In the first major U.S. contribution to the international effort to relieve widespread shortages of food, medicines and consumer goods in the Soviet Union, an American charity Sunday delivered 40 tons of drugs, hospital supplies and food to Russian hospitals.
Syringes, antibiotics, analgesics and a high-protein, vitamin-enriched drink arrived as the first of several deliveries of emergency assistance from AmeriCares of New Canaan, Conn.
“It’s the first shipment of what we’re calling an ‘air bridge’ of a million pounds of medicine and food,” Stephen Johnson, AmeriCares’ president, said as supplies were being unloaded at the Russian Republican Children’s Hospital on the outskirts of Moscow.
“As far as we can tell, there is no safety net at all here to help needy people. We understand there are almost no medicines available for average people.”
About half of the shipment was a liquid dietary supplement, which is frequently sent to Third World countries, AmeriCares spokesman Dwain Schenck said.
Facing what many Soviet officials here say is the worst food crisis since World War II, Moscow has called for help from its new allies in the West, and pledges of assistance keep coming in. Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, France, Canada, Denmark, Japan and the United States have all promised aid or sent foodstuffs or medical supplies.
One truckload of drugs and medical equipment from AmeriCares, worth more than $1 million, went directly to the Republican Children’s Hospital, which although five years old still resembles a muddy construction site with much work remaining to be completed.
Nine other trucks were driven to a special storage facility of the Russian government that, Soviet officials said, will supply especially needy hospitals in western regions of the Russian republic, where people are still being treated for the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe.
“We have done a lot of research to make sure the drugs will end up in the hands of doctors whose patients need them the most,” said Vasily A. Drozdov, chief physician at Republican Children’s Hospital, who advised AmeriCares on where the supplies are most vital.
“We really need this shipment,” said Yevgeny V. Varlamov, deputy chief of the hospital. “Right now, the Soviet Union doesn’t have anything. Drugs and medical equipment are just one part of what we lack, but they are indispensable.”
Although the Republican Children’s Hospital is one of the best-supplied in the Soviet Union, Varlamov said that it suffers from chronic shortages of the most basic medical supplies as well as shortages of imported medicines and surgical instruments.
“We can use anything they bring us,” Varlamov added. “We care for more than 1,000 children from all over the country, so nothing ever goes to waste.”
American pharmaceutical and food companies are donating the million pounds of food and medicine that AmeriCares is distributing to relieve shortages in the Soviet Union, Johnson said.
Western experts have expressed concern that donations would be stolen by black marketeers, who are widely blamed for sabotaging the Soviet economy, and so representatives from AmeriCares and the Soviet Interior Ministry will accompany the shipments.
“We are here to watch and make sure the aid does not disappear but gets to its intended recipients,” Alexei V. Lyutykh, an officer of the Soviet Interior Ministry, said as he supervised the delivery of medicines at the children’s hospital.
The U.S. government has not yet decided whether to donate food to the Soviet Union because Moscow-based diplomats have advised their superiors that the shortages are the result of bad distribution and not impending famine. But Washington is now reviewing its policy and may offer humanitarian aid or governmental credits, President Bush said Friday.
Although the AmeriCares shipment represents the first major relief from the United States, aid has already started coming in to Moscow and Leningrad from European countries, with Germany in the lead.
A transport plane arrived in Moscow on Thursday with 37 tons of food from Germany to feed children in hospitals and orphanages. A road convoy set out from the German Red Cross’ central warehouse outside Bonn for the Soviet capital on Friday with 5,000 food packages, which had been prepared by individuals to help elderly and disabled Soviets survive the winter.
The German government decided Thursday to donate to the Soviet Union those food supplies that had been stored in Berlin in case of a repeat of the 1948-1949 Soviet blockade of that city. The reserves, which include canned meat, rye flour and butter, reportedly could feed 10 million Soviets for a month and are worth $340 million. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said that Soviet aid is his top foreign policy priority.
Soviet officials blame the critical shortages of almost all consumer goods on inefficient distribution, a breakdown of the old centralized system of supply and a powerful black market.
President Mikhail S. Gorbachev on Friday assigned the KGB state security agency to guard food shipments from abroad and to make sure those shipments get to their destinations intact.
While Gorbachev has encouraged contributions from abroad to help his country through the difficult transition to a market economy, some people here say they are ashamed by their government’s decision to beg for food from countries that were longtime enemies of the Soviet Union.
“Not long ago the citizens of Western Europe were afraid of invasion by Soviet tanks, but today, they’re withdrawing marks and guilders from their modest, or not very modest savings, ready to help us with our misfortune,” Yevgeny Shulyukin wrote in a commentary published Sunday in the newspaper Trud.
“To be frank, a feeling of discomfort or even shame arises in me. What in the world has happened across the vast spaces of our homeland? Were we shaken by a super-strong earthquake, or did huge fires scorch our fields and farms?”
Shulyukin remarked with irony that after a record wheat harvest, the Soviet Union is on the brink of starvation. The most “humiliating” aspect of the disaster, he said, is that it has been caused by bad management and slovenliness.
And, adding insult to injury, the ability of Soviet transport to get the relief goods to the people who need them before they fall into the hands of black marketeers is also in doubt, he said.
“You don’t need to make a deep study to understand that all we receive in aid and credit will be incomparably less than what we left buried in the fields, lost on the roads and let rot in storage.”
The West is eager to shore up Gorbachev and prevent the economic and political disintegration in the Soviet Union, he added.
“More than anything, Western Europe is afraid of the exacerbation of the economic and political instability in our country, which could destroy the established climate of detente and mutual trust on the Continent.”