LENINGRAD — ALMOST 50 years after the Nazi blockade and bombardment of World War II, this city is being blitzed with boxes of food aid from Germany. The Soviet Union faces a severe food shortage this winter. Officials say the fear of famine is overblown and blame the food problem on the breakdown of the distribution system. But many Soviet citizens are nonetheless grateful for the parcels packed with warm clothes and canned goods.
Leningrad, which introduced food rationing Dec. 1, has been perhaps the fastest among Soviet cities to set up a distribution system to handle foreign aid and combat shortages, says Vladimir Kuzmichov, chairman of the city's Committee for the Reception and Distribution of International Aid.
``This city is better able to react to a crisis than others because of the blockade,'' Mr. Kuzmichov says, referring to the 900-day Nazi siege that began in 1941 and claimed about a million lives. Pensioners need food
Planes and ships carrying relief supplies are coming in almost faster than Kuzmichov's office can handle them. Meanwhile, Moscow has received about 200 million tons of aid, the Tass news agency reported. Although most of the supplies have come from Germany, other Western nations are also contributing.
``When I started on the job last Monday [Dec. 3], I was alone and had just a desk and a telephone,'' Kuzmichov says. ``Now I have a few assistants and so we'll be OK.''
Although the vast majority of Leningraders have full refrigerators, the foreign aid is still needed to feed pensioners, invalids, and families with more than one child, says Nadezhda Pikuleva, head of the Soviet Red Cross office in the city's Petrograd Side. The local Red Cross office has distributed nearly 1,200 parcels, she says.
``Especially in Leningrad, there are a lot of old people who lost their children during the war and they have no one to help them,'' says Ms. Pikuleva, adding that a quarter of the 160,000 residents in the Petrograd Side are pensioners.
Yevlaiya Chernakova, a 78-year-old pensioner who lives in a musty room in a cramped communal apartment, has trouble finding words to express her gratitude after opening a package sent from Hamburg, containing a winter coat, canned goods, and candy.
Even under normal circumstances, Mrs. Chernakova has to struggle to get by on a pension of 43 rubles (about $27) a month. Although she receives help from her son in Moscow, her life is Spartan. She does not even have enough money to buy batteries for her radio, the only luxury item in the room.
``I'm somewhat ashamed,'' says Chernakova, glancing at the canned goods as she tried on the overcoat. ``But I am also very thankful.''
The reaction appears to be widespread. At the distribution committee office, Kuzmichov had to make several calls to find an organization willing to receive a shipment of aid from Poland.
``Yes or no. Will you take the containers from Poland?'' he shouts into the telephone. After getting a negative reply, Kuzmichov playfully sticks out his tongue at the phone receiver and hangs up.
``Many organizations just aren't ready yet to coordinate distribution, but some people aren't mentally ready and have difficulty accepting aid from abroad,'' he says. Hard-liners resent foreign aid
In fact, the aid has angered some conservatives in government. A group calling itself the Centrist Bloc says that accepting foreign food is humiliating to the nation, the independent Interfax news agency reported.
``Why does [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev not think that he can be physically removed from power?'' Interfax quoted a Centrist Bloc leader as saying. The group demanded Friday that Mr. Gorbachev dissolve parliament and declare martial law to solve the crisis.
Almost all authorities agree there is enough food in the country to feed the people. The KGB (secret police) blames profiteers and transportation woes for the shortage. City officials in Moscow and Leningrad complain of the collapse of the trade system.
``There is not a normal exchange between the agricultural and industrial parts of the country,'' Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei Stankevich says. ``The economic mechanisms don't work.''
A city such as Leningrad, with an abundance of defense-related factories, is at a disadvantage under the de facto barter system that exists now in the Soviet Union.
``What can we offer other regions in exchange for food? Tanks and bombs?'' says Leningrad Deputy Mayor Igor Kucherenko. He adds that conservatives are trying to undermine the liberals' influence in major cities, such as Leningrad and Moscow, by hindering state food deliveries to those cities.
The rationing system that Leningrad officials have resorted to appears to be working. Items, such as eggs and butter, almost impossible to find in Moscow, where rationing does not exist, are available.