The Cold War Through The Looking Glass

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As soon as he got to Moscow, Garst met with Father. They talked for five hours in the Kremlin and then left for the dacha to look at Father’s crops. Garst made many subsequent visits to Moscow. He and Father became real friends. Their love for the earth brought them together. On one such visit, I think in the spring of 1962, Father asked Garst to travel to the south of Russia and take a professional look at how collective farmers were dealing with corn. There Garst noticed that farmers were sowing corn but that their fertilizers, which should have been added to the soil earlier, were piled up along the roads. They were simply too lazy to spread them on the fields. Moreover, the regional managers, who insisted on strict observance of the sowing schedule, were not terribly interested in fertilizers.

Garst was infuriated by such mismanagement. Tracking down the collective farm’s field supervisor, he began driving home the point that this was wrong, that they should spread the fertilizers immediately and only then carry out the sowing. Otherwise they would have a poor harvest. Looking bored, the field supervisor heard out this tiresome foreigner who had descended on him from God knows where. He finally got tired of listening and rather rudely interrupted Garst, advising him to beat it and not interfere where he didn’t belong. Garst flew into a rage and threatened to complain to Khrushchev himself if they didn’t follow his recommendations.

The supervisor didn’t know whether to believe him, but to be on the safe side he stopped the sowing and ordered the collective farmers to spread the fertilizers. What if this crazy American really did complain to one of the higherups? After seeing that everything was being done properly, Garst resumed his travels. When he returned to Moscow, he described everything to Father, who later noted regretfully, “This American capitalist cares more than Soviet collective farmers do about our harvest.” However, he didn’t elaborate.

It seems to me that in those years, when the turn came from war toward peace or, to be more precise, toward peaceful coexistence between the two systems (as Father put it), the friendship between those two men, Garst and Father, was no less fruitful than many months of negotiations by veteran diplomats. Several years ago I gave a talk at a university in Iowa and was invited by Roswell Garst’s son to visit the family farm and drive along the roads my father had traveled nearly forty years earlier. At the end of my visit to the state, I was received by the governor of Iowa. During our conversation he joked: “During all my years as governor I have visited practically every country in the world, and hardly anyone has heard of Iowa. When I went to Russia, at the first mention of Iowa people exclaimed: ‘Iowa! The most famous American state! Nikita Khrushchev brought corn from there to the Soviet Union.’”

After agriculture, Father’s main concern was housing construction. By the time he came to power, this problem had become acute. Soviet citizens did not live in their own houses or apartments, as people in the United States and Europe did. In Russia several generations of a family —grandparents, their children and grandchildren, ten or more people—might be cooped up in one room of 150 square feet. They slept on the floor. In the morning long lines formed for the only toilet at the end of a hall with doors to a dozen similarly overpopulated rooms. It is hard to describe in words what it’s like to stand in such a line; it has to be experienced.

The housing problem had been growing worse for decades. Housing had been destroyed during war: the First World War, the civil war, and the Second World War, when the Germans set fire to cities and villages right up to the walls of Moscow and Stalingrad. Virtually no new housing units, except for huts on factory grounds, had been built. In the 1930s all the money was spent on industrialization, and in the 1940s it went into rebuilding factories destroyed by the fascists. There was no time or money for people’s needs.

Father was determined to resolve this problem, and he initiated the mass construction of apartment buildings. They were put together from concrete panels manufactured quickly on factory conveyor belts, like cars. The houses, like cars, looked exactly alike. Housing construction and agriculture required money, a great deal of money, and we had to economize on everything else.

During those years father strictly prohibited the construction of administrative buildings, luxury houses for the leadership, and even theaters. All such money was channeled into building inexpensive housing, which was free for its new occupants. Even the Ministry of Defense had to line up for money. However, only a madman or traitor could neglect the country’s security during the Cold War. Defense demanded its share of government spending. Because resources were inadequate, some way had to be found to manage, and that required major decisions. The most important decision was how to combine strengthening the country’s security with reducing military spending.