Soviets embrace free market Shoppers suffer as system fails


MOSCOW -- For Gusel Velichko, it was one of those anything-can-happen, count-on-nothing, daily hunts for paltry treasure. In short, a typical Soviet shopping day. She left home searching for eggs, but instead found sausage, a stroke of luck in this barren autumn when it is considered good fortune to stand in a line for 90 minutes and come away with 13 hot dogs.

These are desperate days in the Soviet capital. Down along Tverskaya Street -- formerly Gorky Street -- the lines begin early in the morning.

A queue snaked along the sidewalk in front of a kiosk selling ponchiki, fried cakes like doughnuts. By 10:30 a.m., a line was already forming in front of the snazzy new Pizza Hut, gleaming in red and chrome like an apparition from another world. Mystery lines led into dingy buildings, where even those standing patiently weren't sure right away what they were waiting for.

As Soviet economists wrangle and the national Parliament hesitates on the brink of a desperate leap into market economics and the final renunciation of more than 72 years of communism, the state economy has already all but collapsed.

Watermelons are dumped in piles in the city's squares, like items at a garage sale, less desirable now that summer has abruptly turned into a cold, gray, wet fall. But staple foods once taken for granted have started to disappear and reappear sporadically in the state stores. Eggs, meat, sugar, sour cream, sausage, cooking oil, flour -- even bread -- are no longer among life's certainties.

Three weeks ago Velichko bought 20 eggs, but only three were left. It was time to search anew, and a brother had been pressed into service as a baby sitter so Velichko could work the lines alone, without her restless 18-month-old son, Ruslan.

The 28-year-old engineer, on maternity leave, grabbed her large carryall bag, since Soviet stores don't provide bags. She stuffed into it a pink plastic carrying case for eggs, since eggs, when they can be found at all, usually come thrown into a plastic bag -- easy to break, if not already broken.

Velichko set off. She had barely turned the corner on to Nignaya Maslovka Street when she saw a line of about 100 people leading into a milk store. Impatient, the slender, black-haired woman walked to the entrance of the store to see what had drawn the crowd. In a metal crate sat bags of hot dog-like sausage, which, with peculiar Soviet logic, had turned up for sale the milk store. A cashier in white smock and cap, like a nurse, assured Velichko there were probably enough to last.

So she walked to the end of the line, strung raggedly along a sidewalk so covered with mud that people were already wearing winter boots.

As the queue inched forward, it became a moving version of the old-world village square. "In the line you can hear everything, all the news. Here everything is discussed," said Velichko. Rumors, gossip and politics wafted through the air.

On this day the women behind Velichko were discussing jobs and ways to supplement paltry pensions of 70 rubles a month. A good job, one said, is to be an elevator watcher, hired to sit and listen for the screams when elevators get stuck. If you have the night shift, no one comes, and you can get paid just to sleep.

The women clucked on, worrying about the proposed market economy, fearing it would bring skyrocketing prices. "I think it will be very difficult for people. But I think it is necessary," said Velichko, offering her own verdict on the market.

After one hour and five minutes in line, she had made it just inside the doorway but still not fully into the shop. There it was worse than waiting outside. The floor was as mud-covered as the sidewalk. In the entrance way it was too hot in a coat, and the store had a vile stink like some food gone bad.

Panicky now, the crowd was jammed together. Like a border guard, a daunting store employee, with her arms firmly locked and her broad back to the crowd, blocked the way from a narrow entrance into the store. She gave way occasionally to let people in, two or three at a time.

Velichko was finally let into the store, and around her a race began, women pushing and shoving to seize plastic packets of hot dogs from the bin, which was becoming frighteningly close to empty. Velichko took one bag. Then she picked up three cartons of milk, which in the Soviet Union is likely to go bad within the day unless it is boiled at home.

She headed to the two checkout cashiers and another line. There a mob scene was under way, brusque store employees ripping packets of hot dogs away from yelling customers who had tried to take more than their one-bag allotment.

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