Yeltsin salutes capitalism in Moscow in 1993.
Yeltsin salutes capitalism in Moscow in 1993.
Photo: SHONE (Getty Images)

Before he was premier of Russia, Boris Yeltsin was the former mayor of Moscow and a member of the Russian Parliament who, in September of 1989, traveled to Houston to visit the Johnson Space Center. He was duly impressed with the wonders of the U.S. space program, but what really changed his life was... a supermarket.

In the USSR, people had to wait in long lines for food. It was a way of life. But at this Randall’s Supermarket in suburban Houston, anyone could just walk up to an item of food and take it. And there was plenty more! He told the Houston Chronicle that if Russia had supermarkets like that, “there would be a revolution.”

“Even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev,” he said. When he was told through his interpreter that there were thousands of items in the store for sale he didn’t believe it. He had even thought that the store was staged, a show for him. Little did he know there countless stores just like it all over the country, some with even more things than the Randall’s he visited.

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Houston Public Media took up the story from there:

The story could’ve ended there — simply a fun moment of cultures colliding. But, later in life, Yeltsin admitted the visit made a profound impression on him. It cemented his growing view that the Soviet state-run economic system had left the Russian people far behind Americans, forcing them into a much lower standard of living. And it set in motion a path that would lead him to become the figure that would lead Russia out of Communism.

This is dramatic stuff! Even operatic! So perhaps it’s no surprise that composer Evan Mack and librettist Joshua McGuire have created an actual opera about it. Yeltsin in Texas premiered last weekend at Opera in the Heights in Houston and will continue through Sunday.

It’s a comic opera. “The premise in general was that there’s nothing more absurd than an American grocery store, and then there’s nothing more absurd than actually singing about it,” Mack told Houston Public Media. But the underlying theme is serious: “He toured New York City, he saw the Statue of Liberty, Trump Tower—he wasn’t impressed. He saw NASA. Again, no big deal. But it was a grocery store that made him realize that communism is a lie.”

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God bless America and its grocery stores.

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.

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