IN the catacomb-like basement of Pensioner's Home No. 31, a refrigeration room that long ago stopped freezing food is now a source of warmth and comfort for the facility's 500 residents.
The plain cardboard boxes stacked in the musty room contain sacks of sugar, flour, and rice, hundreds of large tins of mashed potatoes, as well as boxes of tea. The supplies, which came from the United States, have reassured elderly residents that they won't go hungry this winter, says facility director Lyudmila Tsyplakova.
The aid parcels at Pensioner's Home No. 31, located on the outskirts of Moscow, are part of a massive Western aid program to Russia. The effort is designed to help prevent hunger and unrest as the Russian government makes the transition to a market economy, undoing decades of Communist economic mismanagement.
"I really didn't expect such a huge amount," Tsyplakova said of the assistance. "In many ways we ourselves are responsible for the [economic] situation, but others, who just a few years ago were considered our enemies, have shown themselves to be very generous."
Between 20,000 and 40,000 tons of aid, most of it from Germany, have been arriving in Russia every month during the last year, said Valery Ikonikov, head of a commission set up by President Boris Yeltsin to oversee food distribution. More aid is needed to give the Russian government some breathing room as it conducts reform, especially during the current critical stretch following the lifting of many state price controls, Ikonikov added.
But before Russia deserves more assistance, it must demonstrate it is capable of delivering the aid to the proper places, he said, adding that the country's past record on handling aid has not been good. Indeed, a significant portion of the assistance supplied last winter was pilfered and diverted to the black market, Ikonikov admitted.
"Part of the reason the commission was organized was because we want the West to trust us so perhaps the amount of aid will be increased," said Ikonikov. "We know the psychology in the West. People aren't willing to just distribute money. They want to know where it goes."
Ikonikov said priority was given to tightening security at Moscow's Sheremetyevo 2 International Airport, arrival point for much of the aid. The airport has long held the reputation of being a den of organized crime rings.
Despite such measures, reports of widespread theft have continued to appear in the Russian media. A story in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, for example, claimed German medical supplies were being sold in shops in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, and quoted Sheremetyevo 2 security personnel as saying: "The aid is being pillaged along the whole route. When it's being transported, stored, preserved and, of course, when it's being distributed."
Meanwhile, there have been almost daily reports aired on the Russian television news program Vesti describing unsubstantiated cases of aid theft.
The Soviet media is exaggerating the situation, maintains Alexander Medvedyev, chief of security at Sheremetyevo 2. He says theft was common in the past, but currently it is not a problem.
"Of course, we can't make guarantees, but there are strict controls in place now," Medvedyev said. "Everything is loaded and is getting to its destination."
A check of so-called "commercial shops," where goods are sold at free-market prices, appeared to confirm Mr. Medvedyev's assertions. No suspicious-looking items, possibly stolen from aid shipments, could be seen on sale. Ikonikov, the presidential commission chief, did say some items have appeared for sale in shops, but that doesn't mean they were stolen. "The assistance is getting to the destination," he said. "It's being resold from there."
Ikonikov said the bloated bureaucracy poses a far greater problem to efficient aid distribution than theft. Logistical difficulties, for example, have limited aid dispersal mainly to Moscow and St. Petersburg. In addition, the debacle over a shipment of beef from Britain shows how officialdom still gets in the way of good intentions. Russian health inspectors early this month at first refused to accept the beef shipment out of concern it might be contaminated.
The action caused widespread indignation in Britain. The situation was eventually resolved after Russian authorities received assurances the beef wasn't contaminated.
If all goes well for Russia, Western nations will decide to step up deliveries during a conference called for by the US to discuss aid to Russia and other members the Commonwealth of Independent States. The meeting, which could be attended by up to 60 nations, is scheduled for Jan. 22 in Washington.
"We need the aid to help invalids, the sick, the poor, and orphans make it through the winter," Ikonikov said.
Pensioner's Home No. 31 is not only proof Western aid has reached its intended destination, but that there's a desperate need. In fact, Tsyplakova, the director, said a portion of the assistance was given to employees, many of whom don't earn enough money to survive during this time of spiraling inflation. She added that the remaining aid is being stored for now, to be used in coming months when home-grown supplies are expected to run out.
Tsyplakova expressed profound gratitude for the aid, but said it's also a source of shame.
"As a Russian it's a bit shameful that we must depend on others," she said. "Of course, we need it and we say 'thank you.' But at the same time we should work and try to help ourselves."