The moment Yeltsin became a capitalist

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In 1989 Boris Yeltsin, member of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and leader of one of what could be considered the equivalent of one of its mid-western states, visited Texas and toured the Johnson Space Center as well as a typical American supermarket. It was the grocery store that impressed him, not America’s space program.

He was dazzled by the fact that grocery stores were everywhere, and that they even offered free samples. A year or so later, a biographer wrote that on the plane ride from Texas to Florida, Yelstin couldn’t get the vision of the endless food supply out of his mind, and lamented how different things were for his own countrymen. According to wikipedia, 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.”

And then, in his own autobiography, Yeltsin wrote about the experience at the grocery store himself, which reshaped his entire view on communism, ultimately leading to his leaving the Communist party. “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.”

In writing Leaving Earth, I read all these same sources and was struck as well by how much this moment influenced Yeltsin. Very clearly, what Yeltsin saw that day led him to abandon communism.

If only more Americans could experience the same contrast he did, that of the shortages and poverty of top-down, command economies like socialism and communism vs the wealth and vibrancy and freedom of capitalism. I suspect unfortunately they will have to turn the U.S. into a new Soviet Union before they will realize how bankrupt such systems are.


  • D K Rögnvald Williams

    So true. My baby boomer generation was said to be spoiled relative to their depression-era parents, but the current under 25 generation largely has no frame of reference on how difficult life can be.

  • I’ve heard the ‘no frame of reference’ argument advanced before, and I don’t buy it. One need not read much history before one sees the utter and complete failure of centralized economies. A more persuasive argument is China. That country realized what the Soviets never did, and has moved from a centralized command economy to a semi-capitalist (although not democratic) system. They have profited greatly thereby. That so many in the West want to move in the opposite direction makes me question their very sentience.

  • Cotour

    When you wake up in the morning in your nice warm bed room and you go down stairs and open your very full refridg. and eat what you want at will, and you open your Iphone to see this mornings messages, and you go to school wearing your fashionable clothing, and you get to school when your waiting mother shuttles you there, and your waiting mother picks you up and drives you to your swimming meet, and your parents make sure you have enough money when you go to the mall, and when your parents make sure you have enough money when you go to the movies, and your parents make sure that you are getting good grades and make sure that you are applying to the best colleges………………….AND YOU HAVE NOT PAID FOR ANY OF IT ! You begin to believe that your experience in life is “normal” and that is your starting point, your perspective.

    Not until many years later do you begin to truly understand what its really all about, and if you do not you are a mental basket case that can no longer tie your shoes, popping pills or swigging booze.

    The examples above may not be the typical starting point for every single dopey American young person but most all Americans that have grown up in modern times have grown up in an American fantasy where the things that I have listed are quite normal. And IF they have read any history at all (and understood what they were reading) they make no real world connection what so ever between the good life that they grew up immersed in and that they are currently living and the real reality that it is all built on and that awaits them.

    Still not buying?

  • Jwing

    My wife an I adopted Russian twin toddlers from Birobidzahn (southeastern Siberia) back in 2004. The wall had fallen 15 years earlier. We asked our Russian interpretor/driver/minder to stop at a pharmacy to purchase some decongestant/cough medicine for the twins. The pharmacy’s shelves were almost completely empty and we ended up over-paying for an expired (one year out of date) decongestant. Hurray!!!!….that’s socialism/communism for you. Five years later….Harry Reid used an eleventh hour Senate reconciliation maneuver to force mandated nationalized healthcare on every US citizen!!!###$#&*(

  • Michae

    Back in the 90’s we used to work with Russian astronauts at JSC. The worst time was when we went to lunch. To get to a restaurant we has to pass a grocery store that was chock full of goods. If you did not like that one, you could cross the street and go to another store. And if that did not do the trick, there was another one further down the street.

    This point was not lost on the Russians. I personally found it kind of embracing.

    As an aside, we used to send engineering teams to Russia. After a short time folks started carrying extra suitcases that contained clothing and food. Those suitcases never came back.

  • Michael

    Jez, I meant “embarrassing”

  • Cotour

    Here’s a little more perspective for you:

    Almost half of the country does not know what it means to pay income tax. (that’s tax over and above FICA, Social security, State and local etc. etc. tax)

    If it does not hurt everyone equally, does it really exist for those who do not pay?

    Default, quasi socialism.

  • PeterF

    Yeltsin knew supermarkets existed. He had just never seen one so had never been confronted with direct, tangible, personal evidence of the superiority of capitalism over all other forms of economic/governmental systems. (seeing is believing).

    Blair Ivey: The Chinese only learned the limitations of communism after “The Great Leap Forward” and the starvation of 60 million of their countrymen. I still don’t understand how the “Friends of Mao” party managed to maintain power after that.

    During the 1988 olympics, the North Koreans tried to convince themselves that all the automobiles in Seoul had been gathered from across the country to make the South seem more prosperous. (Its what they would have done in Pyong Yang). But interaction with relatives contradicted that assumption. At the time, there were seven major vehicle manufacturers in tiny South Korea. Think of L.A. during “rush hour”, but with more cars. Amazingly, the traffic still moves at a reasonable rate due to the incredible politeness of the Korean drivers.

