Vladimir I. Sorokoletov is a self-styled detective who tracks not missing persons but missing chicken legs and cans of sprats, and he claims to have solved the mystery of why there is so little food on the shelves of Soviet stores.
He has seen what is in their basements.
The 63-year-old pensioner, inconspicuous in hat, overcoat and thick glasses, explores the locked freezers and back-room cupboards of his neighborhood’s stores as part of one of Moscow’s more innovative efforts to stem under-the-table dealings. He is one of the volunteer food police.
“There is enough food,” Sorokoletov asserts. “But they hide it all. There is no shortage, only a mafia that wants to see food rot in order to fill its own pockets.”
The former factory worker has been checking stores since August, but his work has taken on extra significance in recent weeks as the Soviet Union has appeared to edge closer to hunger and leaders have increasingly blamed sabotage and the black market rather than dwindling production.
Moscow has about 1,000 volunteers like Sorokoletov, armed only with slips of paper from the city government giving them the right to check any warehouse, storage room or rail car where food might be concealed.
Under a decree issued by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev last week, Sorokoletov and his colleagues, backed up by police or KGB agents, now have the right to ask that employees be fired or corrupt establishments be closed.
On Friday, Sorokoletov inspected Store No. 57, a typical market in northeastern Moscow with sections for dry goods, alcohol, meat and dairy products. He found more evidence to support his theory.
In the store’s retail area, panicky shoppers in uneasy lines jostled for frozen pork, cheap boiled sausage and tins of vegetable oil.
But down in the basement, assistant manager Valentina Popova, forced to open storeroom after storeroom at Sorokoletov’s behest, revealed barrels of Turkish linseed oil and crates of coveted sprats (small, herring-like fish), Bulgarian champagne, Polish vodka, American chicken legs and Hungarian sausage.
Sorokoletov nosed into boxes, rummaged in stacks of cardboard and peered behind piles of sacks.
“Why is this fish down here and not being sold?” Sorokoletov asked, prompting Popova, a plump, curly headed woman wearing heavy blue eye shadow, to order stock boys to take the boxes of herring upstairs immediately.
When he came upon the Hungarian sausage, he looked grave. “When did you get this?”
“A long time ago,” Popova admitted.
“Why don’t you sell it?”
“It’s for special orders.”
“But they are given out every week.”
“This is for holidays.”
“Do you have a written order to keep it for the holiday?”
It turned out that she did not, just as she had no written excuse for holding back 300 pounds of buckwheat oats, 100 crates of cognac, 150 crates of vodka, 60 crates of sprats and a crate of matches.
Sorokoletov’s detective work extended to the store’s books as well. He pored through listings of special orders and found that the district Communist Party committee and local council got hefty special food supplies--legal but indecently generous--through Store No. 57.
“That explains why you have so much wine and vodka,” he said.
More disturbing, however, was that KGB and police units also placed special orders through the store.
Sorokoletov said that he has officially documented abuses and hoarding by such stores a dozen times, but that police never brought charges in spite of his proof.
“Our faithful police don’t want to bring retail employees to justice,” he said. “Why? Because the police are very closely tied to retail trade.”
The police and KGB can control civilians, “but there is no one to control them,” Sorokoletov lamented.
He said he has little faith in Gorbachev’s new decree, which mandates that groups of workers maintain tight control on food distribution, because the authorities will surely send Communist Party functionaries and other “people who are basically already corrupt” to check the stores.
If actual workers, tired after a day of labor, made the checks, they would probably just fill a bag with food for their families and sign off on the inspection, he said.
“There will just be one more petty thief created,” Sorokoletov said, “and we’ve all been taught to be thieves.”
Sorokoletov said he has discovered caches of sturgeon, crabs and cigarettes in stores. He told of finding a four-ton stash of canned meat and of preventing a 2,200-pound shipment of rice from being driven away by black marketeers with false documents. But he has never managed to goad the police into action.
Only when he turned to the newspapers, or to the people waiting in line, did he get any reaction, he said.
In fact, he added, the most common reaction from the shoppers he is trying to help is, “Why do you bother? Nothing will change, and you’ll only ruin your nerves.”
Why he bothers was easy to see when, as Sorokoletov sat sifting through the books at Store No. 57, an aged man hobbled into the director’s office and begged to be sold a bottle of wine.
“I’m an invalid of the war and I just want a bottle for the holidays,” he said. “I’m not a drunkard.”
Popova went off to order the stock boys to unload more wine, and Sorokoletov said angrily: “They load things slowly on purpose so people will give up and leave. Then it will all go to the local council or the police or whoever they need it to go to. That’s the mafia. How can the KGB and the police catch it when it feeds them? “
The common ruse among corrupt salespeople, he said, is to make sure goods remain unsold until they begin to rot. Then they write off double or triple the amount that actually went bad and sell the rest on the black market.
Moscow officials say the scale of the “retail mafia” has been greatly exaggerated, and that shortages stem mainly from panic buying.
“Don’t believe the people who tell you that,” Sorokoletov said.