Houston Matters

Boris Yeltsin’s 1989 Visit To A Houston Grocery Store Is Now An Opera

“Yeltsin in Texas” is a mostly absurd reflection on the day the future Russian president visited a Randall’s in Clear Lake and the role that moment played in ending communism.

Boris Yeltsin Waving
Russian leader Boris Yeltsin waves as he enters a Randall’s grocery store in Clear Lake in 1989.

In September 1989, just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and amid the final years of the Soviet Union, a member of the Soviet Parliament paid a visit to a grocery store in the Clear Lake area.

His name: Boris Yeltsin. Yes, that Boris Yeltsin.

He’d been the mayor of Moscow, and two years later, he’d play a significant role in the end of communism in Russia. He’d also later serve as that nation’s first post-Soviet president.

But on Sept. 16, 1989, Yeltsin just wanted to catch a glimpse of everyday American life. So, during his visit to NASA, he asked to check out a local grocery store.

Paul Yirga answered the phone that day at the Randall’s store (now a Food Town) at El Dorado Boulevard and Highway 3. He was the manager on duty that day.

Paul Yirga Greeting Boris Yeltsin
Randall’s manager Paul Yirga (right) greets Boris Yelstin as he arrives to tour the Clear Lake grocery store.

Yirga told Houston Matters producer Michael Hagerty (in the audio above) it was just an ordinary Saturday — until the phone rang in the courtesy booth. He says the store only had a 10-15 minute warning that he was coming.

“No sign of any heavy-duty security or anything around,” Yirga said. “There were no TV vans cause nobody knew it was going to happen and no radio people. It was just kind of real spontaneous. So nobody had time to get there. Very low key.”

Yirga recalls Yeltsin walking around, talking to the employees through an interpreter, and seeming most interested in the frozen foods.

Back in those days, the frozen goods weren’t behind glass doors like we’re used to today. They were in open-air containers on the ground you had to bend down to look in. Yirga says those were known as “coffin cases.”

“I was impressed by how down to earth the guy was,” Yirga said. “He was very unassuming, very polite.”

Paul Yirga with Photos of Boris Yeltsin
Paul Yirga was the manager on duty on Sept. 16, 1989, the day Russian leader Boris Yeltsin visited a Randalls grocery store in the Clear Lake area. Yirga poses with photos and a thank you note from NASA.

A Houston Chronicle reporter tagging along that day wrote an article about the occurrence, saying Yeltsin “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement.” And a photographer captured images of Yeltsin checking out the produce section and seeming to be excited about by some frozen pudding pops.

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.

A few decades later, Evan Mack and Joshua McGuire heard about this unusual moment in Houston history and, naturally, they thought: “It sounds like the makings of a comic opera.” No, seriously.Yeltsin in Texas Promotional Image

They’re the creative team behind the new comic opera Yeltsin in Texas (think Nixon in China but played for laughs).

It debuts Saturday, Feb. 22, at Opera in the Heights, and Mack and McGuire tell Michael Hagerty (in the audio above) they were struck by the story’s potential for comedy.

“That could turn into an operatic episode of South Park to just depict this guy — we as kids remember him being drunk on the nightly news all the time — this sort of comic opera-type character from real life,” McGuire said. “Put him in a grocery store.”

The production, which is sung entirely in English, combines elements of Broadway and rock opera, with original songs, snippets of 1980s-era commercials, and even some Bon Jovi.

“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 said. “So it actually added to the level of absurdity that maybe spoken word wouldn’t get you.”

But, just like the real events of that September day, the opera is tinged with some seriousness.

“At the moment everyone thinks, ‘This is a complete disaster,’ he sees the produce section,” Mack said. “And it reminds him of when Stalin took away his grandfather’s farm, and he grew up as a boy hungry…so there’s our turn to realize that this was a very important moment.”

The overall takeaway is that much of America’s greatness lies in the ordinary.

“He toured New York City, he saw the Statue of Liberty, Trump Tower — he wasn’t impressed,” Mack said. “He saw NASA. Again, no big deal. But it was a grocery store that made him realize that communism is a lie.”

Yeltsin in Texas will be performed Feb. 22, Feb. 28, and March 1.

Food Town in Clear Lake
The Food Town store in Clear Lake where Boris Yeltsin visited in 1989, when the store was a Randall’s.

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