West sends outpouring of food to Soviets But skeptics point to 3rd World needs

December 10, 1990|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Message to Willi Syndikis of Meckenheim, Germany: Dora Brodyanskaya of Moscow received your box of food. She is most grateful, even though she says there's a sting to accepting gifts from the former enemy, vanquished by the Red Army 45 years ago.

"I confess it, there's a little residue of feeling left from the war," she said.

But Mrs. Brodyanskaya, a fragile 86-year-old widow who moves with difficulty around her cozy, two-room apartment, didn't really need the aid.

In fact, Yelena Marukhina, the 30-year-old Red Cross nurse who delivered the box, needed it more than Mrs. Brodyanskaya. But Ms. Marukhina is not going hungry, either. Like most Soviet urbanites, she is suffering more from frustration than desperation.

The story of one delivery from the thousands already completed and millions still to come cannot prove anything definitive about the sudden, massive outpouring of emergency help for a hapless superpower.

But Ms. Marukhina's visit to Mrs. Brodyanskaya illustrates the tangled ironies of the Soviet food situation and raises questions that have not yet been fully answered in the West.

The television shots of empty store shelves and snarling Russians in endless lines have mobilized charity networks in Western countries.

Germans like Mr. Syndikis, whose name was on Mrs. Brodyanskaya's box as donor, have led the way with food parcels delivered by the German Red Cross to the Soviet Red Cross.

Now, the 180,000-ton strategic food reserves of West Berlin, created during the Soviet blockade of the city in 1948-1949, are being opened to prevent hunger in the country that once tried to starve Berliners into submission.

The Israelis have sent 10 tons of fruit and vegetables and 15 tons of milk powder. The Swiss dispatched 67 tons of milk powder and 19 tons of baby food. The Soviet Foreign Ministry counted $160 million in charity pledged by foreign countries to help the reformist leadership of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev get through the coming winter.

But here and there amid the charitable hustle and bustle in the West and the grateful replies from the Soviet Union, skepticism can be heard.

The head of a German anti-hunger agency complained last week that it makes no sense to divert food aid from the Third World, where she said 40,000 children die daily from hunger and related ailments, to the Soviet Union, where no one is starving.

Soviet newspapers report that dozens of rail cars loaded with Soviet meat, butter, tea and other coveted items have been sitting in Moscow-area freight yards awaiting unloading for several weeks.

The swift, efficient distribution of the first German donations by the Red Cross in Moscow reduced widespread fears that food would be stalled in the general confusion or diverted onto the black market. District Red Cross units smoothly integrated the food packages into their existing charity network.

The capital's Bauman District, a picturesque if dilapidated neighborhood with the feel of prerevolutionary Russia, has more than its share of the needy, said Yelena Kuzmina, chairwoman of the district's Red Cross office.

Some 24,000 of the district's 87,000 residents are pensioners, she said. Of them, 3,000 receive pensions of 70 rubles a month or less, considered a rock-bottom minimum for survival. Of those, 1,000 live alone and are singled out for observation and support by the Red Cross as well as by the "Raisobess," an acronym for the district social welfare department.

Several groups are automatically eligible for special weekly food orders at low, state-subsidized prices: World War II veterans; people classified as invalids, which includes many of the frail elderly; and families with three or more children.

The food that goes into these orders, as well as similar orders arranged for delivery at the workplace to the able-bodied, never gets on store shelves. One of the reasons Moscow stores are so empty, in fact, is that as the food system has grown less reliable, more employers and trade unions have organized special food orders as a perk for their workers.

Naturally, many people fall through the cracks. But one of them is not Mrs. Brodyanskaya, a white-haired woman who remembers clearly the demonstrations that swept her native Ukraine at the time of the 1917 revolution.

"With food, thank God, everything's all right," she said. Her classification as "Group 1 Invalid," the result of ulcers, glaucoma and a host of other ailments, entitles her to a weekly food order and regular deliveries from shops in her neighborhood.

Last week's order, for instance, included a box of noodles, a pound of sausage and a bar of chocolate -- all items available in regular stores only occasionally and with a long wait. In addition to the order, a young man from the Raisobess delivers weekly purchases of bread, fish, dairy products and other foods, she said, and the neighbors also occasionally bring something along.

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