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Next Step : Soviets Brace for the Big Chill : Political chaos has fueled fears of winter food shortages. But the truth is, no one knows just how well or how badly the nation is prepared.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“If we had as much food as we do problems, we would never be hungry.”

--A Russian proverb

Gregory Tsekher is a man of faith.

As the person directly responsible for assuring winter food and medical supplies for this sprawling industrial city of 1.5 million on the edge of the Ural Mountains, he would seem to have little choice.

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Even in the best of times, a harsh, unforgiving climate and an underdeveloped farming sector allow the city, until this week known as Sverdlovsk, and its environs to grow less than half the food it needs to survive.

The rest has always come from the nation’s distant food-producing regions through the cumbersome labyrinth of Soviet central planning.

But with central planning in chaos and many of the nation’s key food-supplying republics declaring themselves independent, the supply of food traditionally dispatched by the bureaucrats in Moscow seems, at best, questionable.

Compounding Tsekher’s problems, this year’s short, wet summer in the northern Urals waterlogged much of the area’s potato crop, meaning he will need more help than usual from Moscow to get through the winter.

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He said he left a meeting earlier in the day completely unsure about future supplies to the city of sugar, fish and butter. Fresh meat has long since disappeared, and he said stores were becoming empty “at a catastrophic pace.”

At a pharmacy in the city center, assistant manager Galina Vetchenko lists the medicines, including insulin and all painkillers, that have already run out and says she doesn’t expect the situation to improve soon.

In defiance of these realities, however, Tsekher remains convinced that Ekaterinburg will survive the winter without major suffering.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I believe people who have chosen freedom will be able to survive this hard time. We believe in (Soviet economic planner Ivan S.) Silayev and (Russian President Boris N.) Yeltsin, and so I believe there will be no hunger.”

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What is startling is that Tsekher’s views are shared by a wide variety of Russians.

A broad cross-section of interviews with local officials and private citizens, both here and in the Moscow region, provide a picture of a long-suffering people convinced that this winter will be hard, but in the end, it will be only one more chapter in a life filled with trials, merely one more test of the Russians’ ability to endure.

“People will not die this winter,” predicted Alexander Nikolin, chairman of the regional government in Podolsk, an industrial center about 20 miles south of Moscow. “There will be a little hunger, but no one is going to starve.”

Some of those interviewed even expressed indignation at the idea that survival might depend on emergency food aid from abroad.

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“A bit of help is OK, but we’re not that poor,” said Irina Podobed, a no-nonsense woman in her mid-50s who manages a food store in Podolsk. Dismissing predictions of widespread suffering this winter as wildly exaggerated, she said: “Our country is rich. If people would just get to work, everything would be OK.”

The mood contrasts sharply with the alarming assessments of men respected in the West such as former Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze, who views food aid as vital to prevent a wave of protests that could endanger the nation’s fragile democratic gains.

“If there’s a shortage of food . . . then of course, the people are going to protest,” he told the British Broadcasting Corp. in a recent interview.

Yuri Luzhkov, deputy chairman of the Soviet Economic Management Committee and the man responsible for coordinating foreign food aid in the Soviet Union, warned earlier this month that the “food situation is so difficult that any delay with foreign deliveries many lead to hunger.”

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“It, in turn, may put a brake on the process of democratic reform in the U.S.S.R,” he added.

The distance between the gloom of such official statements and the underlying confidence of men like Tsekher and Nikolin reflect a broader confusion that pervades all aspects of life in the Soviet Union as its constituent parts break away and central authorities flail desperately to salvage some control.

The simple truth is, no one knows how well or how badly prepared the country is for what meteorologists and the early Siberian chill here indicate will be one of the worst winters in years.

Recent aid requests made by Moscow would appear to underscore this point.

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Within days after a committee headed by Silayev stunned potential Western donors with an estimate that $7 billion in foreign emergency food aid and credits is needed to get his country through the winter, Luzhkov gave the European Commission a revised figure of $14.7 billion.

“I personally don’t believe it’s possible to forecast what is going to happen,” said a seasoned European diplomat who has monitored the summer harvests and preparations for winter.

Certainly there is evidence that this winter is likely to be far tougher than last, when Muscovites survived relatively mild temperatures and supplemented their Spartan diets with CARE packages from Germany and U.S.-donated chicken drumsticks that they quickly dubbed “Bush legs.”

