Soviet caviar: Red herring caper

From ear to ear, mouth to mouth, round the circuits of intellectuals, government officials, party members, the great Moscow rumor mill flashes into life again.

"Have you heard about the caviar scandal?" The questions fly. "Yes," come the replies, "I heard something last year. What now?"

"What now" is a new lease on life for the caviar caper -- a set of irresistible rumors and reports that appear to combine some fact and some fancy unhindered so far by official facts, explanations, or denials.

It's just the kind of situation that intrigues Muscovites, who are starved for gossip and "inside" information by a censored press and a secretive government, and for whom wildfire rumors are a way of life.

This time it is allegations about secret wheelings and dealings involving a government ministry, illegal exports, and the precious black caviar from the Caspian Sea That is snapped up so quickly for export (and by domestic speculators) that the average Soviet citizen hardly gets a taste of it these days.

This time, the rumor mill says some 200 employees of the Ministry of Fish Industry have been arrested in a probe that has lasted 14 months.

Allegedly caviar was packed into three-and five-liter cans and marked "smoked herring." A Western company (unnamed) paid the Soviet government low hard-currency prices for herring, repacked the caviar abroad, and sold it for enormous profits, some of which were deposited in a Swiss bank account for Soviet officials back here.

If true, it would be a crime of enormous dimensions. Allegedly it has been going on for 10 years. Last year alone, the Soviet Union earned 10.3 million rubles ($15.5 million) from caviar exports, up from 7.7 million rubles ($11.7 million) in 1976.

One soviet source has told Western newsmen that Soviet prosecutors want to arrest Alexander Ishkov, the former minister of fish industry who resigned in February 1979. Also replaced at that time was a deputy minister, Vladimir Rytov , and several other senior men.

Articles written by the newsmen are now coming back into the Soviet Union on Russian-language shortwave broadcasts, fueling a new round of speculation among the millions of Soviet citizens who hear the broadcasts every day.

Rumors fly thick and fast about Mr. Irhkov, a veteran official and a nonvoting member of the party's Central Committee. Some say he knew about the reported scandal. Others say he didn't, but had to take the blame and resign.

One juicy rumor has it that Premier Alexei Kosygin himself intervened to prevent his colleague Mr. Ishkov from being charged last year. To top it all off, it is being whispered that the swindle was only discovered when, by mistake , some of the "herring" cans were sold in a domestic chain of fish stores named "Okean" -- and a police prosecutor bought one.

Since Moscow is Moscow and the party is the party, it is not possible for outsiders to check the story. No Soviet official will comment. The press has said nothing.

Russians and Westeners alike think some aspects are plausible. The cumbersome, centralized Soviet system is tailor-made for enterprising individuals to make fortunes by shortcutting poor distribution systems and meeting the enormous, pent-up demand for luxury items such as caviar.

Everyone here knows that caviar, like vodka, is used as a form of currency to obtain favors or to reward them. Unavailable in state stores, it is mysteriously available for those with the right connections in restaurants, hotels, and so on.

Rumor has it that a number of restaurant managers made a lot of money by buying the "herring" cheaply and selling the caviar expensively.

Muscovites questioned by this correspondent knew of the rumors. One said they were two years old. No one had any idea if they were true, but assumed there was no smoke without some fire.

The Monitor learned that inmates in one Moscow prison in the last half of 1978 were openly discussing a scandal involving the Okean shops, the Ministry of Fish Industry, and mislabeled cans. Inmates since released have said a number of the prisoners had been picked up on charges related to the caviar caper.

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