    Perhaps a visit to a random Walmart for all visiting dignitaries would be a useful diplomatic tool.

    A Brazilian national that I know works as a dishwasher on the dinner train under the H2B visa program during the tourist season. Every winter he returns home and lives EXTREMELY well on what he saved. One winter the executive chef spent two weeks at his estate. They visited a market where he was shocked at the poor quality of the food. (they must send all the good stuff to America).

    I think a good way to combat the rampant expansion of Socialism/Marxism/Communism/Progressivism/liberalism would be to send all college freshmen to any country to our south for a tour of several food markets. No “governing party” stores included. They would then get a tour of a typical farm. On their return, a visit to any Supermarket or Walmart and an arial tour of the Central Valley of California. would provide a clear contrast. The Chaperones would have to carefully explain that the difference is caused by the LACK of capitalism in those other places. America doesn’t “steal” what other countries don’t have!

  • pzatchok

    In the old Soviet Union the farmers never starved.
    It was all the city folk who did. The farmers were never paid what they thought was a fare price so they kept everything they could back from the government. They traded for any material goods they needed and ate well.
    The truck drivers who picked up the food had no incentive to move fast and make on time deliveries, they were paid the same no matter what. So food rotted in the fields and on the trucks. The same with the warehouse workers and the grocers at the stores.

    Capitalism gives workers incentive to work better. What incentive does a worker have if he can never make more money than he his now and can never be fired?

    Human greed is the best motivator and capitalism takes full advantage if it.

    Even hippies realized this when they actually fell in love and had children and needed insurance and housing and schools and clean cloths and reliable cars and then found out the government didn’t give everything away for free.
    They turned into greedy capitalists to provide for and protect those they loved.
    The Soviet Union punished those who tried to do that.

  • Garry

    Pzatchok, you hit on one of the main ways of eroding of capitalism: strong unions (especially government unions) making it so that it’s virtually impossible to fire some workers, thus removing much of the incentive to do their job well. I will concede that promotions/payraises are often still available as incentives.

    When I go to parent-teacher conferences it takes me less than 5 minutes to figure out if the teacher is committed to teaching or just drawing a paycheck.

  • Edward

    Blair wrote: “One need not read much history before one sees the utter and complete failure of centralized economies.”

    Unfortunately, these histories are not being taught in US schools, as they do not present a good light on socialism. Instead, students are told lies such as those that Micheal Moore said about Cuba’s medical system; a system so good that the Cubans sent their exalted leader to another country for treatment when he had a stroke. Imagine that. Moore does not comment on that part, though.

    Cotour wrote: “If it does not hurt everyone equally, does it really exist for those who do not pay?”

    Many of those who do not pay also get free stuff or money from the government. As Yakov Smirnoff would say, “What a country!”

    Jwing wrote: “###$#&*(”


    Pzatchok wrote: “Human greed is the best motivator and capitalism takes full advantage if it.”

    Very true. Capitalism takes advantage of the desire to do better for oneself and one’s family. What many believe to be a vice is turned into a virtue by free-market capitalism. In order to make your own life better, you have to do something that makes someone else’s life better. To paraphrase Smirnoff, “what a concept!”

    The fall of the Soviet Union verifies the saying that no government is more than three meals away from revolution. Due to the last of the arms limitations treaties, the US and Soviet Union were required to remove much of their armor and weapons from “front line” countries. NATO did this in a timely fashion, but the Soviets waited for the last minute, which happened to correspond with harvest time.

    The Soviets allocated too many of their railroad locomotives to their satellite countries to remove their weapons in October, leaving too few locomotives for moving the harvest from the fields to storage or processing plants. Thus, crops such as potatoes were loaded into rail cars, but they rotted in the heat as they awaited locomotives to take them away.

    I remember the story of Yeltsin and the supermarket, and a year or two later I was shocked by a report from a Soviet market in which the shelves were almost bare and the meat display was almost empty — only a small pot roast or two being available. The contrast in my mind was astonishing. Not long after that report, the revolution came.

    The contrast is the difference between government control and individual control. Governments are slow to fill a need, but capitalists have a great incentive to fill that need before another capitalist does.

    When the government is in control, all you get is what the government allows, but when the people are in control, you get what *you* want. It is sort of like the difference between SLS/Orion and CRSs 1 & 2.

  • USA progressed very well in 20th century, but Soviet Union actually progressed 10% faster than USA during its whole existence, and it was the period of divergence, i.e. poor countries progressed slower. Objectively, Yeltsin had little to complain. Even in period 1979-89, USSR progressed 10%. Which is not brilliant, but certainly not tragic. About 90% of capitalist countries after WWII had ten years periods in which they progressed like that or slower. For a communist, choice of consumer goods should not be priority, but if Yeltsin wanted larger choice of consumer goods, it was really doable – he couldn’t match USA, because USA was much wealthier (but it was even more wealthier before revolution) but yes, improvement was possible. Time has shown that transition to capitalism actually made their economy worse.

    I am not from USSR, but from Yugoslavia. If I look at the time before ’90, democracy is big improvement. However, I like socialism better than capitalism. Economic progress was faster, and equality and worker’s right were significantly better.

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