MOSCOW -- Russia began dividing up the fruits of 70 years of communism yesterday, issuing vouchers that can be sold or exchanged for shares in soon-to-be-privatized businesses.
Muscovites were skeptical -- and even cynical -- as the adventure in capitalism began. One pensioner, Galina Veshnova, visited an office in downtown Moscow to pick up the profits of a lifetime of building communism and left with what she had feared -- nothing.
"I'm tired of all the new things the government is inventing for us," said Mrs. Veshnova. "I have worked hard all my life and got the highest pension level. Now that is worth nothing."
In an attempt to create a middle class with a stake in economic reform, President Boris N. Yeltsin plans to give every man,
woman and child in Russia a voucher representing their share in state property being privatized next year.
The government hopes people will band together and pool their vouchers to purchase small stores or obtain shares in mutual funds that invest in large businesses. The great sell-off of state property won't begin before Dec. 1; the certificates are valid from Dec. 1, 1992, to Dec. 31, 1993.
But fears exist that people unaccustomed to investment -- which is to say most of the people -- will simply unload their vouchers for anything tangible before the auction begins.
Right now, the vouchers have a face value of 10,000 rubles. But they could be worth much less than that or much more -- depending on how they're invested.
Mrs. Veshnova, who retired three years ago as an inspector of goods at a warehouse, was just plain tired of too much mystifying change. "They have discussions about it," she said. "But when it comes on I switch the television off. I don't want to hear about it."
Yesterday, she bore the unmistakeable imprint of the bureaucracy: In her hand she held three different slips of paper telling her to go to three different places to claim her voucher.
"I finally got here," she said in exasperation. "And now they tell me they don't have the list for my building yet."
Mrs. Veshnova and the rest of Russia's 150 million people have three months to get their vouchers, being distributed by savings banks. Pensioners were asked to come first, to avoid everyone crowding in at once.
But in Moscow yesterday, few people seemed in a hurry to cash in. One office, which will distribute vouchers to 15,000 people in the surrounding neighborhood, had two applicants by late afternoon. Another, with 20,000 prospective clients, had 20 inquiries.
In a country where people line up even at the rumor that a store might have something to sell, the lack of customers for the vouchers was startling.
Trying to find one voucher office in downtown Moscow, a reporter came across a line of about 75 people and was sure it must be for vouchers. There was even a sleek, black Chevrolet Caprice with Russian registration hovering patiently next to the line -- ready to carry off a newly minted capitalist, no doubt.
But the line was for a store, Danone, selling imported yogurt.
A block away, Irina Malikova, supervisor of the voucher office, chuckled. "I made the same mistake," she said. "When we came to open the office, I saw the line and I thought it was for us."
Instead, Mrs. Malikova presided over an echoing room where eight women sat at desks, pencils poised, checklists open -- and no one to check off.
Yogurt, which is hard to get, is a more attractive commodity right now than vouchers people aren't sure how to use.
"It's worth 10,000 rubles now," said Mai Dzyadushinsky, a retired Aeroflot pilot, "but soon enough I'll only be able to buy a bottle of vodka with it."
Like many people, he fears the rapid inflation that is consuming savings. Yesterday, the ruble plunged again. At a currency auction, it cost 309 rubles to buy a dollar -- 54 rubles more than last week.
The vouchers were worth about $40 yesterday morning and by afternoon they were worth $33.
Yegor Gaidar, acting prime minister and Mr. Yeltsin's economic adviser, urged Russians to keep their vouchers rather than selling them quickly.
"Remember," he said in a television interview, "inflation will devalue the money you get from selling your vouchers but it cannot devalue the property backing them."
The government has listed about 5,000 unprofitable businesses open for investment with vouchers, and Mr. Gaidar said more will be added.
Ultimately, the worth of the vouchers will be told in the worth of the businesses in which shares will be sold. Most are obsolete and struggling now -- the nuclear power plants, diamond mines and oil wells are not in the prospectus/
Mr. Dzyadushinsky said he had not decided how he would use his voucher -- they can be sold, traded for shares in businesses or put into investment funds, which are being formed.
"Of course I haven't decided," he said, "because no one knows what to do with it. It's a good idea. The problem is with the way it's being carried out. You can't buy land with it -- and I don't want to buy a laundry."
He was not alone. A public opinion poll published Wednesday reported that half of those questioned had no idea what the vouchers could be used for.
Mr. Yeltsin's critics say the vouchers will only benefit criminals. The conservative newspaper Pravda called the plan "deception plus robbery" and said that the failing economy will force many people to sell their vouchers to "the agents of our and their [Western] criminal worlds, for the sake of whom the entire privatization campaign has been conceived."
Dennis Melnikov, a 21-year-old policeman, said he worried the elderly might lose out, selling quickly out of fear or ignorance. The government might be providing these life-long toilers with little more than a funeral -- which costs about 10,000 rubles.
"It's a law of life," he said, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer."