Muscovites experience sticker shock - at the grocery

January 03, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Russians had been warned weeks ago that Boris N. Yeltsin's government, following through on his boldest economic reform yet, would lift the ceilings on most prices and allow others to triple and quadruple.

But yesterday, it still hurt.

A cane-toting pensioner -- fuming -- stalked out of the Smolensk Grocery Store, too aghast at the quintupled prices on candy and the pork that cost almost two months' pension per pound to buy anything.

"What I've seen today is a major-league, damn mess," said the pensioner, who identified himself only as Leonid. "The time will come to take a machine gun. . . . For now it's calm, it's the first day. But we veterans say there will be blood spilled in Moscow, and the women will start it because they have to feed their families."

Prices on bread and dairy products generally tripled; vodka went from 10 rubles -- about half the average daily wage -- to 45 rubles a bottle. Most non-food stores were still closed yesterday for repricing and recovery from the New Year's holiday. Industrial goods were expected to at least quintuple in price.

Neighboring Ukraine and Belarus, forced to follow suit or risk their produce being snatched up by invading Russians in search of a bargain, also raised prices. They also prepared to launch a rationing system that would effectively bar non-residents from buying their goods but that would turn the ration coupons into an alternative currency.

Letting loose with a long, creative string of Russian profanities describing the sexual tastes of the politicians who decreed the price reforms, a shabby, 40-ish man in Wine Shop No. 14 on Moscow's Garden Ring Road snarled, "If only I could lay my hands on one of those rulers!"

The grumblings across Russia appeared likely to turn into the toughest test yet of Mr. Yeltsin's popularity and his ability to bring the country through the excruciating transition from socialism to capitalism, with all the unemployment, sudden poverty and dislocation it will entail.

"We trusted Yeltsin when he was fighting for democracy," said Sergei Abramov, 27, a gym instructor, after examining ham that sold per pound for about his monthly pay. "But this is no longer a democracy -- this is robbery of the people. If he doesn't change this, his days are numbered."

But as a sales clerk pointed out to the enraged vodka buyer in Wine Shop No. 14, at least there was now vodka on sale, and the ration coupons that Muscovites have needed for months to buy vodka, sugar and cigarettes have been canceled.

Still, there were few signs that the price reform had brought any more abundance than the April price increases, which stimulated a brief rush of supplies and fell too far behind inflation to make a difference.

This time, store managers said, the shelves did not fill up immediately because most wholesale suppliers were not back at work yet yesterday. Retailers were further inhibited by general confusion about how the price reforms should work.

"I don't know anything about this grand plan for price liberalization, only what I hear on TV," said Victor Kalinin, manager of Moscow's Food Store No. 29. "Everything depends on the suppliers. I have signed contracts with Kazakh and Russian meat suppliers, but they only begin sending food a month from now. I don't know what happens in between."

Valentina Vorobyova, a fruit seller at the central Smolensk Grocery Store, said she was selling mandarin oranges for only about a ruble more than last week -- about a penny more, according to the present, open-market exchange rate. The giant jars of tomatoes that she was selling had increased by only about two rubles, from 19.70 to 21.80.

But prices on other state-produced items rocketed.

At a beer hall near Moscow's Central Farmer's Market, the watery brew sold for six rubles and 50 kopecks a mug, compared with one ruble just three days ago.

To complaints that the government should fix the economy at the expense of the rich and not the ordinary consumer, Russian economist Nikolai P. Shmelev replied on evening television that there was no other way.

"The government, the state, society wants to correct its 70-year-old mistakes at your personal expense," he told viewers bluntly, "and to pull the country out of the hole it fell into. Someone has to pay for that."

In this guide to prices in Moscow, the first price for each item is the old subsidized state price; the second is the new price observed at stores yesterday; the third is the price at the private market yesterday. After each price is the number of hours an average worker must labor to earn that amount, based on about 175 hours of work per month.

(The average worker earned 350 rubles a month in 1991, equivalent to about $3 at the floating exchange rate, calculated on the basis of ruble auctions.)

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