People ‘Tired of Empty Shelves’ : Growing Shortages Spark Debate on Soviet Reforms

Times Staff Writer

When her neighborhood bakery in southwest Moscow ran out of white bread a few days ago, Nina Zaitsev exploded with anger.

“Is this what perestroika has brought us?” she shouted. “Before all these reforms, at least we had food!”

The other shoppers, mostly women hurrying home from work to make supper, took up her cause, shouting abuse at the bakery staff, according to Galina Lebedev, a neighbor of Zaitsev who was present.

“You could call it a bread riot, I suppose,” Lebedev said later. “We were all pretty angry, though we should not have taken it out on the bakery staff. It’s not their fault that flour and sugar deliveries have been cut to a minimum. Mostly, though, we are just sick and tired of these empty shelves--store after store of empty shelves.


“Today, everyone is angry because the shortages are growing and life is really getting hard. It is not just that luxuries are not available, it is not even that the nice things of life cannot be found anywhere. The problem is that now we have trouble getting the basics--bread, sugar, salt, matches, zippers and toothpaste, not to speak of meat.”

Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, got the same message last week during a trip to Siberia. Every day, as he visited factories, farms and offices in Krasnoyarsk, Norilsk and other cities, people complained--and even heckled him--about the shortage of food and of consumer goods of all sorts, about grossly inadequate housing, about poor public transport, about damage to the environment.

When, the people demanded, would the bold political, economic and social reforms that make up his program of perestroika , or restructuring, bring improvements to their lives?

“I felt that it’s already impossible to talk to the people,” the Soviet leader said in a meeting with local officials in Krasnoyarsk. “Wherever I was, on the street, in a factory, or here at this meeting, the people are simply at your throat. And I think they’re right.”

With such popular discontent rising, the fate of perestroika appears increasingly to depend on the rapid improvement of the country’s economy, its ability to fill those empty shop shelves and thus to persuade ever-cynical Soviet citizens that the system can be reformed.

“When perestroika began three years ago,” Lebedev said in Moscow, “we did not expect everything to be put right the next day, but we did believe the situation would get better. It hasn’t--not at all. . . .

Measure of Perestroika

“Fair or not, people do measure perestroika by what’s in the shops, what happens at their workplaces, whether life is better.”

The country’s strategy for economic development, as a result, is being debated heatedly, with both economists and the political leadership divided on how to proceed.


“There is conflict between the two goals of perestroika-- acceleration of the rates of growth and the need for economic reform with a transition to qualitative (goals) and higher scientific and technical standards,” says Nikolai Shmelev, a prominent advocate of economic reforms. “The belief that both tasks could be resolved simultaneously is a delusion.”

Yet the very debate over how to solve the problem and fill the shelves of Soviet stores has increased popular apprehensions about the future: likely price increases, reduced subsidies for food and housing, possible unemployment, new charges for medical care and schooling.

Radical economists have called for a total reorientation in order to switch quickly from a planned to a mixed economy, to introduce the spontaneity of market forces, to put prices on a rational basis and to increase the production of consumer goods at the expense of heavy industry.

System ‘Feeds’ Itself

They start from the conclusion that the present Soviet economic system, largely developed under the dictator Josef Stalin and only marginally changed by successive attempts at reform, is designed, first of all, to “feed” itself with further investments and thus ensure its annual expansion, rather than to provide for consumers.

Some contend that the Soviet system is probably not even socialist, implying not that 71 years of Communist rule has achieved nothing but that the party need not have many ideological scruples about changing the present system.

“I do not consider the society we have created to be a socialist society, not even a deformed version,” historian Yuri N. Afanasyev declared, helping set off the profound philosophical as well as economic debate that will shape the country’s future. “Urgent and drastic measures are now needed so that people can feel the results of perestroika for themselves.”

More traditional economists have countered that such sweeping measures would be too disruptive, that gradual, carefully prepared reforms are preferable. They see market forces as undermining socialism here and oppose what they anticipate as the consequences: the sharp increases in prices, the reduced role for central planning, layoffs of unproductive workers and closure of unprofitable factories.


And other economists, political scientists and sociologists have joined the debate, warning that other factors, among them the ability of Soviet society to manage and absorb rapid, far-reaching changes, must also be considered.

