Tales of Socialism
By David Henderson
I’m guessing that a lot of young people in America have not heard some of the true tales of socialism that people around my age heard as adults. So it’s worth telling them. Here are four stories, not chronological but in order of my certainty. The first two I am pretty much certain of. The last two I kind of remember.
Tale #1: Russian President Boris Yeltsin visiting a U.S. supermarket in Clear Lake, Texas, a suburb of Houston.
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.
This is from Craig Hlavaty, “When Boris Yeltsin went grocery shopping in Clear Lake,” blog.chron.com, April 7, 2014.
Tale #2: Bill Meckling Speaks to “Counterpart” in the Soviet Union.
My boss, and Dean, at the Graduate School of Management (now Simon School) at the University of Rochester from 1975 to 1979 was the late William H. Meckling. He was one of my 3 favorite bosses and, in fact, was one of my heroes for his role in helping end the draft.
Sometime during my 4 years there, Bill told me the following story, fresh from his trip to the Soviet Union. He was talking to a guy there who was kind of his counterpart: a Dean, although I don’t think they called him that, of a Soviet business school, whatever that was. The guy asked Meckling “Who decides how many people get MBAs in a year in the United States?” Meckling answered, “No one decides.” The guy leaned in closer and said, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. You can tell me.” Meckling responded, “No one decides. I, with input from my faculty, decide for our school and I assume other deans do the same.” The guy didn’t believe him.
Tale #3: U.S. Admiral takes Soviet Admiral to an American superstore. (Recall that this one is vague in my memory. The reason I basically believe it is that it’s plausible.)
After the Berlin Wall fell, relations between high-level U.S. military officers and their Soviet counterparts got much less frosty. I think it was a U.S. Admiral visiting the Naval Postgraduate School, where I taught, who told this story.
The U.S. Admiral was hosting the Soviet Admiral, who wanted to see where people shopped. So the U.S. Admiral took him to a Walmart. The Soviet Admiral, seeing the plenty, said to the U.S. Admiral, “OK, I know you’re showing me something you’ve planned in advance. I don’t believe this is what normal Americans can buy.” (I’m guessing he was muttering “Potemkin Village” under his breath. )
So the U.S. Admiral said, “Fair enough. Tell me which direction you want to drive, up to 20 miles, and we’ll drive in that direction. We’ll stop at the first major store we see.” That satisfied the Soviet Admiral. If I recall correctly, the next store was a Costco or a K-Mart. The Soviet Admiral was suitably impressed.
Tale #4: Soviet Admiral sees parking lot at a typical U.S. Navy Base.
I think this one was told by a U.S. Admiral visiting the Naval Postgraduate School. When the Soviet Admiral saw all the cars in the parking lot, he asked the U.S. Admiral who owned them. The U.S. Admiral answered that U.S. Navy officers and enlistees, mainly the latter, owned them. The Soviet Admiral then asked, “How do you get the enlistees to come to work after the weekend?”
I don’t recall that the U.S. Admiral told his answer. A good, somewhat snarky and somewhat misleading, answer might have been “They owe, they owe, so off to work they go.”
UPDATE: Brent Buckner, in a comment below, has a fascinating story about Gorbachev’s visit to a Canadian farm when he was the Soviet Union’s agriculture secretary in 1983. It’s here.