There is a popular new diet in the Soviet Union this winter, but it’s not likely to catch on elsewhere: a loaf of bread three times a day, supplemented by two pounds of potatoes.
“On our income, that’s all we can afford to buy,” said Yakov Shvolansky, a 72-year-old retiree, as fellow pensioners nodded in solemn agreement. “Meat? I haven’t tasted meat in a year.”
While the talk in Moscow may be of democratic reform and economic rejuvenation, all anyone in the hinterland seems concerned about is food. The lack of food. How expensive food is. Hunger.
Shortages at state-controlled shops have become so critical that a potential political backlash is forming against Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin.
On a recent monthlong tour of the Soviet Far East and Siberia, a reporter heard repeated regrets that the attempted coup by Communist party hard-liners in August did not succeed. A broad cross-section of people clamored for a “strong dictator,” the near-mythic image of a Russian savior dating back to Peter the Great.
“Democracy is great, but you can’t bring it home and cook it for your family,” said a doctor in Vladivostok.
On a train trip across the Siberian steppe, a middle-aged Russian woman spoke angrily of a special state shop that sells cheese. A young girl approached the counter and asked for a small piece of cheese, the woman related, but the saleswoman refused to sell it because the moldering pile was for military men only. The little girl burst into tears.
In another encounter, a Russian grandmother was seen sobbing when a piece of chocolate was given to her granddaughter and the child reacted by sniffing suspiciously at the unfamiliar confection. “We haven’t been able to buy chocolate in years,” the woman cried.
An elderly man in Yakutsk, in northern Siberia, was reduced to begging the director of a hotel restaurant to be allowed to buy a bowl of soup for his young grandson. The restaurant was nearly empty, but the staff had refused them service, saying there was no food.
In the wake of the collapse of communism, Gorbachev is considered too old-fashioned by radicals and too reformist by conservatives. Yeltsin is widely criticized for allowing the country to drift toward economic ruin while endless debating takes place in Moscow.
There are no serious food shortages in the Soviet Union this year, at least compared with famines of the past. What does exist, though, is a great imbalance between the state-subsidized stores with their empty shelves and the free markets that are reasonably well stocked but charge much higher prices.
A worker in the Irkutsk region in the south related how he had to wait in line for two hours to buy a chunk of meat at the state-subsidized shop, paying 4 rubles for two pounds of beef, the equivalent of about 6 cents a pound. At the open market, the same meat can be bought without waiting for about 40 cents a pound.
“Don’t they understand in Moscow that I cannot afford those prices on my salary?” he asked. “They have to raise my salary for me to live like a human.” The worker earns 500 rubles a month, about $17.
The worker appeared confused when a visitor suggested that food prices are the function of supply and of such fixed costs as fertilizer and are not related to a consumer’s income.
He was appalled at the suggestion that state shops might be abolished and all food sold on the open market. “That may work in the West, but you have much higher salaries than we do here,” he said firmly.
In the state bakery, a loaf of bread is 1 cent--the reason that retirees consider it a staple. Bread is now so cheap that it is all that some people can afford to eat. For the first time in decades, bread lines are a common phenomenon.
Food is in such short supply that virtually every commodity is now rationed throughout the country. Each person is entitled to a little more than two pounds of meat a month at the state shop. But counterfeiters have begun copying ration cards, and food often sells out before the 15th of each month.
Yet a private entrepreneur in Yakutsk was selling watermelons out of season for much less than their price in Moscow. In Khabarovsk, private produce merchants from Central Asia were selling perfect McIntosh apples from huge crates at 30 cents a pound.
Ever resourceful, residents have come up with a number of clever ways to attack the problem. Mikhail S. Dalman, director of a major trading company in Vladivostok, said that each big firm now employs “professional shoppers” who wait in line for the rest of the company’s employees.
Other enterprises buy huge amounts of products on a wholesale basis and then distribute the goods at work. While touring a printing plant in Khabarovsk, a visitor took a wrong turn among bales of paper and stumbled into a vault filled with a huge pile of carrots.
Still other companies barter their products directly for food, without dealing in money. Coal mines in the Kuzbass region of Siberia are beginning to pay the miners in food rather than worthless rubles.
“Soviet people don’t want to let go of their old ways, which they have grown accustomed to,” said Boris Shumilov, a businessman in the Siberian town of Akademgorodok. “If they privatized agriculture this year, output would be double by next spring.”
The old customs included special food rations for remote areas at subsidized prices. Military men get five times more rationed food than civilians. The government sells meat for just 25% of what it pays for it.
“The free market is our only hope,” said Alexander Ponamorov, a businessman in Khabarovsk. “I just hope the government doesn’t wait too long to start it. People are running short of patience.”
Wallace was recently in the Soviet Union.