WHEN one of Moscow's newspapers wanted to illustrate the progress being made in settling Yamburg, a newly-constructed Soviet port city above the Arctic Circle, it chose just the right picture. It didn't show houses, or heavy equipment, or a city skyline. Instead, a woman was shown holding five loaves of freshly-baked bread.
The message was subtle but unmistakable: If they're baking bread up in Yamburg, then they've really tamed the Arctic. For in the Soviet Union, as perhaps nowhere else, bread has become a symbol of well-being.
For centuries, Russians have customarily welcomed visitors with bread and salt -- the symbols of fertility and contentment. But since the Russian Revolution, the state has gradually taken over breadmaking, to the point where only a scant minority of Soviet citizens even bother baking their own anymore.
Soviet bread is cheap, widely available, and often exceptionally tasty.
The Soviet state is today arguably the world's largest baker, producing bread in a variety and quantity unmatched in any other country.
Exact production figures are a state secret, but a few statistics do give some idea of the importance of bread to the country.
Per capita consumption during recent years here has been about 120 kilograms (264 pounds) yearly, among the world's highest. Muscovites alone eat 2,400 tons of bread daily.
The state directly runs 2,500 bakeries, and 16,000 smaller ones are operated by cooperatives, mainly in rural areas.
So important is bread to this country's communist leadership that myriad propaganda posters extol its virtues -- and, of course, the role of the state in supplying it.
Some gargantuan state bakeries are capable of producing 300 tons of bread daily. The state employs 300,000 people in baking industries.
Through subsidies and price controls, as well as mechanization, the state has kept the price of bread unchanged since 1955. But that has led to waste.
Last year, the ruling Politburo passed a resolution calling for ``greater strictness in adhering to established procedures for the use of bread and other food products.''
That was a reference to the widespread practice of feeding bread to pigs and other livestock -- something the state and party find particularly abhorent.
``Party organizations in many areas condone wasteful attitudes toward bread, fail to create an atmosphere of intolerance toward such views, and have been lax in educating the public.''
``This,'' concluded the Politburo, ``causes great moral and material harm. . . .''
According to officialdom, every mouthful of bread should carry a political message.
``If our people are supplied with not only the cheapest bread, but also the tastiest, we should be grateful for those who fought in the revolution and the war against fascism,'' says Anatoly Grishin, chief engineer of the directorate for bread-baking, macaroni, and yeast industries of the Soviet Ministry for Food Industries.
``The abundance of bread, and its accessibility, is one of the greatest achievements of the Soviet people. It's a guarantee of our well-being.''
The official Soviet news agency Tass routinely reviews grain and bread production in the Soviet Union and is unfailingly upbeat about what it discovers.
``The problem of supplying the country with food grain has been fully resolved,'' one Soviet official told Tass.
In another dispatch, Tass stated flatly that ``the grain the Soviet Union imports goes to feed cattle.''
Well, not exactly. . . .
What Soviet consumers aren't told is that much of the bread they're eating is baked with imported wheat, millions of tons of which come directly from the United States.
During the one-year period between July 1984 and June 1985, the Soviet Union imported 55 million tons of grain -- 22 million of it from the US. US wheat made up 6 million to 7 million tons of that total.
It is unclear just what happens to the wheat once it's shipped here: Different government ministries give different explanations as to its uses. But it is known that 70 percent of the nation's bread is made from wheat.
Says one Western expert, ``We suspect that most of the imported wheat is used for milling purposes -- that is, breadmaking.'' That allows lower-quality Soviet wheat to be diverted for use as cattle feed.
Still, what is perhaps more important than where the raw materials come from is what they are turned into.
This country produces more than 800 kinds of bread and bread products. They range from common domashanya (household) rolls to stolichniye, the ``capital'' bread of Moscow, to unabashedly elitist ``fancy'' bread that can cost as much as 33 cents a loaf -- expensive by Soviet standards.
Run-of-the-mill bread costs from 15 cents to 25 cents and can be bought by the half or quarter loaf. And, in fact, many shoppers do buy small quantities at a time, since Russian bread contains no preservatives and molds fairly quickly.
One of the more popular kinds of bread is orlovsky, a blend of rye and wheat flour. But if Russia could ever be reduced to a taste, it surely would be the pungent, slightly sour one of black-brown borodinsky bread, with a sprinkling of anise seeds on top and the savor of centuries beneath its thick, rich crust.
And there are other temptations, like baranki -- small, dry, round buns with a hole in the middle, or sukharyei, poppy-seed rusks.
A visit to just about any Russian bread store often poses a dilemma -- which kind of loaf to choose.
A recent visit to one of Moscow's biggest bread shops -- named simply khleb (bread) -- found 18 varieties on sale. At most shops, there are usually spoons on hand to press down on the tops of loaves to check for freshness.
And it seems that every bread store has a resident babushka (grandmother), who can divine the best varieties by punching, smelling, and watching the new loaves tumbling down into wooden bins.
Most of these babushkas are only too happy to share their accumulated wisdom.
``It's good. Buy it,'' counseled one kerchiefed woman to a foreigner who had, in her view, passed over just the right loaf.
And rare is the child who leaves a bulochnaya (bread store) empty-handed. A large, round bublik with a hole in the center seems made for child-sized hands and appetites -- if, that is, the child can be steered away from the honey-coated cakes or packages of cookies that tempt from the higher shelves.
Bakeries in Finland and Yugoslavia have licensing agreements to produce Russian bread, using the Soviet government's secret recipe. But Mr. Grishin says the Soviets are also interested in reaching a licensing agreement with a US company.
American bread is, ``to our opinion, unusual,'' he says. ``It's -- how would one say it -- fluffy. There's a lot of air in it.''
``It looks good,'' he avers, ``but as to taste and flavor, it can't compare with Russian bread.''