In line and in life, Soviets take contradictions in stride

November 19, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Outside, on the streets, people with blank faces stand in long lines, waiting for a bit of food. Inside, at their tables, they talk and laugh and heap the plates of their guests too high.

Contradiction underlies most of life here, and few people seem to wonder at it.

This is a poor country -- half the population lives below the poverty line. This is a rich country -- it produces about 10 percent of the world's gold and minerals; it has oil and fertile farmlands.

This is a country whose history suggests that people will believe anything. At this point, they seem to believe nothing.

How, you might ask, have they gotten in such a fix?

"How should I know?" answers a 30-year-old man who has been standing in line for a half-hour, waiting for a sausage store to open. "I don't have time to think about such things."

The store, somewhat miraculously, opens at 2 p.m., and the line pours in. Inside, the eager shoppers find that today brings bacon. There is only bacon in the store, perhaps 50 2-pound chunks of fat, fat bacon.

Within 25 minutes, the bacon is sold, and the line of 60 or so shoppers waiting outside dissolves. Silently, without complaint, the people disperse to look for other lines to join.

The manager puts a hand-written sign on the door: "Store closed for technical reasons." He turns out the lights and goes home.

In the darkening afternoon, shoppers stop, stare at the sign and try to gather intelligence from passers-by to figure what it really means. "Was there sausage today? Will there be sausage later?" Everyone knows there is no technical reason -- just no sausage.

But why is there no sausage? "It's difficult to say," says a 50-year-old woman who has "104" written on her hand, referring to her number in a vodka line down the street. "I think it's because the Mafia is everywhere."

"Mafia" is the name given to any kind of organized criminal activity.

"Everything is sold out the back door for higher prices," the woman complains. "I'd like to see our officials stand in line and find out how much food reaches the people and how much reaches the Mafia."

A few doors down the street, a cheerful woman wearing bright red glasses walks into the meat store. It has a couple of hunks of fatty stew meat, lots of 2-gallon glass jars of apple-cherry juice, and no line.

"We had one system, which we've disbanded, and now we're building another one," says the woman, a 68-year-old retired office manager who doesn't want to give her name. "We got used to the old system, and changing our psychology is a slow process."

Most people, she says, don't understand that the decline in the economy was inevitable under the old system. They remember only that once they could buy things; they don't realize the practice was bankrupting the country.

While the Soviet Union was telling its people they were building a paradise for the worker, the nation was selling off its gold reserves to keep the workers fed.

Soviet officials now say that the 2,050 tons of gold reserve held in 1953 has dwindled to practically nothing.

"We had some bad harvests," says Tatyana Ivanova, 72, who spends her days shopping for herself and her mother. "Our bad economy made the life of the party very complicated. But we are still well off. Look -- everyone has clothes."

Inside the nearly empty meat store, a 58-year-old engineer named Tamara is rearranging the day's booty. She is shifting about 50 packs of cigarettes from a large cloth shopping bag into her roomy and nearly empty handbag. She has retired from her job to take on the real work of her family -- shopping. She spends her days shopping for her two daughters, her two grandchildren, and various nieces and nephews. Today she began by checking her place in a line to buy cigarettes at the state price. She is No. 1,410 in a line of 1,500.

The cigarettes cost 58 kopecks per pack -- a pittance. The line will go on for several days, with someone keeping a list of the numbers and those on the list checking in daily.

"I don't know why, but in Stalin's time there was order," she sighs. "I don't know why. Maybe people were afraid."

"The system didn't work," says Sveta Mitina. She is 16 and has come in the late afternoon to a neighborhood bread store. Unlike last week, the air in the store is fragrant with the scent of warm, fresh bread. Plump loaves line the shelves. There are no lines. "But we are to blame as well," the girl says. "People need to work harder."

If nothing works, where does all that food come from on tables all over Moscow? It comes, of course, from hard work.

And it comes, sometimes, from knowing someone who has a cousin whose friend works in a store -- and sells food out the back door.

In these, and many other ordinary details of Soviet life, lie the tangles of 73 years, waiting to be sorted out.

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