A few days ago on Houston’s Reddit outpost, mention of late Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s wide-eyed trip to a Clear Lake grocery store led to a trip to the Houston Chronicle archives, where a batch of photos of the leader were found.
It was September 1989 and Yeltsin, then newly elected to the new Soviet parliament and the Supreme Soviet, had just visited Johnson Space Center.
At JSC, Yeltsin visited mission control and a mock-up of a space station. According to Houston Chronicle reporter Stefanie Asin, 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 location.
Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. 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.”
Shoppers and employees stopped him to shake his hand and say hello. In 1989, not everyone was carrying a phone and camera in their pocket so Yeltsin “selfies” weren’t a thing yet.
Yeltsin asked customers about what they were buying and how much it cost, later asking the store manager if one needed a special education to manage a store. In the Chronicle photos, you can see him marveling at the produce section, the fresh fish market, and the checkout counter. He looked especially excited about frozen pudding pops.
“Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said.
The fact that stores like these were on nearly every street corner in America amazed him. They even offered free cheese samples. According to Asin, Yeltsin didn’t leave empty-handed, as he was given a small bag of goodies to enjoy on his trip.
About a year after the Russian leader left office, a Yeltsin biographer later wrote that on the plane ride to Yeltsin’s next destination, Miami, he was despondent. He couldn’t stop thinking about the plentiful food at the grocery store and what his countrymen had to subsist on in Russia.
In Yeltsin’s own autobiography, he wrote about the experience at Randall’s, which shattered his view of communism, according to pundits. Two years later, he left the Communist Party and began making reforms to turn the economic tide in Russia. You can blame those frozen Jell-O Pudding pops.
“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.”
Yeltsin died in 2007 at the age of 76. The Randall’s he visited, just off El Dorado Boulevard and Highway 3, is now a Food Town location.
By: Craig Hlavaty
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