This is a sequel to my Standing in Line with Nikita post. I am reading K Blows the Top by Peter Carlson. It is a darkly comic history of Khrushchev’s trip to America. Quite a treat for me to see how K’s trip was viewed on the other side of Atlantic, from the opposite point of view. I can hear his screaming unscrubbed Russian from the pages of the book. It is quite surreal. It would absolutely make a great film, I am thinking, if it has not been made already.
The book is truly a hilarious capture of history of America and the world of the 1959. “It was like the happy hour in a manic depressive ward,” wrote one reporter of Khrushchev’s trip.
“Khruschev reminded the audience that he’d listened attentively as Wagner and Lodge praised capitalism and he’d applauded both of them. “So the question may arise: Who am I then? Is it that when I am among Communists, I applaud Communists and then I am among capitalists, I applaud them? People might think, ‘This is no politician, this is a weather-vane.’ So let us just come to an agreement that there is no need for me to exert any effort to make Communists out of you. This would be a waste of effort and I want to save my energy for useful business. And if any of you have any hopes that I might go over to the path of capitalism– well, of course that, too, is a hopeless thought.”
He reinforced his point of with another of his famous proverbs. “To characterize our attitude toward each others system, I think the most apt saying is the Russian proverb ‘each duck praises it own swamp,'” he said. “Thus, you praise your capitalist swamp. And as for us. . . ” He paused, mired in a swamp of his own rhetorical making. “Well, I wouldn’t want to say that we are praising our socialist swamp, because I can’t call socialism a swamp, but. . . “”
The book mentions the story about the Coke and Pepsi competition. Coca-Cola has endured Soviet anti-Coke propaganda all through the 1950s, and has given up on Soviet markets, but Pepsi would not give up. Nixon promised his friend Kendall, Pepsi’s manager of international division at the time, to get a bottle of Pepsi into Khrushchev’s hands. And he kept his promise. Khrushchev drank three cups of Pepsi, and declared: “Very refreshing!” This became newspaper headlines.
This free advertising allowed Pepsi, later in 1970s, to negotiate a deal with the Kremlin to sell Pepsi in the Soviet Union. It was the first foreign product – the first brand!- sanctioned for sale in the USSR. Did I mention there was no such thing as “brands” in the USSR? I guess there was one universal brand – Soviet. Soviet pickles, Soviet vodka, Soviet shoes. Some products had names, but not brands, because obviously there were no companies making them. There were Soviet factories, some of which had names, or numbers.
Back to Pepsi. In favor for the sales rights in the USSR, Pepsi Co was granted exportation and marketing rights for “Stolichnaya”, famous Soviet vodka brand. It was a pretty clever barter deal, avoiding the cash. Give us your Pepsi, and we will give you our vodka. How many bottles of Pepsi can a Soviet buy with a bottle of Stolichnaya? 🙂
During my childhood, in the 1980s, we never saw Pepsi or Coke. Never even knew such thing existed, would not have recognized the labels. Pepsi must have been limited to Moscow and some other Soviet centers, not reaching our small provinces. We, on the other hand, had these amazing vending machines dispensing carbonated water. I still recall them as a place to be at on a hot summer day. It was a communal thing, this is back when everyone drank from the same bottle. The vending machine had a glass, and two slots. You put the glass in upside-down, push on it, water sprays and rinses it off. Then, you place it in the vending spot, insert one kopeik (1 Soviet cent) for the plain carbonated, or 3 kopeiks for sweetened-flavored, push the button, and the most refreshing drink comes out.
Maybe it is a good thing my parents never gave me enough coins to drink from these machines. We were very communal, you know, many families had to share kitchens and bathrooms in their cramped living quarters, student dormitories always had communal bathrooms and showers, so what’s a couple germs and bugs here and there to share through the communal glasses. Often those glasses vanished, ending up in someone’s kitchen cupboards, but no one could tell who stole what, because there was only one single style of glasses sold in stores and same style used in state-owned diners and school cafeterias.
You could also get a whole bottle filled up with carbonated water. We had this huge glass bottle, maybe 3 gallons, which my dad sometimes got filled some place. Oh, how I thought that was so cool, the water with bubbles. Seriously, we thought it was magical. We would take some of my mom’s fruit preserve or fruit syrup, mix it with that carbonated water and drink this home-made pop like it was the best thing in the world. And I suppose it was.
During summer, grandpa would buy us some fancy bottled “lemonade”. We called it lemonade, but it had nothing to do with lemons, it was was really a soda, usually fruit flavored. It was rather expensive, so grandpa would give us one a day for hard labor helping out with the hay and weeding. Sitting on a sunny porch, on the wooden benches, swinging our feet and enjoying that sweet bubbly taste of Soviet “lemonade” named “Pinocchio”. It cost the whole 10 kopeiks. That was bloody expensive, you could buy a liter of gasoline for that!
Then there was another communal drink, Kvass, a brew made out of old bread, similar to beer, but without alcohol (or very minimal). Kvass was sold from large metal containers on wheels in the middle of the street. Bubbly, refreshing, incredibly good on warm days, sold from rusty old containers frequently, by a lady who fills same mugs for you. Actually, you can still get Kvass bottled or canned even at Lithuanian stores here in Chicago, although that bottled stuff is gross. Fresh made kvass is the best, it is poor man’s beer, made out of stale rye bread. It appears they started reintroducing the kvass containers on ex-Soviet streets again as a national pride, to compete with Coke.
Later, in the 1990s, when Perestroika happened and we started getting some imported goods in the stores, we learned of Fanta. Orange Fanta drink was the thing. Large liter bottles of Fanta, and Sprite. This is when people started to get hooked, I still don’t recall Coke or Pepsi, not sure if they were not sold or nobody liked the taste.
Later on, Coke ended up dominating the Russian and ex-Soviet markets, representing the new, progressive West, pushing out Pepsi as the drink of the “old system”.
Thanks to Nikita, not being afraid to try the capitalist evil drink, Russians were able to have a little taste of the West as early as 1972. After all, who does not like some bubbles in their lives. I do not do soft drinks to this day, but I will take some good Kvass. Stale rye bread pudding drink anyone?? Shared glasses probably make all that difference in taste. 🙂