The Mighty Soviet Pepsi Fleet – A true story

This is a true story, and definitely one that deserves to be told.

This is the story of how the Soviet Union (briefly) turned the Pepsi Corporation into a military superpower, the 6th largest military in the world, to be exact, at least in terms of fleet equipment.

Everything in this story is true. Well, except the feature image above, which I created to catch your attention. But I hope you’ll agree it was worth it. It is a story that, to me, tells so much about the “state of affairs” in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, 1970s and finally 1980s.

A western Sip

The story begins in 1959, when the Soviets and the Americans agree to hold exhibits in each other’s countries as a cultural exchange to promote understanding. The Soviet exhibit in New York opens in June 1959, and the following month Vice President Nixon inaugurates the US exhibit inside Sokolniki Park in Moscow  by taking the Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev on a tour of the grounds.

What follows is a series of impromptu exchanges (through interpreters) between the two leaders, collectively known as “The Kitchen Debate“. They are of significant historical importance for two reasons:

  1. At the end, Khrushchev states that everything he said in their debate should be translated into English and broadcast in the US. Nixon responds “Certainly it will, and everything I say is to be translated into Russian and broadcast across the Soviet Union. That’s a fair bargain.” To this proposal, which would have been unthinkable only six years earlier under Stalin, Khrushchev shakes hands vigorously.
  2. In the exchange they discuss which country is superior, but they do not compare nuclear weapons, political influence, or control of territories. They use the technological innovations set up in the exhibit to compete with one another. Nixon argues that the Americans built to take advantage of new techniques, while Khrushchev says that the Soviets built for future generations. Khrushchev states, “This is what America is capable of, and how long has she existed? 300 years? 150 years of independence and this is her level. We haven’t quite reached 42 years, and in another 7 years, we’ll be at the level of America, and after that we’ll go farther.

Pepsi enters the story in the third encounter, the one that gives the name to the whole, as Nixon and Khrushchev meet inside the kitchen on a cutaway model home, designed to represent a $14,000 home that a typical American worker could afford.

Don Kendall pours a round of Pepsi for everyone
Don Kendall pours a round of Pepsi for everyone while Khrushchev is already happily sipping away. Original picture of the time, I just colorized Khrushchev’s cup.

It is a fair, but heated discussion, mirroring the hot climate of Moscow on that July 24rd. Khrushchev starts sweating profusely and he’s visibly parched. Don Kendall, at the time vice-president of Pepsi Cola, is also in the kitchen and jumps right into action, by offering a refreshing glass of his product. The picture of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union drinking an “imperialist” sugary soft drink goes around the (western) world and proves to be a fantastic publicity for the American corporation.


High Proof Currency

Khrushchev was already “at the top of the pyramid”, but in the following years both Nixon and Kendall are able to get rid of the “vice” prefix of their title, becoming both presidents. The first of Pepsi Cola already in 1963 and the second of the United States in 1969. Three years later Kendall uses his friendship with Nixon and his political influence to capitalize on the Kitchen Debate success and start selling Pepsi Cola in the USSR.

There is only one major obstacle. The Soviet Union is unwilling to use foreign currency (to which officially it doesn’t have access) and at the time the Ruble can not be exchanged in the international market. So, how is it going to pay for the sugary drink?

With typical Soviet pragmatism and ingenuity a solution is found in 1972. The USSR government has easy access to large quantities of vodka, so it is agreed that it will pay with Stolichnaya vodka, a brand created in 1901 on the basis of the original recipe by the famous Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who created the Periodic Table of Elements.

For the American corporation is an historic deal: not only it becomes the first Western product to be (openly) sold in the USSR, gaining access to a huge market thirsty for a taste of the West, but it also gets to be the official and exclusive importer of the famous Stolichnaya vodka for the American market. Both will have a huge success and for a number of years the nickname “Stoli” used for ordering Stolichnaya becomes synonim for vodka in the USA, as can be seen here (YouTube).

Tom Hanks order “A Stoli on the Rocks” in the famous party scene of the 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail” (copyright: Warner Bros).

To be continued…

Wait, What???? I know you are thinking that you read all of that and still there is no mention of any fleet or military….. and that’s because this story only gets better… but…

But I don’t want my posts to be too long and so I am splitting this in two part. Part II should be up in a couple of days!

Here’s the link to Part II



It will, as always be free for all to read and (hopefully) enjoy, but…

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