The U.S. Agriculture Department has predicted that the 1991 Soviet grain harvest could be the smallest in seven years, about 20% below last year’s record production of 190 million metric tons.

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There are reports that fuel and labor shortages have disrupted the potato harvest in many areas, sharply reducing its size.

Last week, in the fields outside Ekaterinburg, a group of 140 workers from the industrial combine Railtransmash were helping to harvest carrots because the collective farm was short of labor.

The crew, mainly women, dug up the carrots with crude trowels, then dumped them into small plastic buckets they brought from home. Their pay was 10% of their harvest.

Inadequate storage means that those crops that are successfully harvested often spoil before they reach the customer.

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“Between the field and the stomach, we lose about half of what we produce,” commented Tsekher.

The problem was on display on a main thoroughfare in Ekaterinburg, where a woman selling plum tomatoes carefully sorted rotten fruit into a pile that eventually dwarfed what remained. Distribution--a problem at the best of times--has been further disrupted this year as nationalist bands operating in some republics have attacked vehicles taking agricultural products across frontiers.

One of the key unknowns in the Soviet winter food equation is how well delivery contracts concluded under the old, centrally planned system will hold up under the pressures generated by the collapse of central authority and the rise of private commercial markets.

There is growing evidence that farm collectives are either withholding portions of their harvest hoping that they will get better prices as the weather turns colder, or reneging altogether on deals with regional government authorities.

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Nikolin, for example, had contracted with a group of local collectives to supply state food stores in his district with 70% of their projected needs for potatoes during the winter months. But now he says he’ll be lucky if deliveries reach 40%.

The reason: With potatoes now selling for the equivalent of as much as 11 cents a pound in parallel, private markets, managers of the collectives are ignoring their commitment to supply state shops at the contract price of about a penny a pound.

By robbing other parts of an already squeezed budget, Nikolin has upped his price by 25%, but he admits that won’t have much impact.

“There will be a problem with potatoes,” he admitted.

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Farm collectives in the Podolsk area already sell half their potato production directly to local industrial enterprises in return for such items as cement and sewing machines, which they then trade as part of an elaborate patchwork of barter arrangements that has partially replaced the central state planning network.

Ekaterinburg’s entire butter supply comes from Lithuania in return for 5% of the mineral-rich region’s copper ore.

The region’s council chairman, Yuri Samarin, said he’d like to continue the arrangement, but Lithuania is no longer a part of the Soviet Union and may find a better deal elsewhere.

With the ruble’s purchasing power reportedly declining recently at a rate of 2% a week, the desire to trade in goods rather than rubles has only increased.

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As the barter system grows, informal commodity exchanges have sprung up in several cities, including Ekaterinburg, with brokers busily arranging swaps between industrial enterprises and farm collectives--carrots for light bulbs, grain for steel and lumber for tomatoes.

While much of this food re-enters the distribution network in the form of perks for executives and valued workers, such a system excludes important parts of the population, such as pensioners and low-salaried service industry employees.

Unable to afford the prices in private markets, these people are among the most vulnerable to hunger this winter. If the ruble’s value continues its downward spiral during the winter months, this vulnerability will only increase.

Take the Moscow family of Andrei Sakharov (no relation to the late physicist and well-known dissident of the same name). The 35-year-old neurosurgeon supports his wife, Anaida, and two young sons, Igor and Arkady, on a salary of 450 rubles a month, the equivalent of about $14. With rent a pittance, transportation cheap and the family clothed in hand-me-downs, more than three-quarters of his pay goes for food.

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“We couldn’t afford more (price) increases,” said Anaida Sakharov.

But there are mitigating factors that may ease the food situation.

While Russians in urban areas invariably live in apartments, the tradition of maintaining a dacha --a small summer house with at least a tiny garden--remains strong. Anticipating a bad winter, most switched this year from flowers to vegetables.

Like many homemakers, Anaida Sakharov has engaged in some quiet hoarding. She has a closet filled with noodles, lentils and other non-perishables.

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With such preparations and the prospect of large-scale food aid from abroad, Luzhkov is said to have confided to a European ambassador recently that he was most worried not about winter, but about next March through June.

“In the winter, people will use all they have,” said Nikolin. “If they have livestock, they will kill it for food. My worry is there may be nothing left by spring.”


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