Frustration, shortages, long lines all await food shoppers in Moscow View from GORKY STREET INSIDE THE SOVIET ECONOMY

September 16, 1990|By Kim Clark and David Rosenthal | Kim Clark and David Rosenthal,Sun Staff Correspondents

MOSCOW -- Yula Rusnak is tired, hungry and a little exasperated -- the perfect mood for shopping in the chaotic marketplace emerging from communism's ruins.

She spent the night hiding behind the half-filled shelves of the bookstore where she is a guard. The slim, green-eyed 22-year-old said she was terrified of the rats she heard scuttling around and constantly planned escape routes should someone so much as peek through any of the store's broken windows.

When she returned to her communal apartment in the morning, she found that her building's hot water had been turned off for repairs (a common event) and that she would have to take cold showers for the next month.

And she rediscovered that her refrigerator was bare.

So, after resting, Ms. Rusnak set out at 2:20 in the afternoon tshop along Gorky Street for a little bread, cheese, fruit and fish.

Ms. Rusnak will spend nearly two hours searching the shops on Moscow's main thoroughfare to assemble a bag of groceries that an American could gather in 10 minutes in a supermarket. She will have to maneuver through a mind-boggling array of unpleasant alternatives: state shops with low prices, long lines andempty shelves; state-approved farmers' markets with plenty of goods but prices beyond the reach of ordinary workers; gray markets in which goods are set aside for sale by friends or bribed shop assistants; and black markets where U.S. cigarettes or cosmetics cost several days' pay.

She will waste almost half of her shopping trip waiting in lines of harried, sometimes pushy, Muscovites.

As the Soviet Union's centrally planned economy crumbles, no clear alternative has emerged.

After years of groping for a middle ground between communism and free enterprise, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev last week endorsed a bold reform program to sell most state enterprises to Soviet citizens by 1992. The "500 Days" plan, the most radically capitalistic program yet backed by the Soviet leader, would create a stock market and permit private ownership of land.

But years of bureaucratic half-steps toward economic reform have left a dangerous legacy. The constant political seesawing between capitalism and communism has created economic chaos.

The world's largest centrally planned marketplace has become a lawless economic frontier in which citizens grab as much as they can, as quickly as they can, for fear of the changes tomorrow will bring.

"The reins were loosened, and everything went crazy," says Ludmila Lebedeva, an economist at Moscow's USA-Canada Institute. "There's no real market and no planned economy. We're caught in the middle. ... There are elements of hoarding [and] panic buying."

As Ms. Rusnak's afternoon shopping trek shows, signs of the shortage-inspired take-it-now attitude are everywhere:

*Soviet citizens are spending more than they earn, buying up anything useful they can find and draining their savings.

*They are hoarding everything from toothpaste to gold. Soviet shoppers who have waited for hours to get into ice cream shops can be seen gorging on five cones at once.

*An increasing number of Soviets are turning to crime, as respect for the once-feared authorities erodes and the desire for goods outstrips people's ability to buy them.

Not even Gorky Street, the oldest and most important boulevard of the Soviet Union's largest city, is immune from the rush to change everything in this society. Recently, city leaders decided to restore its pre-revolution name, Tverskaya Street.

Though street signs haven't been repainted yet, Muscovites seem to have embraced the idea of replacing the homage to one of Stalin's favorite writers with nothing more than a historical reminder that this happens to be the way to the town of Tver.

* As Ms. Rusnak starts her shopping trip, she bypasses severastate-owned grocery stores, not even bothering to look inside because there are no lines indicating the availability of chocolates or pastries.

Like all Soviet citizens, Ms. Rusnak has a love-hate relationship with shop lines. Lines are a sign of hope here. Where there is a line, there is something good to buy. No lines mean no food. But they are also a hassle.

"Waiting in line can spoil your mood and ruin your appetite," she says.

Her first stop, at 2:35, is the ornate, high-ceilinged "Gastronom Number 1," a state grocery store. It is steamy and crowded. About 60 anxious shoppers are bunched around the sausage counter where only "kielbasa" is available for purchase.

Deliveries of meat, eggs and vegetables were all down for the first half of this year, the government says. The reasons: supply shortages, political turmoil and theft.

Reports abound in the Soviet press of perishable food rotting in storage for lack of refrigerated trucks to get them to market. Soviet purchasing agents complain that factories in satellite nations such as Bulgaria aren't living up to their contracts with the Soviet Union.

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