Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin rushed into the free market Thursday where the old guard feared to tread.
Western economists advised wiping out subsidies on everything from milk to master's degrees as a first step toward letting prices rise to their natural levels, thereby giving farmers and entrepreneurs an incentive to produce food and goods.
Yeltsin has done what Mikhail S. Gorbachev either could not or would not do. So Winston Churchill's description of Russia in 1939 now also applies to the future and the fate of nearly 150 million people. Except for what Russian shoppers found in their food stores Thursday, what the changes will mean eventually is, as Sir Winston would have said, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."
What Russian shoppers encountered in their markets can hardly be translated into what Americans might find under the same circumstance. Until Thursday, the price of bread in Moscow was very nearly the same as it was in 1960 because of subsidies that also applied to rent, education, milk and other essentials. Those subsidies dulled what little instinct there may have been in communist society to work harder because there was no connection between effort and reward.
So the fact that the cost of bread tripled or that the price of sausage was suddenly five times higher would not have the same effect in Moscow as in Southern California. Moscow rents are still subsidized, so there may be some room in citizens' budgets for higher food prices.
Still, at the new Moscow prices, it would take the average Russian more than a day to earn enough for a pound of beef--even if there were any beef.
Already cynical, most Moscow shoppers were bitter and angry this week. Whether they will explode in anger or ride it out in sullen silence--or whether the economic shock treatment will actually work as Yeltsin hopes--remains to be seen. Part of the new riddle, the new mystery and the new enigma.