IN today's Soviet Union, the myth of the workers' paradise has finally been shattered by the government's own admission. From Lenin to Gorbachev, Soviet leaders have insisted that Soviet citizens live better than their counterparts in the United States. Soviet America-watchers have admitted that US workers receive what appear to be higher wages, but because Americans have to pay dearly for housing, medical care, transportation, and food, they are actually worse off than their Soviet brethren. Now, for the first time, an official Soviet publication admits what Westerners have known for decades: Americans enjoy higher standards of living than Soviet citizens no matter how the standard is measured.
The Institute of USA-Canada Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences is an official Soviet ``think tank'' whose major task traditionally has been to show the seamier side of life in North America. But in a recent edition of its journal, ``USA: Economics, Politics, Ideology,'' Soviet researcher A.S. Zaychenko admits what heretofore had been heresy.
Mr. Zaychenko first agrees with most Soviet and non-Soviet economists that food consumption and expenditures are reliable indicators of a society's standard of living. Zaychenko then alleges that, despite an average Soviet diet which has a caloric content equivalent to that of Americans (about 3,300 calories), there is no real comparison between the two diets because of the superior quality and quantity of food available in the US. Moreover, the gap between the American and Soviet diets has consistently grown larger during the years since the Bolshevik Revolution.
Americans, it seems, also pay far less for this higher quality. Zaychenko admits that the average Soviet citizen works 10 to 12 times as long as an American to buy the same amount of meat, 10 to 15 times as long to buy eggs, seven times as long to buy butter, 18 to 25 times as long to buy fruit. Soviet citizens work harder even for items plentiful in Soviet society: two to eight times longer for bread, 18 times longer for vodka.
In general, Zaychenko observes, ``in the last 80 years the differences in the economic accessibility of foods in the US and the USSR have been particularly pronounced.'' The average Soviet urban family spends 60 percent of its income on food; the figure for the US is about 15 percent. Today, ``it would take 90 percent of the average Soviet family's budget to reach the quantitative dietary norm of the American family. In line with American quality standards, the Soviet family's food expenditures should be equivalent to 180 percent of its budget.''
Even more surprising than these official Soviet revelations regarding the differences in food quality are the confessions Zaychenko makes regarding areas long thought to be pillars of the Soviet welfare society: subsidized housing, public transportation, and socialized medicine.
Because all Soviet housing is state-owned, the average Soviet citizen works one-third as long as an average American to pay for housing. But, Zaychenko notes, an average American has six to 10 times more living space than his Soviet counterpart. ``In other words,'' Zaychenko concludes, ``the cost of housing in our country is 41 percent higher'' than in the US.
The USSR has long pointed with pride to its public transport facilities, which on a per capita basis are 2.5 times more extensive than those in the US. However, Zaychenko observes, in assessing available transportation one cannot ignore the vast number of privately owned automobiles in America. In effect, he says, Americans enjoy nearly 10 times the transportation facilities available to Soviet citizens.
Even the much-vaunted Soviet system of free medical care is compared unfavorably with the American system: ``Virtually all illness and mortality indicators in our country have been rising continuously for more than 15 years now.'' Zaychenko ascribes this to the fact that even in the 1980s, ``one out of every six hospital beds [in the USSR] was not supplied with water, even cold water, around 30 percent of our hospitals have no sewer systems, and our pharmacies frequently do not have the necessary medicines.''
Zaychenko contrasts this with the American system of medicinal services, which ``is distinguished by high cost, fairly broad accessibility, and high quality.'' Although the Soviet family spends nothing for Soviet medical care, he is careful to point out that it spends 13 percent of its budget on alcohol (the American figure is 1.5 percent).
Zaychenko investigates other important indicators in comparing the Soviet and the American standards of living: quality and quantity of consumer goods and services (five times more American shoe repair shops), number of shopping centers (twice as many in the US), restaurants (35 percent fewer in the USSR), telephones (10 times more in America), and even government expenditures for education (USSR trails by 23 percent).
In sum, Zaychenko concludes, life in the USSR lags behind that of the US no matter how one looks at it. His solution would be to modernize the consumer sector of the Soviet economy by diverting huge amounts of investment ``from other programs.'' Zaychenko presumably means that the Soviet military, which under Mikhail Gorbachev has been scaled back modestly for diplomatic purposes, will have to suffer major cuts for the sake of the Soviet people. Otherwise, Zaychenko suggests, Soviet socialism will remain permanently inferior to American capitalism. As Zaychenko warns, ``the outcome of the competition between the two sociopolitical systems will depend on their ability to satisfy the physical and spiritual needs of people.'' The Soviet Union has a lot of catching up to do.