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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.