TWO hunched-over women stood on a street corner and debated which bakery was most likely to have bread for sale. ``I can't believe the situation has gotten so bad,'' one was heard telling the other. ``Even during the [Second World] War we could usually get bread.''
Yet, in the fifth year of President Mikhail Gorbachev's effort to reshape the Soviet economy, bread has joined gas, meat, and cigarettes as a hard-to-find item. And officials now are scrambling to prevent the shortages from provoking people to revolt against perestroika.
Some bakery shelves are completely bare in Moscow, where the situation is particularly acute. In stores that do have bread, a wait of 15 minutes or more is not unusual.
Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Soviet authorities made sure bread was plentiful and cheap to help pacify the population. But as the country prepares to make the transition to a market economy, the usual supply network is breaking down.
A variety of factors is blamed for the shortfall, from a lack of nonskilled labor to outdated machinery and profit-hungry grain farmers selling their produce outside normal channels.
The shortage has brought an unusually quick reaction from progressive officials, who are keenly aware that bread riots sparked the revolution that forced Czar Nicholas II to abdicate in February 1917.
Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov quickly established an ``anti-crisis'' committee. At the same time, he proposed speeding up privatization of bakeries and bread shops, as well as allowing young men to work in bread factories as an alternative to military service, the independent Postfactum news agency reported.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gorbachev last week told government officials across the country to force delinquent farmers to hand over grain to the state, as called for under contractual obligations.
Many farmers have been making private deals instead of meeting their state contracts, newspapers said. Cooperatives in the Baltic republics were reportedly offering five times the state price for grain - enough for farmers to pay fines for nondelivery to the government with plenty left over.
The Interfax news agency reported that farmers in the Ukraine, the nation's bread basket, are in no hurry to hand over their grain to the state. In the Dnepropetrovsk region of the republic, only 42 percent of government's grain orders have been met, while the total is 37 percent in the Trans-Carpathian region.
Many Muscovites waiting in lines around the capital have another theory.
``All the recent shortages can't be accidental,'' says Georgy Pantaleyev, a chemist. ``The forces that are against the transition to a market are trying to undermine the reforms. They would rather keep their privileges than continue with peretroika.''
Reform-minded Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak last month publicly charged conservatives with trying to sabotage the move to a free market by creating the tobacco shortage.
``If the new powers are discredited, all hopes for a new future ... will be dashed,'' Mr. Sobchak says.
The bread shortage became noticeable early last week, and was exacerbated by extensive television and newspaper coverage. The Soviet media reports touched off panic buying that has not subsided.
In one cramped downtown shop Sunday, many customers scurried around with a look of concern and frustration on their faces as they jostled for the remaining fresh bread. No one was buying just one loaf; some had as many as five cradled in their arms.
``I'm glad I got here early [9 a.m.],'' a man said. ``Another hour and there would be none left.''
Moscow City Council member Alexander Osovtsev, a member of the anti-crisis committee, tried Saturday to reassure the population, saying the situation would be brought under control soon. The city normally produces about 2,200 tons of bread daily. Output will soon be increased to 2,500 tons, the Tass news agency quoted Mr. Osovtsev as saying.
Cigarette production will also be boosted, and meat shipments from Australia and East Germany will soon arrive, he added.
It appears consumer confidence will not as easy to restore as the supplies themselves. Some expect more shortages to culminate in the collapse of perestroika.
``This is the beginning of the end of democracy in our country,'' says Mr. Pantaleyev, adding that he expected a new dictator to emerge out of the crisis. ``First meat, then cigarettes and now bread,'' Pantaleyev continued. ``I feel it will only get worse this winter. I expect there will be shortages of hot water and heat.''
Others are more optimistic about the chances for a successful transition to a market economy.
``This is all part of the zigzag of perestroika,'' says Ivan Belov, a pensioner. ``No one said it was going to be easy.''