AMERICANS are familiar with pictures of Russians standing in line. They have heard about the bare shelves and the threat of starvation this winter.
Although the situation is indeed serious, Americans might not realize how 74 years of totalitarian rule has instilled in the Russians an ability to outwit authority and get around the system. This craftiness is what helps make life bearable in the Soviet Union.
I recently returned to visit my native Moscow after a year's absence. What I saw convinced me that despite the vast economic troubles, the Russians' cleverness remains.
In one bakery store on Leninsky Prospect, I saw about 30 people waiting in line to buy bread.
The sales lady at the cash register already had grown weary, repeating, "Comrades, please take only two loaves of bread per person. It's a decree of the Moscow City Council . . . "
The people were not so happy with the new decree, but they complied. But then an old woman appeared at the cash register holding seven loaves.
"Didn't you understand what I said?" the seller asked with a tired, hoarse voice. "Only two loaves . . . "
But she didn't have time to finish her command. The old woman suddenly began to bite small pieces from each of the seven loaves.
She swallowed and said, "Now you won't be able to sell all of these bitten loaves. So better take the money and ring other customers."
Frequently the acquisition of food brings out the con artistry in the Russian soul.
For example, when Boris Yeltsin outlawed the Communist Party in Russia, the restaurant once frequented by members of the Central Committee suddenly was opened to regular government workers.
Poor Russian clerks were shocked when they first saw this restaurant. They were greeted by polite waiters dressed neatly in brown or dark blue suits with white aprons and caps.
The menu listed items most Russians only dream about: seven kinds of salads and appetizers, five soups, steak, lamb, several kinds of fish, Dutch ham, pies, cookies. A whole lunch cost only five rubles -- about 12 cents.
The clerks got the idea to share this restaurant with their families and friends. Although guards are stationed at the door to check IDs, they haven't time to look at the customers closely.
On my visit, I went to this restaurant with my friend, Andrew, a rock musician. To get in, I used the identification card of my mother, who works in the Ministry of Culture. Andrew used the ID of my mother's boss.
When the guard saw my friend, with his long brown hair and jeans, he said, "It seems to me, you don't look like someone from the ministry.
Where is your suit and tie? Why do you have long hair?"
Andrew didn't lose his composure. He smiled and answered, "You see, comrade, I work in the Ministry of Culture as deputy minister for rock and pop music.
And my job demands me to have such image."
The guard opened the door. "Excuse me for my suspicions, comrade deputy minister. Please come in."
During lunch, we saw a number of other "ministers" in the room who also apparently had forgotten their suit and tie.
Acquiring liquor is another art. You have little choice but to stand long hours in line at the state stores or pay huge money in the commercial stores.
Once my friend Dennis and I were invited to a party, and we wanted to take our host a bottle of liquor. We searched for our gift in a number of stores and were growing disappointed when we suddenly stumbled upon a state store selling Armenian brandy for only 46 rubles.
We rushed to the seller, but he stopped us and asked. "Do you have an empty bottle? If not, I can't sell you the brandy."
Dennis quickly thought of a solution. "Actually, we changed our minds. We'd like to buy this bottle of mineral water for 80 kopeks," he said.
The seller sold us the water. Dennis took it outside, poured the water out and returned to the store with the empty bottle and a mischievous smile.
"Would you please fill up my empty bottle with brandy?" he asked.
The seller grinned. "Good brain, man," he said.
Alexei Vinogradsky is a former reporter for Trud, the Soviet labor newspaper. He writes from Baltimore.