Shopping for groceries lately, elderly residents here say, recalls the hungry days of World War II when hundreds of thousands of Leningraders starved to death as the Nazis blockaded the city.
For the first time since rationing of food was suspended in 1947, Leningraders will have to produce coupons to buy food at state-subsidized prices starting Saturday.
"I believe the situation is worse now than after the war," said Dalya V. Kudryavtsyeva, 65, a retired teacher. "I've lived through rationing twice in my life--during World War II and immediately afterward--and we did not go hungry.
"But this time, I have no faith that rationing will work."
Across the Soviet Union, consumers have stopped believing that the state-controlled economy can feed them and now fear they will go hungry because fledgling private industry is not developed enough to replace it.
In a speech televised this week, First Deputy Prime Minister Lev A. Voronin blamed the country's food shortages on hoarding and a breakdown in the distribution system. Food-processing factories and local politicians in countless areas of the country are simply refusing to meet agreements to supply food to other areas, but the amount of food produced has not decreased, Voronin said.
For people like Kudryavtsyeva, that means leaving the local grocery store empty-handed because the only food for sale may be something as unpalatable as canned seaweed.
In Kudryavtsyeva's store, the monthly supplies of butter and cheese are sold out in one day. Sausage, which is delivered to the store on most days, is always gone within 15 minutes, sales clerk Galina I. Shtatnova, 45, said while standing idly behind a wall of canned seaweed.
Customers, who seem to have a sixth sense about when the store has received a shipment, line up outside at 6 a.m., waiting for three hours until the doors open at 9, for staples such as cheese and sour cream.
"I've worked here for 29 years, and I can easily say our supply has never been as bad as it is now," Shtatnova said. "Ration coupons aren't worth anything if they cannot be backed with goods."
Even the Leningrad city councilwoman in charge of the rationing program says food supplies are declining so rapidly that Leningraders may not even be able to buy the modest amount allotted each person.
The coupons will provide three pounds of beef, two pounds of sausage, 10 eggs, a pound of flour, two pounds of cereal, half a pound of oil and a pound of butter per person each month. Sugar and alcohol are already rationed.
"We guarantee that much will be available the first month," said Marina Y. Salye, chairwoman of the Leningrad council's Food Commission. "But I'm afraid there may not be a reason to print the ration cards for the second month, because we may not have the food to back them up."
Under the program, buying food without coupons will cost two or three times the price with coupons, according to Leningrad Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak.
Salye said the food shortages are aggravated by a strong "Mafia" that controls the distribution of food and is backed by conservative politicians who do not want to give up power. They are allegedly trying to sabotage the food supply to discredit Mayor Sobchak and the City Council, which is dominated by progressives and radicals.
"It's in the interest of the conservatives that the situation be bad, especially in Moscow and Leningrad, to show that the democrats are not capable of running the cities," charged Salye, a leader in Leningrad's radical movement.
Food supplies in those two cities, the country's most populous and both of which have progressive-dominated city councils and non-Communist mayors, have suffered because other parts of the Soviet Union have reneged on contracts. Instead of abiding by agreements to ship food at the state price, they seek buyers willing to pay more or to trade scarce goods in exchange.
In Moscow, Deputy Mayor Sergei B. Stankevich complained this week that he believes that an attempt is under way to destroy the Moscow city government, because nine regions of Russia that have supplied milk to the capital decided simultaneously to stop deliveries.
Moscow's City Council is also considering emergency measures. One would be the distribution of "Moscow money" to residents to enable them to buy goods at low prices, Stankevich said. The same goods would also be available at much higher prices without the special currency.
Reneging on supply agreements is becoming so widespread--as Soviet republics, cities and regions all try to exercise their autonomy--that politicians in Leningrad and Moscow have decided that the only way to feed their people is to seek aid abroad.
"We have decided to solve Leningrad's problem by appealing to the West, not to other areas of the Soviet Union," Mayor Sobchak said. "Because of the battle for sovereignty going on here, everyone has become too egotistical to meet their agreements with other parts of the country."
Sobchak said he expects that provisions from United States, Germany, Sweden and other Western countries will prevent famine in his city. Germany has already sent a container ship loaded with food to Leningrad.
On Thursday, the first planeload of food from German charities arrived in Moscow, destined for children's hospitals and orphanages in the capital.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has made big pitches for foreign food aid on recent trips abroad.
Germany has responded overwhelmingly, planning to donate some of the massive reserves stockpiled during the Cold War in case of a repeat of the 1948-1949 Soviet blockade of West Berlin. Individual Germans are also generously giving money in a charity drive to avert hunger in the Soviet Union.
During a nationwide telethon Wednesday, which reportedly raised $2 million in 40 minutes, German viewers saw footage of long lines and empty stores in Leningrad, the city Nazi soldiers unsuccessfully tried to starve into surrendering in a wartime siege that lasted almost 900 days.
Although Leningraders may have to tighten their belts this winter, they will not starve, Salye maintained, because many people have been hoarding food for months and supplies are available at much higher, non-subsidized prices at peasant markets.
"Every other person has stored up enough food at home to survive the winter--I'm sure of this," she said.
Conversations with dozens of Leningraders backed up Salye's assertion.
"Of course, I have stored away lots of provisions--macaroni, potatoes, jams, pickled cabbage, peas, meat--everything," said Tatyana A. Kluyeva, 42, a secretary. "My 78-year-old mother predicted this would happen, so I started stocking up last spring. I'm not worried about going hungry this winter."
But those Leningraders who have no food reserves and cannot afford the prices at the peasant markets are panicking.
"We're afraid that the amount of food rationed will not be enough to live on," Marina S. Ivanova, 21, a finance and economics student, said while standing in a 90-minute line for cheese.
"People with low incomes, like students and pensioners, will not be able to afford the higher prices" they will have to pay for food without coupons, added Ivanova, who lives on a meager monthly stipend of 60 rubles, or about $100 at the artificially inflated official exchange rate.
But some Leningraders do not worry about feeding their families, and 22-year-old Vasily, who drives a grocery truck, is one of them. "We don't have any problem getting food," Vasily said proudly as he walked down the street with his wife, who was pushing a baby carriage.
"I would say more than half the food I carry is gone before it reaches the grocery counter," added Vasily, who asked that his last name not be printed. "Sometimes all of it disappears, depending on what it is."
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