Moscow's 'want-ad corner' lets skillful consumers beat the system

Scribbled, scrawled, or typed on four-by-five-inch cards on a wall just down an alleyway near Read Square lie the dreams of the Soviet consumer. While I, no doubt, should have been composing great tracts on Soviet policy toward Poland, I have spent a lot of time over the past few months hanging around this want-ad corner, or poring through the pages of the officially sanctioned advertising supplement of Moscow's evening newspaper. (This twice-weekly edition sells out almost as soon as it hits the newstands.)

And Moscow, itself, is a vast, unofficial, and technically illegal consumer market where residents vie amid an abundance of grease palms for such local prizes as an apartment of their own, a good hunk of beef, imported medicines for the ailing, house-sitting for the aging, and, yes, blue jeans and pop records and record players and electric drills.

Officials call all this "speculation," but at least some of the players don't look much like black marketeers. The last time I strolled by my local newsstand the portly old woman who sells me the advertising supplement was surreptitiously stuffing a pair of Western blue jeans into a shopping bag presumably kept ready for such chance acquisitions.

Or there was the young woman who advertised for someone to look after her father for a few hours each day.

"He is more than 80 years old," she explained. "He can walk a little bit. . . . But someone must feed him, and sit with him, and dial the phone for him . . ."

She, like the great majority of Soviet women, works. She says there is a local firm that helps care for the elderly.

"But first of all, there's a long line of people waiting. . . . And they arrange only for full days, not for part time."

There are also Muscovites who ask foreigners outright for help in getting milk formula, available at special shops open to non-Soviets, for the newborn. Sometimes they will ask for foreign medicines, since some doctor or other has said he can't cure a particular ailment without them.

Much of the swapping involves apartments. The Soviets build them as fast as they can, but it is still far from uncommon to find two or even three families cramped into a single one.

One typical four-by-five card, a muted plea from newly- weds cramped side-by-side with relatives: We want to trade one four-room apartment for a separate three-room apartment and a one-room apartment . . . .

Another card seeks an imported electric drill. A third calls for imported record albums. ("I won't pay more than 35 rubles [$50] per album," I was told by a similar advertiser who was buying through the Moscow ad supplement.)

Another consumer asks for a "firmenny" coat. The Russian word means "brand-name" but is accepted shorthand for "imported".

Consumerism, in some quarters, has become a science.

One advertiser wanted not merely imported goods, but specified just which country would have to have made each.

People sell, too, of course, and for tidy sums.

"Yes, my daughter is selling her denim skirt," the male voice on the other end of the telephone line explained. "no. I'm not sure what country it was made in. But the label says. 'Texas'. . . . The price is 120 rubles [$170]."

In search of a neat moral for all this, there is the fleeting temptation to fall in with what appears an emerging fashion in Washington: to speak of the inevitable decline of Soviet communism.

Muscovites do want more and better goods and services. The Soviet economy has problems, big problems. (So do Western economies, by the way, although the problems and problem-solving work differently.)

But in many ways -- meat and milk supply are not among them, Muscovites are quick to point out -- Soviet consumers are much better off now than a decade or two ago.

Meanwhile, very few people here see much percentage in directly bucking the system. As I think I said in an earlier letter, the system has a strange way of winning.

And the Kremlin, with habitual fits and starts, seems determined somehow to make the Soviet consumer sector work better and to fill through foreign commerce those sizable domestic supply gaps that seem in no particular hurry to disappear.

There is a borrowed French word for this: "detente ."

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