A view from Dave Trott: Shopping wars
A view from Dave Trott

Shopping wars

The Cold War was about who had most nuclear bombs: the USSR or the US.

There were 58,336 nuclear weapons ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

So it was fear of Armageddon that ended the Cold War, right?

Well no, apparently it was more to do with a visit to a supermarket.

In 1989, Boris Yeltsin was a newly elected member of the Soviet Parliament.

He was visiting the US, this was something Soviet leaders didn’t do.

It was a great opportunity to impress him with their technical superiority.

He met senators, congressmen, generals, businessmen, powerful and influential people.

They took him to Washington, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Chicago, Minneapolis.

The most impressive part of the visit would be the Johnson Space Centre in Dallas.

He was suitably polite about everything he saw, how similar the technology was to the Soviet Union’s.

Then, on his way to the airport, they passed a small supermarket called Randall’s.

He asked to stop and go inside.

They said if he wanted to see a supermarket, they’d show him a huge, modern one.

Yeltsin said no, he wanted to pick one at random, a small one that hadn’t been dressed up to impress him.

So they stopped in the small town of Clear Lake, Texas, and went in.

You have to remember this was 1989, Russian supermarkets looked like badly stocked warehouses: tatty and battered boxes, half empty shelves of torn packets, badly wrapped food you had to smell first, hardly any choice, take it or leave it.

But in this little ordinary, local supermarket Yeltsin thought he’d entered Aladdin’s cave.

He asked a staff member how many items they carried, she said about 30,000.

He started to count types of salami and lost count.

He stopped a lady who was shopping and asked her (if she didn’t mind) what was her family’s monthly income and how much went on food?

She said their monthly income was $3,600 and she spent around $170 a week on food, roughly 20%.

Yeltsin was amazed, in the USSR the average family would spend 60% of their income on food and it wasn’t a fraction of this quality, or choice.

This hadn’t been stage-managed, he’d come here precisely because the Americans didn’t want him to, they didn’t think this was impressive enough.

Later, he would write in his book: "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."

On the plane back to the USSR, Yeltsin sat with his head in his hands.

His aide, Lev Sukhanov, later reported that Yeltsin said: "I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans."

Sukhanov said: "At that moment, the last vestiges of Bolshevism collapsed within him."

Two months later the Berlin Wall fell.

Two years after that, the entire USSR collapsed, the Cold War was over.

Boris Yeltsin became the head of the new Russian Federation.

What he’d seen in a small supermarket in a small Texas town had more impact than all the technology and weaponry.

That’s the difference between something you understand and something you feel, between data and human beings.

One is much more real than the other.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three