Soviet refrigerators leave buyers cold as Andropov calls for better workmanship

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.

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?

Ivan Pudkov, minister of machine building for the light and food industries and household appliances, explained in Izvestia that the refrigerator is indeed being taken out of production.

''But,'' he says, ''you realize this can't be done in a single day. If we were to say, 'Let the production of these refrigerators stop tomorrow,' what would there be for the (workers') collective to work on?''

That is a very good question, especially in a society that employs everyone - regardless of the quality, indeed, even the need, of their work. Indeed, this commitment to employment for all has a price tag - underem-ployment for many.

The government has announced new economic reforms, which took effect this week. It allows a few select factories to experiment with new production methods that will allow the same work to be done by fewer people. Any savings can be passed on in the form of higher wages.

Of course, the displaced workers are virtually guaranteed an equivalent job - or, alternatively, retraining.

Another problem at the Proletarian Hammer Plant - where the Vega-2e is produced - is that deliveries of materials are haphazard, and when shipments do arrive, they often contain substandard materials. It is a problem shared by many a Soviet factory. This, of course, plays havoc with production.

''The fulfillment of contractual commitments is still far from perfect,'' the minister conceded.

And he admitted that the quality of the polystyrene used in the interiors of the refrigerators is ''not very high.''

''A whole batch of it could be returned to the supplier now and then, but that would mean closing down the plant,'' he said. ''Can you imagine what that would be like? We're in a vicious circle: We use poor-quality polystyrene in refrigerators, and then we get these refrigerators back.''

Again, the government is experimenting with reforms. It has set up a timetable for monthly deliveries between certain suppliers and factories, and said that there will be strict monitoring of compliance.

But it has yet to come up with a comprehensive plan for quality control - something that Western analysts say is sorely lacking in most Soviet workplaces.

Indeed, the minister told a worker at the Proletarian Hammer Plant that official documents indicate ''that your products quite often fail to meet painting and insulation requirements, and warped doors are constantly noted. . . . You must take a more exacting approach to your work.''

Yuri Andropov put it another way in his address to the Central Committee. There is, he said, a need for ''further increase of intenseness in work.''

That is a recurring Andropov theme - ''more discipline.'' But it remains to be seen how that will be brought about.

''Comrades,'' Andropov wrote, ''all of our efforts in the economy are aimed in the final analysis at ensuring a rise in the living standards of the people.'' Any economic reforms can be judged successful only if they result in higher living standards, he said.

At the Proletarian Hammer Plant, that means stopping the production of refrigerators by 1985, and starting to produce thermostats instead.

Who knows what it will mean in places like the Electrical Household Appliances store?

Special shelves to hold eggs in all the refrigerators, and not just some? A choice of colors? Bigger sizes?

Or maybe just enough Minsk models to go around?

Don't count on it.

Comparing actual 1982 production figures (the lastest available) with the economic plan for 1984, it appears that for every one of the Minsk Model 15s produced, there will be more than 50 of some other model - including, for one more year it seems, the hapless Vega-2e.

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