Moscow — It's not every day that a carpenter's assistant in central Moscow lays down his ruler, runs leathery fingers through his thinning hair, and proclaims (with just a hint of irony):
"The Soviet government is robbing the working class."
Next to him, a man with the gray stubble of a beard hunchs over a plank, measuring it. He appears to be a carpenter's assistant's assistant, the he smiles, then nods in agreement.
The issue involved seems of more importance to many of Moscow's millions than the neutron bomb, the Mideast crisis, and US Secretary of State Alexander Haig's "anti-Sovietism" rolled into one.
The issue, in a word, is vodka, the national drink in a nation that does a lot of drinking.
Late Sept. 14 the chairman of the Soviet price commission went on television (just after most of Moscow had savored a replay of its national hockey team's recent thrashing of Canada) to announce:
At the request of "the workers," the government was hiking the price of liquor "with the aim of limiting consumption."
In what Western economic analysts asaw as a move to begin rationalizing a heavily but unevenly subsidized price structure, gasoline and various luxury goods were also made dearer. Prices on some fabrics, watches, and household goods were lowered.
Oddly, the Soviet automobile magazine Za Rulyom (Behind the Wheel) had ruled out an early hike in gas prices in its August issue. Back in February, a top Soviet economic official denied there were plans for any retail increases at all.
Still, the announcement surprised almost no one. Moscow's rumor mill saw to that. Instead, the TV announcement capped what might be called the vodka rush of '81.
No one is quite sure when it began, when scavengers became bands, when bands became crowds. But by the afternoon of Sept. 14, thousands of Muscovites had besieged the city's liquor outlets for a last chance at bargain vodka.
"The rumor is," said one young man, "that some storekeepers have bought lots of the stuff themselves, will sell it at the new prices, and pocket the difference. . . . Most of us are just buying it to drink it."
There was last-minute stocking up on gasoline as well. But for Muscovites who do not own cars, vodka was the concern. As for the luxury items also hiked in price, one worker remarked, "I don't buy those things anyway."
Precisely how many Russians drink how much vodka is hard to say. Reliable official figures aren't released, but some party workers were pegging the total at 22 million last year. That's almost 9 percent of the population.
The problem of alcoholism, whether on the job or in the apartment, has long since bubbled its way into the official Soviet press. It is frequently cited as a major cause of a rising divorce rate.
If the "workers" indeed wanted higher vodka prices, women here may well have done the asking. "They [the men] can do without all that vodka," said one matronly Muscovite on her way to work the morning after the vodka rush.
At least one carpenter's assistant's assistant disagreed: "I'll go right on buying the same amount [at a minimum of 5.30 rubles, or about $7.70, instead of 4.12 rubles per pint] . . . I'll just bring less money home."