to get your kid’s backpack in the color he wants or paying twice as much for milk. But we’re talking about noticing signs that we’re on a path that could end up in a very, very dark place. We must turn around.
Our ruling class maintains beliefs in centralized planning and secularism that are just as strong and contrary to nature as those of the Politburo. And they are increasingly imposing on the United States’ poor and middle classes ways of life that are similarly alien to our freedoms and creativity. It’s up to us to look around at these grocery shelves and say, “COVID is not an excuse for allowing more of this to happen.”