Heads of state came to town, but, as far as Moscow cared, the cheeses stood alone SUMMIT IN MOSCOW

August 01, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The big cheeses were finally in town, and eager Soviet reformers were drooling at the American one, arrayed with lesser cheeses at Mikhail S. Gorbachev's table in the Kremlin.

But those making the big impression Tuesday, the ones that are being toasted from one end of Moscow to another, were powerful, charismatic, irresistible Germans, Swiss and Danes crowding one another out in the refrigerated case at the new store in the Peking Hotel.

The attention to the superpower summit -- covered by about 2,500 journalists, 1,238 of whom arrived with President Bush -- was cursory compared with the reporting here on the new store.

There's not even a sign on the door, but every foreigner in town is talking about it, about its Coca-Cola and Corn Pops, its Pampers and pickles, its salami and other sausages, and most of all about its cheeses.

One woman stood staring at the case -- stuffed with Goudas and Edams, Swisses and Cheddars, Gorgonzolas and Parmesans, havartis and bries -- for half an hour. Sensory overload from such a selection left her powerless to choose anything.

This is Moscow, and foreigners who have dollars or other hard currency and nowhere to spend them have become accustomed to importing many of their staples from a Danish store, where almost anything but fresh cheese can be had -- for a price.

In recent times, this has been supplemented by a small but expensive Finnish store where, if you get there when the truck arrives, you can buy milk along with other horrendously overpriced items. A tiny can of floor wax costs $14, a liter of plain ice cream $8.35.

The new store, a German one, and the Finnish store are reserved for foreigners -- you can only buy there if you have a credit card to charge it. There's a third option, a joint Swiss-Soviet venture that takes dollars in cash, too, and so always has a long line. (Many of the items don't even have a price tag, as in if you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford to shop here.)

So a liter bottle of Coke costs nearly $2. No matter. No one here can help but say cheese.

The inexperienced eye might have thought that the pressures of the summit were driving all of Moscow to drink. The lines to buy vodka, always lengthy, reached epic proportions.

It was almost the end of the month, and Russians who had not yet bought their ration of two bottles for the month were standing in line to do so before their coupons expired. Not only do you need a coupon and 10 rubles per bottle, but you must present empty bottles.

Lines that many days number about 50 people tripled as pensioners and business people waited, waited and waited through yet another exercise in the relentless dreariness of Soviet life.

The lines make ordinary folk look like winos with a persistent thirst. But for many people, vodka is actually too valuable to drink. It has become a currency, more precious than a pile of rubles. A bottle of vodka can get you an appointment for a required car inspection. A second bottle ensures that your car will pass.

Elsewhere Tuesday, Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev dedicated a statue in a park, a gift from the children of America to the children of the Soviet Union.

Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Gorbachev had once met in Boston, where they saw a sculpture by Nancy Schon depicting a story loved by many American children, "Make Way for Ducklings." ("Let the Ducklings Pass" is the way the Russians translate it.)

The book, by Robert McCloskey, describes how a duck family moves into Boston Common and when the little ducklings arrive, a kindly cop stops traffic so they can cross the street.

The artist made a copy of the statue for the Soviet Union, on behalf of American children. But when three American children -- one of whom had just recently arrived from Boston, where she had seen and admired the original -- tried to approach the sculpture, security police refused to let them even set foot in the park until the whole ceremony was over. Perhaps the agents feared that the 5-, 8- and 9-year-olds had secret weapons hidden in their ponytails.

The children left dejected. They were already feeling a deep sense of rejection because they had been exiled from the U.S. Embassy for two weeks because of the summit. This meant no swimming pool (which they had paid to join) and no Friday cheeseburgers in the cafeteria.

The embassy folks themselves were feeling a bit put out by the invasion of their boss, George Bush, and 800 of his closest friends. But they had noticed a lot more cheese in the embassy commissary.

Any departure in Moscow from talk of food and how to get it is only a brief deviation. Back to food. There was a lot of it at a cocktail party that the government press office gave for reporters at the big plush Communist hotel. (You know it's Communist because it's plush and because it's one of the last places in town with a big bust of Lenin proudly displayed.)

Buckets of champagne were chilling on the table. Red and white wines, mineral waters and juices were offered. Lovely sausages and pickled cucumbers were enticingly arranged. And, and! Caviar, black and red, beckoned from bowls.

The Soviet economy is in a shambles, the party loses hundreds of members every day, but the Communists still have the caviar. They have not collapsed yet.

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