Muscovites' main concern is bread, not government

December 10, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Most Muscovites might have preferred a pound of sausage or a quart of milk, but yesterday they accepted the new country presented to them agreeably enough.

Alexander Stulov, hurrying last night from his job at a drugstore that has nothing to sell to his apartment where he has little to eat, was even able to find some humor in the situation.

"It's funny -- maybe outrageous -- to go to bed in one country and wake up in another without having to go anywhere at all," he said.

Mr. Stulov, who is in his late 40s, wasn't eager to linger on the street in the bitter cold, but as he hurried off into the late-afternoon darkness, he drew some encouragement from the creation of the new country.

"Someone has done something at last," he said.

Like Mr. Stulov, many citizens of the former Soviet Union had gone to bed Sunday night unaware that the leaders of three republics -- Russia, Ukraine and Byelarus -- had agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union and form a Commonwealth of Independent States.

The news didn't break until after the main Russian television news program Sunday night. It was reported on television and radio programs yesterday, but hardly with the urgency that the birth of a new nation might be expected to generate.

The television game shows droned on, uninterrupted by bulletins, as might have been the case for momentous news in another country. Newspapers appeared as scheduled, without rushing out extra editions. Pravda didn't even mention the new commonwealth.

Two women engaged in an excited discussion yesterday morning might have been talking about the latest political move. But it turned out they were excited about the discovery of a store that had chicken.

Why would life go on as normal -- if you can call standing for a seeming eternity in a seemingly infinite number of lines a normal life -- when the country built with the blood and privations of nearly 70 years appeared to be dissolving?

"I don't know what's happening, and I don't care who's at the top," said Nikolai Sustakov, an engineer. "I have to worry about getting my bread."

"Let the world sink," said 23-year-old Igor Nosov, selling hard-to-find luxuries such as candy bars from a kiosk. "We'll survive on a stump."

Mr. Nosov's "stump," his ark, is the kiosk where he can sell goods at unregulated prices. "We make money no matter what the weather," he said happily, referring to the cold as well as to political storms.

Mr. Nosov sells Snickers candy bars for 35 rubles each. For the average Russian, that is like paying $35 for a candy bar when you make $500 a month, proof of the practical insignificance of the ruble.

In such conditions, more political talk -- even if it was about a new country -- didn't get many people excited yesterday.

"What everybody liked a few years back about [Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev was his ability to avoid sharp edges," said Andrei Samarsky, who was wearing a fur coat. "What everyone hates now are his long talks that are short on fresh ideas."

Though many people refused to think about the implications of a new country, those who did found grounds for concern. "New powers are coming to the stage," said a physics professor at Moscow State University, "but we don't know exactly what they look like."

"We've tried many times to start over," said Igor Duel, a writer, "and nothing come of it but talk."

Still, Mr. Duel tried to be hopeful. He was cheered that the new commonwealth had been created on goodwill rather than by force.

"It's extremely important," he said. "It's the first attempt to re-create the unity of the nation on goodwill."

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