IN the lofty halls of GUM, the Soviet Union's largest department store, lines have been forming for an item that is becoming as rare as tropical fruit - soap. ``I have been all over this city, in practically every drugstore in town. Nothing. I can't believe it,'' says Tatiana Bonina, who stands behind some hundred other people waiting to purchase rose-scented soap called Foam. ``What am I to do? I used up my last piece of soap washing my children's clothes because laundry detergent is nowhere to be found. We haven't seen it in over a month.''
``These men who promise us more goods and a new economy ... Where is it? They will surely have soap for their baths tomorrow. Me? I run around and wait in line,'' she says.
``Who knows why (there is a soap shortage)?'' says the elderly gentleman standing in front of her. ``It could be that our cows have grown leaner. Maybe they have shipped it all to Armenia. But somewhere, someone is not doing what they should be doing, and that is providing us with soap.''
The chorus of complaints was felt in the Kremlin last week, when the Soviet Council of Ministers on Monday dismissed the deputy minister of the chemical and refining industries, V.P. Ivanov, for ``his irresponsible attitude to fulfill his task on increasing the volume of production of detergents.'' A Tass announcement of the dismissal was printed in the newspaper Trud under the headline, ``The Guilty Are Punished.''
The decision by the Council of Ministers aims to cool the growing public debate surrounding the soap shortfall that has spiraled into a ``bureaucrat-hunt.''
``About the mechanism coming to a halt,'' one reader from Arkhangelskaya recently wrote to Moscow News, ``if we compare it to Stalinist times, then there was no mechanism, but there were culprits. Now, it's the other way around: There is a mechanism, but no culprits ... We should give the mission to the KGB to study the problem of soap and explain: where, how many, when, why ... to find out through the whole pyramid - from bottom to top.''
The political weekly Argumenti i Fakti traced the problem it back to 1984, when there was a huge surplus of soap and detergent sitting in central warehouses. The warehouses notified Gosplan, the central planning agency, and Gosplan sent the signal through the system that production was to be cut back by 15 percent.
In a centrally planned economy, the obstacles to adjusting to new consumer needs can be formidable. Getting a bar of soap to a store shelf involves a nightmare of signatures and authorizations.
A goal of so many tons of soap is projected by the ministries of trade (Mintorg) and chemical and refinery industries (Minkhimprom) through Gosplan, and contracts are signed for the production of soap and the supply of raw materials to make it. Plans are handed down to republics, districts, stores, warehouses, factories, and suppliers. On paper, everything is in balance.
But if factories don't produce enough soap or receive necessary supplies, the store can't simply go to a different warehouse; or the factory, to a different supplier. All elements of production are tied into contracts that weave through the economy.
Alongside from these bureaucratic obstacles, the problem is compounded by ``negative phenomenon,'' or illegitimate reasons. These can range from selling soap on the sly to having Viktor of the Omsk region warehouse hijack a transport truck for a week to drive his mother-in-law to Vladivostok.
So why isn't there enough soap on Moscow shelves? Gosplan says it was lack of reserves (Mintorg's fault) and the closing of factories (guilty: Minkhimprom) that led to the deficit. Minkhimprom says it produced above levels set by the plan, insinuating that Mintorg wasn't distributing the soap it had been making. Mintorg defensively points out that last year two-thirds of its reserves were depleted, thus blaming Gosplan for not projecting demand.
And while government agencies are pointing fingers at one another, in the center stands (and waits in line) the Soviet consumer. In a centrally planned economy where supply is controlled, the only uncontrollable factor - and therefore the culprit - is demand.
Nonetheless, Gosplan says that production has been increased by 15 percent and Mintorg has purchased 180,000 tons of soap from abroad.
And while the scenario plays itself out - the government blames the people for asking too much, the people blame the government for not giving enough - the line in GUM inches along and tempers grow short.
As she reaches the cashier, half an hour after joining the line, Tatiana pays for eight bars of soap - the limit set today.
Stuffing the pink packets in her bag she says: ``Maybe with this I can clean up our economic mess.''