Empty shelves tell tale of breakdown

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

MOSCOW -- Shoppers walk in to the Gorky Street Gastronom near the train station, look around at shelves that feature a few unwanted items -- jars of pickled cabbage, bottles of apple-grape juice and boxes of tea -- and walk out empty-handed.

The most obvious and painful signs of the breakdown of the centrally planned Soviet economy can be found here, in one of Moscow's large, near-empty, state-owned grocery stores.

Here also is some of the most glaring evidence of the bureaucracy-laden, confused and, at times, unrealistic struggle toward the creation of private enterprise.

The man in charge of filling the shelves of the city's 3,000 shops, Valentin Zhelinsky, blames the shortages on everything from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms to the political turmoil in Eastern Europe.

Moscow has to import most of its food from agricultural areas outside the city, but many of those areas, such as the Ukraine, are trying to break away from the Soviet Union and don't want to fulfill their supply contracts, he says.

And there aren't enough goods in the still-loyal Russian factories to supply the Soviet capital city.

"My task is to supply Moscow's 3,000 grocery stores with products that don't exist," Mr. Zhelinsky says. "There is a lack of foodstuffs.

"The old system has fallen, and the new ways have not emerged yet."

But Mr. Zhelinsky's solution to the shortages seems like a twist on the old. He wants all Moscow factories to give the city government 10 percent of the goods they produce. He and other government buyers then would barter those Moscow-made televisions, trucks and ice cream bars for more food.

The recently elected, reform-minded city leaders had another idea. Early this year, they passed a law allowing grocery-store workers to lease their shops from the government and run them as private enterprises.

Two hundred stores have gone private, even though the city required them to set up hard-to-get bank accounts and to charge state-mandated prices for goods.

Despite these roadblocks, the workers at the empty Gastronom on Gorky Street have voted to take over their shop.

Vera Goroskova, the 42-year-old director of the Gorky Street store, is preparing for the September changeover by making her own delivery contracts with meat, chicken and milk plants.

She looks forward to January, when, it is rumored, the stores that have gone private will get the right to set prices.

But she fears that she will not get the freedom to run the store properly. "All the middlemen will still try to regulate and control," she predicts.

Though the store will be run as a collective, with each worker voting equally for a governing board, Ms. Goroskova is planning to lay off at least 20 of her 65 workers as soon as she is given control of the store.

How will she persuade one-third of the shareholders to go? "All the collective knows those who are lazy," she says.

But her workers don't seem to know who will be laid off or what the coming changes will mean to them.

In the courtyard behind the store, wiry, Igor Karavashkin, 33, smokes and talks with other workers, all of whom steadfastly refuse to prepare for the coming, painful reforms.

All of the workers know that the impending privatization will mean layoffs, Mr. Karavashkin says. It is possible, the workers fear, that as many as 50 of the store's 65 workers will be fired eventually.

But neither he nor any one else at the store is looking for a job.

Though the job does not pay well -- only 150 rubles, the equivalent of $25, a month -- "They don't want to leave," he says. "Nobody is preparing."

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