IT began as a typical Russian night out. Before sitting down for a long evening of eating and toasting and debating, I reached into my bag, Santa Claus-style, and pulled out gifts for everybody: A flowered apron and pot-holder for Galina. Sweatshirts for Tolya and son Vasya. My friends, like a second family to me in my student days here 10 years ago, seemed pleased.
Then I insulted them: I presented them with two bars of soap.
With the Great Soviet Soap Shortage still raging, nothing could be more welcome, I had thought. But when Galina opened a drawer in their china cabinet, revealing what must have been a two-year supply, I knew I had thought wrong.
``See? We have plenty,'' Galina declared, her pride wounded. ``Vasya has good connections.''
More than ever, life in Moscow for locals and foreigners alike is all about Things - finding, buying, trading, selling. It's the No. 1 topic of conversation in every stratum of society. In Russian, the pursuit of attractive clothing even has its own word - shmotkomania, literally ``mania for rags.''
Ironically, for this self-confessed ``shopaholic,'' Moscow is a relief from America's relentless shopping-mall culture. But for a country where only 50 of the 1,000 basic consumer items are freely available, there's no debate over the pursuit of material goods. Everyone does it. For new parents: Pampers
With Moscow store shelves growing ever lighter, Soviets are taking to new heights their famous ability to get things through unofficial channels. Sometimes they try to use as one of those channels their good friend, the foreign correspondent, who has access to hard-currency stores and is by definition rich.
But heaven help you if, as you select the obligatory gift when you go visiting, you choose defitsitny (deficit) items that your friends have so skillfully acquired on their own.
Since that evening with Galina and her family, I discovered a Soviet opinion poll that surprised me: A majority of the respondents to the poll, released in December '89, described their nation's economic situation as critical.
But 68 percent felt their personal economic situation has remained stable over the past two to three years. And of them, 23 percent thought their situation has actually improved.
Still, there are some enduringly popular gifts for Soviet friends, such as coffee (even instant is a big hit), nylon stockings, and cosmetics.
If your hosts are new parents, the answer is easy: They need everything. Baby clothes, especially 100 percent cotton ones, are impossible to buy in stores. Doctor Spock's baby book is still in demand in certain circles, also.
But if you really want to treat your friends to a foreign extravagance, the answer is ... disposable diapers, known affectionately as odnorazovye podguzniki, or ``one-time under-bums.'' When my newest little friend, Masha, arrived last Nov. 28, I headed straight for Stockmann's, a credit-card-only Finnish grocery store, and bought two packages of the newborn size.
Masha's parents were delighted. And it soon became evident that each diaper would be lovingly rationed. After all, father Misha figured, each box of 44 costs $23. Calculated on the new tourist exchange rate of roughly six rubles to the dollar, that's the equivalent of 138 rubles.
But with the black market rate at about 13 rubles per dollar, that's 300 rubles - more than an average month's salary.
After Masha's feeding, her mother, Olya, held her naked over a plastic tub so that, to put it delicately, the first diaper would not be ready for the wastebasket quite so quickly. But Masha didn't oblige, and when she began to shiver, Olya gave up and sacrificed the first of the diapers. Those 88 diapers lasted three months, used only for certain occasions, like going visiting.
Of course, among Moscow's elite, disposables aren't a luxury - they're a necessity. But when you're a famous newspaper columnist, for example, you simply can't be seen walking out of a hard-currency shop with one of those big pink boxes. ``Would you be so kind, Miss Feldmann...?'' comes the inevitable request.
For another layer of society, styrofoam McDonald's boxes have become de rigueur. At the local farmers' market, seedlings are sold in them. And for Moscow's multitude of visitors from other cities, a visit to the Golden Arches on Gorky Street is essential - which makes the line there, now down to 1 1/2 hours, an easy spot for journalists to sample a cross-section of national opinion on the issue of the day. Big Macs toted to Tashkent
It seems, also, that McDonald's has become a required item to bring to the folks back home. A few months ago, a colleague noticed an Uzbek peasant carrying a large shopping bag laden with Big Macs as she got off the plane in Tashkent, a four-hour flight from Moscow.
Aside from its natural attraction as an island of American culture in the heart of Moscow, McDonald's is unique in another way: It is the only place here where you can buy something for rubles and be guaranteed polite service.
Soviet friends who have made the pilgrimage have been most impressed not by the food, but by the efficiency and some rarely heard expressions - ``please'' and ``thank you,'' accompanied by a smile. Bread for 2 1/2 cents a loaf
One of the ironies of perestroika is that, as its economic dislocations have made life harder for the average Soviet, life for foreigners has gotten easier. The advent last year of two well-stocked, foreign-run, hard-currency stores has meant the end of monthly orders to Helsinki for just about everything from toiletries to cereal to frozen vegetables.
The Soviet government has long had two hard-currency grocery stores of its own, but their selection is less than adequate, with an emphasis on booze and candy. Soviet milk spoils instantly. Soviet chicken can be tough.
Still, grocery shopping in stores for ``white'' people - Soviet slang, apartheid-esque nuance intentional - makes me uncomfortable. So I try to buy as much for rubles as I can.
Bread is easy - still 16 kopeks a loaf (about 2 1/2 cents, at the official exchange rate), and readily available. The nearby farmers' market is colorful, fragrant, and abundant with certain types of fruit and vegetables.
Meat and milk products are sold in separate outbuildings. Meat and tomatoes are both going for about 15 rubles per kilo now, but prices fluctuate wildly depending on the day of the week, the time of day, and the nationality of the shopper.
None of this is to say that Soviet-American friendships these days are based purely on material considerations. In fact, with Soviet fear of associating with foreigners on the decline, it's much easier to get to know people here than it used to be - and therefore make friendships that aren't simply, as one wag put it, ``mutual exploitation societies.''
Come to think of it, my best friends never ask me for anything.
Maybe they could use some laundry soap. Stockmann's just got in a shipment....