MOSCOW -- The line for sugar stretched along the sidewalk, but the sidewalk was too cramped and the line too slow, so it soon curled into a dark low passageway leading to a rear courtyard.
Faces, motionless, peered out of the gloom. Five o'clock brings nightfall to Moscow. For three pounds of sugar, a month's ration, several dozen people had come to wait 45 minutes in the gathering cold.
Ella Murashkavskaya tried to decide if she had time for sugar. "Our people seem to be doomed to waiting," she said.
It's the emblem of Russia on the eve of a new, uncertain order. Cramped, slow and in the dark, the lines inch forward, to reach shelves that hold little or nothing.
The various governments treat the country to endless political infighting. The republics are spending money faster than the central bank can print it, which makes money increasingly worthless.
The gross national product is down 12 percent this year. The grain harvest is down 20 percent. A meatpacker in Kirghizia was caught making sausages with meat that was something less than fresh.
No money of any value means there is no cooking oil in the stores. It means that dozens of flights around the country were delayed by days last weekend because there was no jet fuel. The riverboat that plies the Lena River in Siberia brought no food to the villages this week -- only vodka, for which the residents traded animal pelts.
A factory in the Urals is paying in scrip. The Ukraine plans to issue its own currency because Moscow cannot supply enough rubles from its printing presses to meet Ukrainian payrolls.
Yesterday, when eight republics signed an economic agreement in a Kremlin ceremonial hall to ensure cooperation and to keep the economy moving, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev said, "Trying times are ahead. Difficult solutions and unpopular measures are needed."
Earlier this week, the Russian president, Boris N. Yeltsin, said that within a month virtually all prices would be "liberalized," or given over to market control -- which means that they will skyrocket.
"This won't be anything like what they had in Czechoslovakia or Poland," said Nina Ivanova, another shopper in the line for sugar. "This will be like falling from the 10th floor."
Mrs. Ivanova, a pensioner who lives with her daughter, doesn't know how she's going to stave off disaster.
"Why don't they just gather the pensioners together at Red Square and shoot them all?" she said.
"I'm afraid there won't be central heat, won't be electricity. I'm just trembling, thinking about the coming winter.
"Each morning when I get up, I feel like crying, though I used to be an optimist. I'm not a very choosy person. But I'd like some butter and cooking oil, some meat, some fish, sugar, milk, cheese -- oh, cheese, I miss that very, very much, but yesterday my daughter managed to buy a piece somewhere. And of course, coffee -- I wish it was always for sale."
Mrs. Ivanova had come to the line because she owes a debt in sugar. Like millions of Russians, she wanted to put up jars of berries last summer, as she does every summer. But for four months she was unable to buy sugar, despite having a ration card.
Finally she borrowed about nine pounds (she puts up lots of berries) from a friend who had been willing to go out at 5 a.m. on a summer morning to stake out a place in line.
But now it's time to pay off the debt.
The line for sugar stretched ahead into the evening. She had just come from spending half an hour in another line to buy a loaf of bread.
"It's difficult to describe it in words," she said. "It's an hour-by-hour problem. No, minute-by-minute."
Yet as the line waited, life bustled around it on the sidewalk. Energetic vendors had set up crude tables and were selling boxes full of plump green grapes. Passers-by paused, looked, bought, hurried on. Box after box of grapes came out of the vendor's car trunk, while the sugar line hunkered down.
(Earlier in the week, according to a newspaper called Kuranty, another set of grape vendors had left their wares on the sidewalk to go in search of beer; people began stealing the unguarded grapes, until the police showed up, shooed away the thieves, and took all the grapes for themselves.)
Mrs. Ivanova, who spent her working career at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, had little use for the grape merchants.
"One does not need to be talented or bright to engage in this kind of business," she said.
It was a mistake for the government to permit this, she said. These people were merely taking grapes out of the system of state distribution and making a profit on them.
"We need some order, some stern control," she said. "Without this, we won't be able to get out of the crisis."