Khrushchev on Roswell Garst

Sergei Khrushchev. The Cold War through the Looking Glass


Original Source: American Heritage (1999).

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.

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 good-bye 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!”

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.’”

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