From the memoirs of Jacinto Veloso, the former head of Mozambique’s intelligence services, comes a beautiful anecdote about Jean-Baptiste Doumeng, the famed Red Millionaire. Doumeng was a French Communist who made a fortune selling surplus butter and beef to the Eastern Bloc. The Mozambicans, like others in the Soviet orbit, counted on him to help patch up misunderstandings with Moscow. Doumeng could be blunt. He had a knack for making heads of state swallow hard realities.
Veloso recalls one conversation he had with Doumeng after the businessman had returned from a trip to Moscow. Doumeng had visited the countryside and seen dachas, the small getaway cabins of Soviet bigwigs. He noticed that the grass around the dachas grew wild, as if it never got cut. When he asked an official why this was so, he was told that the available mechanized mowers were too large to move around in the little yards. Doumeng suggested they simply use sickles and cut the grass by hand. The official thought this was a good idea. Unfortunately, he explained, sickles weren’t listed with the National Planning Commission, and they didn’t appear in the Central State Plan. In the late 1970s Soviet Union you could not find sickles, nor was it permitted to import them.
Doumeng brought up the sickle issue with the Soviet general secretary himself. “Tovarish Brezhnev, I just verified that the only sickles in the USSR are the ones on your flags!” The Soviets promptly ordered half a million units. Within ten days Doumeng was shipping sickles in from Malta.