There is a popular new diet in the Soviet Union this winter, but it is unlikely to catch on elsewhere: a loaf of bread three times a day, supplemented by two pounds of potatoes.
"On our income, that's all we can afford to buy," said Yakov Shvolansky, a 72-year-old retiree, as fellow pensioners nodded in solemn agreement. "Meat? I haven't tasted meat in a year."
While the talk of Moscow may be democratic reform and economic rejuvenation, in the Russian hinterland all anyone seems concerned about is food. The lack of food. How expensive food is. Hunger.
Shortages at state-controlled shops have become so critical that a potentially deadly political backlash is forming against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
As if to complicate matters, the Bush administration decided this week that it would recognize Ukrainian statehood if, as expected, the Ukrainian people vote for independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum this Sunday, according to U.S. officials.
The move would represent a dramatic shift in policy for President Bush, who until now has stressed relations with the central government over relations with the republics.
But in Moscow, Soviet officials cautioned the United States against making moves that could hasten the breakup of the Soviet Union and hence cause "dramatic consequences."
On a month-long tour of the Soviet Far East and Siberia, a reporter heard repeated regrets that the coup attempt by Communist Party hard-liners in August did not succeed. A broad cross-section of people clamored for a "strong dictator," the near-mythic image of a Russian savior dating back to Peter the Great.
"Democracy is great, but you can't bring it home and cook it for your family," said a doctor in Vladivostok.
In the wake of the collapse of communism, Gorbachev is considered too old-fashioned by radicals and too reformist by conservatives. Yeltsin is widely criticized for allowing the country to drift toward economic ruin while endless debating takes place in Moscow.
Ironically, there are no serious food shortages in the Soviet Union this year, at least compared with famines of the past. What does exist, though, are great imbalances between the state-subsidized stores, which stand with empty shelves, and the free markets, which are reasonably well stocked but charge much higher prices.
"The free market is our only hope," said Alexander Ponamorov, a businessman in Khabarovsk. "I just hope the government doesn't wait too long to start it. People are running short of patience."