The Red Millionaire

Jean-Baptiste Doumeng, sickle importer

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.

Moscow

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3 Responses to The Red Millionaire

  1. Anne Pitcher says:

    The sickle story certainly highlights some of the more irrational aspects of state planning, no? I bet Mozambicans who remember that time period have similar stories to share…

  2. Benedito Machava says:

    This post remembers me one episode on state planning in Mozambique, related to People Shops’ management early 1980s. This one happened in rural Niassa, where a truck of commodities was sent to supply the shops of Mavago and Unango. In Mavago the truck delivered all boxes of candles and in Unango (around 40 to 50 km away) it delivered all boxes of matches. So the “peasants” from Unango had to walk all along to Mavago to buy candles and those from Mavango had to do the same way to Unango to get matches…

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