Question of Management

“Are perestroika and reforms compatible with existing management structures that are supposed to implement them?” Georgy A. Arbatov, director of the Institute for Study of the United States and Canada, asked in a review of Soviet economic problems this month. “By all indications, no.”

The country thus is facing the difficulties of getting its economic institutions to implement measures that some see as against their own interests and that others might support in principle but cannot put into practice, Arbatov said, summing up a growing feeling among social scientists.

“If we are to achieve something with the system we have, we will have to rely on administrative commands,” Arbatov suggested. “The old economic superstructure cannot be reformed without methods that it recognizes.”

As a result of the continuing debate, this question of how to proceed has raised the fundamental issue of what kind of political, economic and social system the country will have in the future, and that has divided the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

Yegor K. Ligachev, who ranks second after Gorbachev and has become the voice of conservatism within the leadership, has declared his strong opposition to any change in the economy’s present socialist orientation and instead has supported step-by-step reforms.


‘Unfounded’ Notions

“Notions that in our socialist society the economy can develop exclusively on the basis of market laws without catering for the politically expressed interests of the working class are unfounded,” Ligachev told a political rally last month.

Politburo member and propaganda chief Alexander N. Yakovlev, who has given Gorbachev’s reforms much of their philosophical shape, has repeatedly described the market, with its competition and spontaneity, as an energizing force that must be incorporated into the heart of the Soviet economy.

An economy is to be judged socialist or capitalist, Yakovlev told another rally, replying to Ligachev and breaking sharply with past Soviet definitions of socialism, through its “social sense” and not its various elements, apparently including such classic requirements as the collective ownership of the means of production and central planning.

“The dividing line (between capitalism and socialism) lies not in the forms of a society’s vital activities and not in the instruments and means of those activities,” Yakovlev said. “It lies in defining the actual place of man in society and whether he is the ultimate goal of the society or a source of profit.”

Gorbachev seems torn between the two arguments--personally more sympathetic to the need for radical measures and politically desirous of rapid but real results, but tactically concerned about opposition from conservatives.

Gorbachev’s Populist Style

Touring Siberia last week, he resumed the populist style that marked his first two years as the party leader and appealed for patience and understanding as he talked with angry Siberians.


“When some say that perestroika has borne no fruit, this is not true,” Gorbachev said in an interview broadcast on national television. “It has given us the main thing--a policy. True, it is sometimes criticized from various sides, but no one can offer anything else.

“People’s mood has also changed. Their positions have changed, and they have a different attitude to the future, to their country. That is important.”

But Gorbachev also acknowledged that the reform process had not only been slow and difficult but that the leadership had no plan, only a philosophy and direction, when it embarked on the broad restructuring of the Soviet system.

“We needed the first two or three years just to understand what had happened to our country, to all of us,” he said in an interview broadcast on national television. “Some people think that this period has become too long, that we have been carried away and become involved in debates and now cannot change gear and embark on the road of practical deeds.

‘We Need Practical Actions’

“These people might be correct to some extent. . . . We have understood the main thing, now we need practical actions. . . .

“We have a clear-cut policy now,” Gorbachev asserted, apparently hoping to move the country beyond the prolonged debate over economic strategy. “ . . . We do need a turn now, large in scale and going to the crux of things. The point at issue is a revolution, the fate of socialism. Deeds are now required, but in this we are starting to lag since not everything is so simple.”


The specific issues are quite complex, involving the shift of the whole economy onto a profit-and-loss basis from a system where every enterprise was, in effect, a government agency that fulfilled production plans without considering whether there was a real demand for the products or whether they were profitable.

Economists are debating how to reform the present state-set prices, most of which reflect either production costs or value; how to reduce state spending that now exceeds revenues by an estimated 17%; whether to maintain current consumer subsidies, and whether to permit full competition by allowing foreign companies to sell their products on the Soviet market.

They are also discussing whether to proceed with the current five-year development plan, begun 2 1/2 years ago and now generally considered “lopsided” and not in favor of consumers. There are also questions on how to reduce defense spending and whether to scrap major development projects that had been the basis of Soviet economic growth for decades.

Although committed to resolving the “food problem” and improving general living standards, Gorbachev frankly acknowledged that the government is still searching for answers and would have to work out its new strategy as much through trial and error as through theoretical debates.

Perestroika, “ he told one woman who complained that his reforms had brought few improvements, “is not something you can just get served up like a fried egg for breakfast.”