Seventy-eight-year-old Anna P. Mochalova rested her exhausted body on an empty shelf in Supermarket No. 45, one of the best-stocked grocery stores in this city of 5 million people.
She had waited for two hours in the bitter cold just to get in the store and had asked someone to hold her place in a 90-minute line while she rested on the shelf.
Her goal: to buy two kilograms of sausage, 4.4 pounds, at the low state price, to which she and her granddaughter are entitled under the city's monthly rationing program. Even at the low price, the purchase equaled one-tenth of her miserly monthly pension, 165 rubles (about $297 at the unrealistic commercial exchange rate), which is way below the official poverty line.
Such grueling shopping excursions, which she must make regularly even though she has not recovered from a recent heart attack, are not enough to dim her hopes.
"I was born in 1913 and survived the hunger during World War I," Mochalova said as she rested, a tiny shriveled hump in her tattered cloth coat. "This was horrible. We were really starving. . . . During World War II we were also very hungry.
"What we're going through now is nothing. As long as there are bread and potatoes--that's not starvation," she added with a determined smile.
Mochalova's optimism in the face of misery reflects the brave resolve of the people of this city, who have lived through days much tougher than these.
Shopper after shopper described an arduous lifestyle in which it has become a necessity to trudge from store to store for hours almost every day searching for food. And, in almost every case, when food is available, shoppers cannot buy it without standing in line for hours.
The food crisis in St. Petersburg, although very acute, is not enough to destroy their trust in the future, the shoppers said, and their mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, is doing all he can to make sure it doesn't.
Sobchak, a politician with prestige nationally and abroad as one of the bright stars of perestroika, is using his influence to make sure his people get fed.
The results of Sobchak's worldwide food drive are already being felt. The first of a two-part, $400,000 airlift of leftover food from Operation Desert Storm arrived in St. Petersburg on Friday. The United States specified that the 150,000 pounds of bulk foods and military rations be used for schools, hospitals and other institutions. The second shipment is due to arrive in Moscow this week. "It's very difficult to control" the distribution of humanitarian help, said Alexei R. Motorin, deputy chairman of the City Council's commission for controlling distribution of goods. "There are various types of humanitarian help," he said. "Some get to the people. Some don't."
When there was not enough meat available for everyone to receive their monthly ration, Sobchak ruled that canned meat from humanitarian aid could be sold in its in place. The money that was earned, he said, would go to help farmers.
Although only 15 million cans of meat could have been claimed with ration coupons, Motorin said, 25 million cans were taken out of storage. "No one knows where the rest went," he said.
A recent shipment of food aid from Hamburg, Germany, was destined for a children's hospital but much of it ended up in the kitchens of hospital administrators or on sale at private stores, according to the local news media.
"The system of control and distribution of humanitarian aid is not well developed," said Pavel V. Soluyanov, chairman of the mayor's committee on social issues.
So far, he said, the aid--which has amounted to 43,000 tons this year--covers only a tiny percentage of the city's food needs.
With all the slippage, however, little of the missing food seems to reach the black market or turn up in small private stores or kiosks--outlets that often procure goods on the black market. "The organization is very bad," Motorin said. "Not just for distribution but also sale of aid."
St. Petersburg's situation is special: During most of Soviet history, Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was formerly called, was a headquarters of the military-industrial complex and was allotted choice food shipments.
"Our city for 70 years worked for the defense industry and never thought about farming," said Nikolai M. Gorbachevsky, St. Petersburg's deputy police chief and a member of the Russian Parliament. "We worked on defense, and in exchange received great consumer products, and there were no problems. But today, no one needs our defense products . . . and so no one sends us food."
Also, food purchases have decreased 20% this year because much less is available, according to Yuri S. Pokrovsky, chairman of the mayor's committee on food.
"Our political games have brought the country practically to starvation because they have closed the channels through which goods and food have been traded for decades," Sobchak said. "We have already reached an extreme situation. We artificially created a situation were everything is in shortage.
"And our people are extremely dissatisfied." Sobchak added. "This is the most important problem I face."
If recent experience is a good example, the establishment of a Commonwealth of Independent States may at last help solve the problem in which one region refuses to honor its contracts to send food to other parts of the country.
Sobchak described three months of unsuccessful efforts to get Ukraine to deliver sugar to St. Petersburg. Even though sugar was being rationed here to 2.2 pounds per person per month, the city was still short 2,000 tons.
Just days after the commonwealth agreement was signed by Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid M. Kravchuk, Sobchak placed a call to Ukraine's prime minister, Vitold Fokin, and got immediate results.
"While I was on the phone, he called the minister of trade and ordered him to deliver 10,000 tons of sugar to St. Petersburg immediately."
Then Fokin ordered the minister to send all the sugar that Ukraine owes to St. Petersburg, which amounts to 40,000 tons of sugar, Sobchak said.
"If this is the way things are going to go as a result of this (commonwealth) agreement, if now we will start to normalize relations and trade with each other again and not fight against each other, then I'm for this agreement and I see no other way out."
But Sobchak is not without critics.
Motorin of the City Council commission says the city has plenty of food stored away as strategic reserves for an emergency, including millions of cartons of the food that Germany sent to St. Petersburg last year.
"I think that the emergency situation that those products were prepared for is already here," Motorin said. "We must get permission to sell those products."
Motorin said that putting the stored food into grocery stores would soften the blow to living standards that is expected when price controls end Jan. 2.
Vice Mayor Vyacheslav N. Shcherbakov said that, in fact, "we are already eating" the food in the reserves.
Shoppers, who can hardly make ends meet as it is, are hoarding all they can to brace for the rapid price increases that everyone expects, compounding shortages, city officials said. "I don't think there will be hunger because in every home there's some stores," said Natalya S. Ivanova, 38, the commercial director of Supermarket No. 45. "I see how people buy up everything they can."
Ivanova says that her store gets 500 to 600 kilograms (1,100 to 1,320 pounds) of sausage per day, but that this is sold in the first half hour. Every shopper buys the permissible maximum.
"The director of the meatpacking plant says we're lucky we get anything," she added. "Because they make only 5,000 kilograms (11,000 pounds) a day for a city of 5 million people." And it is the main factory supplying the city.
The supermarket sells things at a great loss and waits to get reimbursed with government subsidies. It buys 10 eggs for 8 rubles and sells them for 2.40 rubles. Sour cream costs the market 15 rubles and is retailed at the state price of 3.40 rubles.
Ivanova said she is confident that the city will continue subsidizing food, because without the subsidies she knows many of her customers would not be able to buy even staple foods at free-market prices.
City councilmen, however, are worried that Sobchak will be caught unprepared with no new system of subsidies set up to go into effect after price controls end.
"There is no such mechanism. If there is not in the future, then when price controls are freed, we will have people dying from hunger," S. V. Yaskin, one of the councilmen, said at a recent council session.
At least 400,000 people in the city need help from the government to feed their families, according to a commission of the City Council.
Sobchak's administration has not done what it could to help people help themselves, critics say. More than 250,000 people have signed up to get plots of land to grow their own gardens. Although Sobchak promised to allot 50,000 plots last year, he managed to give out only 8,000.
Alexander A. Kalinin, deputy chairman of the city's commission on food, could not offer a plan to help people feed their families in a time of rapid inflation, but he stressed that it is the city's policy to protect them.
"The city is now being divided up into the rich and the poor," Kalinin said. "We will guarantee the poor that they will be able to live normally and will be supplied with adequate food, and we will use all our effort to ensure this."
Special correspondent Shulyakovskaya reported from St. Petersburg and staff writer Shogren from Moscow.