Moscow -- Traveling by train from the Lithuanian city of Kaunas to Moscow recently, my companions -- all Lithuanians -- insisted on giving me their phone numbers. ''Call us, we'll bring you some food next time we go to Moscow. Poor Muscovites . . . ''
It wasn't always that way. Two years ago we Muscovites were proud residents of the motherland's capital, indignant over the crowds of shoppers from the provinces. Today, those ''provinces'' have just chosen the Byelarussian city of Minsk as the administrative center of their new commonwealth. Moscow has a bad name.
As an editor of a prestigious weekly I earn 1,000 rubles a month -- considerably higher than the minimum wage of 342 rubles but far less than the 3,000 rubles a family of three like mine needs to lead a civilized life. My wife, a researcher in an academic institute, earns 300 rubles, close to $4 a month by the official exchange rate. With no money left in the state budget, we're not counting on her salary next year.
We are both 32 years old, our son is 9, and we have a small American cocker spaniel. Our good fortune was to have started our family in 1981 when we could buy a two-room apartment for 11,000 rubles, with 15 years to pay it off. Today the price would have been five times that amount. Last year I paid off all my debts, got a promotion, and considered myself well off. Now, at 8 a.m., at the end of a long line to buy milk, I no longer think so.
''Yesterday I came here at dawn and I was number 50,'' the old lady next to me complains. Her pension is 200 rubles a month and she lives on milk products -- still relatively cheap. It's zero degrees and we have a good 40 minutes before we make it into the crowded store. She warns me about the ''danger zone'' just inside where the door opens constantly and it's easy to catch cold. Our real worry is that the milk will run out before we get there.
A liter of milk costs 65 kopeks in the store, 25 rubles on the free market. Meat is available but only in special sections marked ''free prices'' -- pork for 70 rubles; beef for 53 rubles -- and it's not always fresh. Moscow dogs are vegetarians these days.
At school yards and playgrounds kids talk about what Donald Duck gave his three sons for breakfast on TV today. They earn money wiping car windshields at every major intersection in the city -- more a form of begging than real work. They look at the student with cheese in his lunch box the same way we in the milk line stare at the man who's just bought vodka for the ''free price'' of 43 rubles.
''No butter, no flour, no sugar -- and have you seen that sausage for 162 rubles a kilo? It's never been like this,'' the old lady snorts. ''And vodka! My husband has stood in line for vodka for a week now.''
Each Muscovite gets monthly coupons for two bottles of vodka, two kilos of sugar and five packs of tobacco, but shelves at the government stores are bare. My neighborhood grocery store looks like a big empty dance hall.
I want to tell the woman that for the time spent in line her husband could have wiped 33 windshields and earned 33 rubles -- enough to pay the difference between vodka at the government price and on the free market. But I keep quiet. We're all afflicted by this disease of standing in lines. Why should this lady's husband be any different?
By the time we reach the counter there's no milk left. I end up going to the tolkachka (the ''pushing place''), a flea market where Muscovites go who have anything to sell, from light bulbs (non-existent in the stores), to vacuum cleaners (otherwise available only if you have dollars or have waited for years in a special line for war vets and invalids). I buy milk for 7 rubles from an old man who bought it at the official price just hours before. This is what he thinks capitalism means.
I come home in time to hear the news: The city council says there's only enough food for two more days. If I hurry, I'll make it to the office by 10.
Lev Yelin is on the staff of the Moscow-based news weekly New Times. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.