Thursday, 20 September 2018
Yeltsin, Mr Boris Nikolayevich
This week marks the 29th anniversary of one of the great, but little known, turning points of history. It happened in September 1989, when Boris Yeltsin, the newly-elected member of the Soviet parliament and supreme Soviet was visiting Houston as part of a US and Russia joint space mission.
After Yeltsin had made a visit to the space station facilities, he made an unplanned stop at a small grocery store called Randall's. Yeltsin had been brought up under the Socialist ideology that the best way to produce goods and services for the public was through government planning, committees and likewise. But when he walked into that American supermarket and was able to compare it against the breadlines and the shortages of food he experienced in the old Soviet Union, his ideology changed. Yeltsin wrote in his 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 had been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it.
One of Yeltsin's aides later said that at that grocery store the last vestiges of bolshevism collapsed inside his boss. Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, said of Yeltsin after his visit:
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?
Yeltsin later wrote in his autobiography:
I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans.
It was two years later that Yeltsin famously stood upon that tank outside the Russian parliament to stare down the reactionary forces that threatened to overthrow the reforms that Soviet Union and Russia were going through.
It provides a lesson to us—that, although we may think the best way to provide goods and services to the public is through some central government planning and through committees, history shows that the best way is to allow that to happen through the forces of the market. That is the lesson of Yeltsin's visit to that supermarket back in September 1989. This is a lesson—a story—that should be taught in all of our schools so that our children can understand the mistakes of the past in the hope that we never fall into the same trap of repeating them again.