- Historic Sites
The Cold War Through The Looking Glass
Nikita Khrushchev’s son recalls a world where the United States was the Evil Empire—and Soviet superpower a carefully maintained illusion
October 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 6
It sometimes happens that seemingly unimportant events turn out to be of historic significance. I think that an editorial published at about that time in an Iowa newspaper, the Des Moines Register , played no less important a role than the Geneva meeting in contributing to mutual understanding between the Soviet Union and the United States. The paper’s editor called on Father to compete in agriculture, on farm fields, instead of in the arms race. Let each side show what kind of harvest it could produce. The article concluded with a direct appeal to Father: “Come here and we will share our achievements with you. There are no secrets in agriculture.” The author surely did not expect the article to reach Father; he probably just had to fill the editorial page. But intelligence agencies, the KGB and CIA alike, nourish a particular passion for provincial publications and think they may find in them information that is inaccessible in the center. Embassies try to subscribe to everything they can. A translation of the Des Moines Register editorial lay on Father’s desk in his Kremlin office the day after it was published. After reading it, Father called U.S.S.R. Minister of Agriculture Vladimir Matskevich and asked him to gather together the best Soviet scientists and send them to the United States, to the state of Iowa, to see what they were growing and what innovations they might have thought up there, across the ocean.
Father was dying to touch a real American multimillionaire. It is hard to imagine now how little we understood each other.
The result of the two-week trip by the delegation headed by Matskevich was a four-hundred-page report containing recommendations for how to catch up with American farmers. Father read the weighty tome from beginning to end and kept it near him. He consulted its pages many times afterward. The report described what would be advantageous to imitate, primarily hybrid corn seeds and seed-grading facilities. Father had a special enthusiasm for corn. He thought it could help supply feed for livestock and thereby raise meat consumption in our country to American levels. It was thought that when this was achieved, true communism would come to the U.S.S.R. Father very much wanted to have a look, however fleeting, at what life would be like under communism—in other words, when Russians lived no worse than Americans, than those Americans who had dreamed of destroying communism.
Father did not doubt the superiority and greater economic efficiency of socialism compared with capitalism, and he believed that sooner or later capitalism would die out and that he would bury it. But in the meantime, as he said in one of his speeches in the United States, “You Americans work better than we do and produce goods that we can only dream about, so we will learn from you; we will study diligently. And once we’ve learned, we’ll begin working better than you, and you will just have to jump onto the running board of the train of socialism, which is leaving for the future. Otherwise you’ll be left far behind, and we will wave goodbye from the rear platform of the last car.”
Father believed that the system that gave people the best living standards would win. That was the sole criterion. Nothing would help the losing side—not nuclear bombs, ideological dogmas, or propaganda. He was convinced to the end of his life that socialism would come out on top. He died secure in that belief. His principal goal was never competition in the field of weaponry. He was not captivated by the missile race or even by the space race. No, his slogan became, if I may call it that, the food race. Fences, walls of buildings, and billboards were plastered with signs reading: “Catch up and pass the United States in per capita production of meat, milk, and butter.” Jokers, numerous in Russia in any era, sometimes wrote in a slogan from the traffic police: “If you aren’t sure, don’t pass!” However, we were in no real competition with anyone in this sphere. Our people were emerging painfully from a condition of semistarvation.
In Iowa the Soviet delegation invited farmers to visit the Soviet Union. Almost no one responded. The Cold War was at its most frigid. But there was one person who dared. His name was Roswell Garst, and he was a rather wealthy farmer and seed manufacturer who had specialized in growing corn to fatten hogs, cows, and other livestock. He had hosted the Soviet delegation and now hoped, during a return visit, to sell seeds and some agricultural equipment to the Soviets. Everyone thought this was a preposterous idea, since trade between our countries was nonexistent at the time; the United States didn’t even buy Stolichnaya vodka or caviar from the Soviet Union. Garst received a firm no from the State Department in response to his proposal, but he didn’t give up. He cited the principle of free trade, explaining that hybrid corn seeds would be impossible to use in military technology, however much one might wish to do so. The State Department finally yielded and gave its permission, with the comment “They won’t buy anything from you anyway!”