An impromptu visit left future Russian president Boris Yeltsin shook
Yeltsin was nearing the end of a nine-city tour of America in a sort of informal campaign to sell himself as the best possible successor to outgoing Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. Two years later, Yeltsin would become the first president of the Russian Federation.
The Randall's jaunt was an impromptu addition tacked on to Yeltsin's official visit to Johnson Space Center's Mission Control, which he blandly declared to be a "national resource."
Reporters said he only became truly animated as he walked the aisles of what was then a top-tier mass-market grocery. (It's hard to believe now, but in those days Randall's Flagships were as highly regarded as H-E-B stores are today. Even though Randall's did not sell alcohol!)
If that puzzled the Man Who Would Be the World's Favorite Drunk Uncle, he didn't let on. Reporters found him "ogling" the meat and fish counter, the produce section, and especially the frozen foods. Meanwhile, Randall's employees plied him with cheese samples.
Per a later report:
Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement." 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.”
“Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said.
According to one Yeltsin biographer, while he maintained a jocular public front, the visit shook him to his political foundation. He spent the entire plane ride from Houston to Miami fuming over each aisle’s veritable cornucopia and eventually, abandoned the Communist Party. And he revisited that fateful trip in his own autobiography:
“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.”
Terrible, Boris? I’ll tell you what’s terrible! The last time I went to a Randall’s, that’s what. There was nothing to eat in there and what I did buy wound up giving me food poisoning. True story — this was at the Randall’s-that-is-now-a-Target on Lower Westheimer and it was the last sad last page of a long story about a company I once admired and took local pride in.
One wonders if Yeltsin’s mind could appreciate the more complicated workings of capitalism — how a good-sized regional chain could be gobbled up by a huge national chain in Safeway; which in turn when faced with competition from an even more enormous national behemoth in Kroger, simply quit trying, and spent decades winding down the brand while closing down stores and selling off the properties of what had once been Houston’s “remarkable store.” (Randall’s was well on its way down the road to perdition by the time H-E-B started its onslaught ‘into the Houston market.)
Just think if he'd gone to Central Market instead of a Clear Lake-area Randall's. He might have spontaneously combusted in a cloud of borscht and vodka fumes.
And what a long time ago this all now seems. In 1989, average citizens in both Russia and America were fascinated by each other, each of us thinking that after 55 years of Cold War nuclear Armageddon cold sweats, we could meet as friends and bury our differences. That is not what the politicians on either side want to see — they need us terrified of one another, the better to shore themselves up in jobs and defense contracts and power and money.
And so here we are closer to World War III than ever looking at something very close to the high-water mark in relations between the American and Russian people — standing on the very precipice of the peace dividend our war machines cashed in for pennies on the dollar.
John Nova Lomax is a Bayou City scribe / Gulf Coast Bullshitter. He speaks grackle and lives in a cabin on a river.