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Soviet refrigerators leave buyers cold as Andropov calls for better workmanship

By Gary ThatcherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 1984


For a cool $342 (in Soviet rubles), you can have the Yuruzan 2. But it has a tiny freezer and bare metal shelves. A Polus 9 costs $457. Its shelves have white coating and plastic trim. Unfortunately, the trim falls off when you pull the shelves out.

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The Crystal 9 ($400) is the only one on display with a separate freezer compartment. But a man in a gray fur hat, peering into its depths, concludes, ''This one eats enormous amounts of energy.''

Welcome to the Electrical Household Appliances store in central Moscow. Here, amid the light fixtures and electric irons, some of the problems facing the Soviet economy are also on display.

Ten kinds of refrigerators are on sale. But the Minsk line, which reputedly offers the best models, isn't: They're in such short supply they're snapped up as soon as they arrive at a store.

And no matter which model you choose, you'll have to settle for white. And not mind defrosting the freezer.

An icemaker? Unheard of. A big model for a large family? Forget it.

Now, refrigerators may not seem like the weightiest of economic indicators. But problems in producing such basic consumer items continually bedevil the Soviet economy. For example, published figures, although unofficial, indicate that 1 in 10 Soviet households still does not have a refrigerator.

Soviet leader Yuri Andropov says the failure of the economy to meet consumer needs sparks ''discontent among the population.''

That is putting it mildly. There are few things that irk Soviet citizens as much as having to put up with markedly inferior consumer products.

Mr. Andropov, in a message to a just-ended plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, wrote that one of the ''urgent tasks'' facing this country is to improve the availability and quality of consumer goods.

Those words ring true in countless Soviet stores. Quality items are in short supply. Choice is minimal. And what consumers can get, they often don't want.

Consider the statistics Andropov recounted: At the wholesale trade fair for recreational and household goods, buyers representing retail stores ''refused to purchase 500,000 television sets, 115,000 radio sets, almost 250,000 photographic cameras, 11/2 million watches and clocks, (and) 160,000 domestic refrigerators.''

''It is intolerable,'' he wrote, ''that with a shortage of many products on sale, high-quality raw and primary materials are wasted on the manufacture of products which are unmarketable, (which) will then be stored in warehouses and (whose) prices will inevitably be marked down.''

Sure enough, in one corner of the Electrical Household Appliances store stands the Inei refrigerator, marked down from $185 to $157. But it's only 31/2 feet high, less than 2 feet wide, and holds only about an armload of groceries.

At that, the Inei model is only a little larger than the Vega-2e, among the least sought-after of Soviet refrigerators. The problems surrounding its production even made the front pages of Izvestia, the official government newspaper.

In fact, the manufacture of the Vega-2e would appear to be a case study of a centrally planned economy trying to meet the spontaneous demands of consumers - and failing in the process.

It appears that there is virtually no consumer demand for the refrigerator, and the government has announced that it will be taken out of production. Yet the country's 1984 economic plan calls for production of another 50,000 units in the coming year.

This begs the question: Why build more of a moribund machine?