As Soviets worry over food shortages, Brezhnev era looks good

November 16, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff Correspondent

SOLNECHNOGORSK, U.S.S.R. -- Ask Tatyana Dagayeva, a 33-year-old volleyball coach, when the food supply was best in this plain little town on the Moscow-Leningrad road and she doesn't have to ponder long.

"I'd say the best year was 1981," Ms. Dagayeva said yesterday as she waited to see a bureaucrat in the town hall. "There was sausage, meat, dairy products, everything, freely for sale."

And today? "A nightmare! You won't find meat. You won't find sausage," she said, rolling her eyes. On the eve of last week's revolution anniversary holiday, she said, she endured a two-hour line for sour cream, a Russian staple.

Down the road, at Store No. 4, a truck had miraculously arrived with a load of sausage. The line quickly was double the length of the store, as several hundred people prepared to spend their afternoon making their maximum allowable purchase: just over a pound of sausage each.

"Let's not even talk about the past," said Galina V. Ospina, 48, the store director. "During the stagnation" -- the term now used for the Leonid I. Brezhnev era, 1964-1982 -- "we had so much, we can only dream about it now. I used to bring 10 tons of meat a week from a Moscow meatpacking plant -- no bones, pure meat."

Mikhail S. Gorbachev may have secured for himself a Nobel Prize and a place in history. But for many residents of Solnechnogorsk, his 5 1/2 -year rule is thought of first as a time of declining supplies of food and consumer goods. Over the last few months, they say, food stores have grown dramatically emptier, lines longer and people more panicky.

At a stormy session of the Supreme Soviet Wednesday, deputies expressed alarm over food shortages, ethnic and political conflict, and the power struggle between Soviet and republican authorities.

One of the most alarming speeches came from Solnechnogorsk's deputy, Dr. Valentina G. Gudilina, a cardiologist. She said she believed that her district was threatened imminently by "famine, real famine" and demanded action.

The parliament voted overwhelmingly to cancel its agenda and debate the country's crisis at a special session today to be addressed by both Mr. Gorbachev, as Soviet president, and the Russian leader, Boris N. Yeltsin.

Yesterday, Leningrad voted to start food rationing Dec. 1, the first time it will face rationing since the Nazi siege almost 50 years ago.

Also yesterday, 22 prominent intellectuals published an open letter to Mr. Gorbachev demanding that he move decisively toward a market economy, end the Communist Party's continuing grip on the country and create a new coalition government -- or resign.

"We appeal to the democratic forces in society and to the president of the Soviet Union: The situation today is such that unless decisive, urgent measures are taken, tragedy is unavoidable," they wrote in Moscow News.

Is the superheated rhetoric entirely justified? In one concrete instance, is Solnechnogorsk really on the brink of famine?

A tour of food stores and interviews with both residents and local officials suggest that it is not. But the situation is unquestionably grave, and a mix of economic and psychological factors has created deep anger, uncertainty and fear for the future.

The trepidation in Solnechnogorsk district, population 120,000, is shared by many citizens across the country.

In a poll of 1,356 people in 21 cities, reported yesterday in Moscow News, 62 percent said they feared that famine might appear in the Soviet Union in the next few months.

"We're sick to death of it," said Nadezhda V. Dmitrieva, 34, a construction organization clerk and mother with one daughter.

"You come home and knock your head and try to figure out: 'What can I cook for dinner?' "

In the early 1980s, she said, "everybody had caviar on the table at holidays." Last week, she considered it a triumph that she managed to buy a little beef for the revolution holiday table.

Last summer, she and her husband for the first time dug a vegetable garden in a wooded area outside town. "Everybody's doing it, so that we have our own supply of potatoes," she said.

But Mrs. Dmitrieva confessed, "Our refrigerator is jammed -- I only wish I had a second refrigerator. All our shelves are jammed with supplies. That's the way it is in every apartment." Since a price-rise scare early last summer set off panic buying, people have stocked away everything they can.

Hoarding naturally tends to clean out stores. Moreover, people can afford to clean out the stores, because their wages have risen sharply while most food prices in state stores have remained relatively stable.

In 1970, the average industrial wage was 133 rubles a month. In 1980, it was 185 rubles. Today, it has topped 260 rubles.

Yet the sausage for sale in Solnechnogorsk goes for about the same subsidized price it has sold for since the 1960s -- 2 rubles a kilogram. As economists say, too much money is chasing too few goods.

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