RealAg Book Club: “Limit Up” brings the Great Grain Robbery to life 50 years later

50 years ago this summer, Soviet agents traveled to North America in the middle of the Cold War and secretly bought massive amounts of grain, driving up world prices in one of the most significant events in the history of commodity trading — later dubbed the “Great Grain Robbery.”

Russ Crawford, who had a front-row seat as a rookie in grain trading at Cargill, has brought the story from the early ’70s to life in a new book entitled “Limit Up,” and he joins us for this new RealAg Book Club episode.

Thrilling suspense, high stakes, international drama — the story of how the Soviets, desperate to import grain due to widespread drought back home, pulled off the simultaneous purchase of millions of bushels of grain from multiple sellers in the U.S. and Canada (including the Canadian Wheat Board) has many components of a great story.

“I really wanted to tell the story for two audiences, for people who were a part of it, who knew it, and remember it, but more importantly for people that have heard about it, but don’t have a real good idea of what actually happened, who was involved, and what the circumstances were,” says Crawford.

Some of the characters, including the main Soviet — Misha Fisenko — are fictional or a combination of real people, but most of the story is based on first-hand accounts and company histories, he notes.

“I took a little bit of literary license, but most of the book is factual. The people that are named, 90 per cent of them are real people,” says Crawford.

For example, Cargill’s main contact in Winnipeg — both in the book and in reality — was Dick Dawson, who personally shared many of stories with Crawford that are included in the book. Frank Rowan at the Canadian Wheat Board, Jim McCrea, the rookie grain trader at Cargill’s famous Lake Office outside Minneapolis, and representatives from other grain companies, including Continental, Louis Dreyfus, and others, are also featured throughout Crawford’s version of the event.

The Russian protagonist Fisenko, who negotiates with the grain companies in North America on behalf of Exportkhleb, is fictional, but mainly based on the real-life Leonid Kalitenko. (Crawford says he gave Fisenko the first name “Misha” as a tribute to a Russian hockey player who billeted at his place.)

The places referenced in “Limit Up” were also the original scenes of what was later dubbed the Great Grain Robbery, as Crawford takes readers from the Volga Plain in south Russia to the Madison Hotel in Washington, DC to the Velvet Glove lounge in downtown Winnipeg.

Through it all, Crawford weaves in explanations and context about how commodity markets work, government policies of the day, and why the Soviets were able to pull off their massive purchase.

Author Russ Crawford joins the RealAg Book Club to discuss the writing of “Limit Up,” lessons learned from this time in history, and to just reminisce about some of the great stories and characters involved in the Great Grain Robbery:

Not only is the book timely with the 50th anniversary approaching, some experts have harkened back to the Great Grain Robbery when discussing the grain supply shock that is anticipated as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

“One was a drought. This one is a war, but the end result is there’s a disruption in the flow of commodities. There’s a threat of a lack of production. This wasn’t a one year event in 1972. It trickled on for years after that, with markets increasing in value,” notes Crawford.

Without sharing any spoilers, the ending of the book also includes some plot twists that may or may not have happened in reality, after everyone realizes what has happened.

“There are some nuggets of clues along the way to keep you intrigued, but all is revealed, I’ll leave it at that,” says Crawford. “It’s a fun story. It was great fun to write.”

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