Inflation Tries Russians' Resources

With imported goods abundant but priced beyond reach, many in Russia pine for the days of long lines, low prices

DEEP in the bowels of the Moskva department store, a four-story concrete box on this capital's Leninsky Prospekt, a glittery private grocery store has opened up. The refrigerated glass cases are filled with items that in another era were sought by Muscovites with the zeal of Sir Lancelot searching for the Holy Grail.

While the goods are now a reality, for most Russians, with an average monthly income of 13,000 rubles, the prices are almost a fantasy: cheese for 900 rubles a kilogram, ham for 1,875 rubles a kilo, imported frozen chicken legs for 940 rubles a kilo.

Alexandra Filopovna Tsvetkova peers longingly at the display, her hunched shoulders wrapped in a well-worn wool coat. Finally she turns to leave, the ever-present "perhaps bag" hanging limply from her hand.

"It's very expensive," the grandmother says with a shrug. She survives these days on a weekly parcel of butter, flour, cereals, and eggs purchased for 500 rubles at the special department for pensioners and veterans in a nearby state-run store. `Good old days'

This scene is repeated millions of times a day in Russia. Market reforms have filled once-empty shelves with goods, many of them imported. But inflation of about 2,200 percent for 1992 and an estimated 30 percent in January has left many Russians wishing for the "good old days" of long lines and low prices.

As inflation spins out of control, the ruble becomes increasingly feeble. Its value on the twice-weekly auctions held by the government has dived from 120 rubles to the dollar at its height last year to 572 rubles today.

The price spiral verges on "hyperinflation," a condition that economists define as a monthly rate of 50 percent. Wages have also escalated in Russia, from an average 770 rubles a month at the end of 1991 to 13,000 rubles in December 1992. But this still leaves incomes lagging way behind prices, which rose more than twice as fast.

Under these circumstances, how do Russians manage? The answer, yielded in a day spent touring the stores of Leninsky Prospekt, is that through perseverance, belt-tightening, and adaptability, the Russian people are coping better than the bleak statistics would imply. Sacrificing for food

Nadezhda, who declined to give her last name, is the director of a cafeteria in a Children's Palace. As a result of the wage hikes, her salary has jumped to 10,000 rubles a month, while her husband brings in another 20,000 from an auto garage he operates with some friends. In addition, her job gives her access to food supplies, though she claims to pay for them.

"We spend all of our money on food," says Nadezhda, who walked out of the Moskva grocery with ham and fresh fish for her family. "We eat the way we ate before the price hikes," she says, but they have given up saving for items such as clothes or furniture.

To the extent that people have excess cash, they spend it.

"There's no sense in saving because inflation goes up every month," says Andrei Kerpichnikov, a mathematician who is working as a computer specialist. "It is better to live for today than save for the future."

That compulsion is evident to Nadya, a saleswoman in the Moskva department store, selling furs, coats, and other expensive items. "People buy more than before," she reports.

For pensioners and the working poor, the choices are tougher. "We have become vegetarians," says Natalya Poltapova, who has a new baby. They live on her husband's income of 5,000 rubles a month as a plumber at a hotel, supplemented by "outside work," a euphemism for moonlighting, which brings in about the same amount.

"We never buy meat," she says. Milk, vegetables, and bread make up most of their diet. Even butter, which sold for about 200 rubles a kilo in November and now sells for more than four times that, is out of reach.

The difference between survival and real hunger is provided by the harvest of their garden plot at a country house far outside of Moscow - potatoes, pickled cabbage, stewed fruits, and homemade jams. This produce constitutes about half their consumption, she says, a figure that is the norm for many urban residents, at least a third of whom have dachas or garden plots, according to official statistics. Less fish, more potatoes

Government statistics reveal that Ms. Poltapova's case is quite typical. According to a survey of the State Committee on Statistics published last week, consumption of meat, sugar, fish, fruit, milk and sweets declined in 1992 by up to 20 percent, with bread and potatoes substituted to compensate for the lack of more nutritious food. The average family, which spent a third of its income on food in 1991, shelled out almost half for the same purpose in 1992. Retirees spent over four-fifths of their pension s on food, the committee reported.

At a children's store, Lena, fashionably dressed in tight jeans and a fur coat, is buying a 10,560 ruble Chinese-made down-filled jacket for her oldest boy. Lena, who also declined to give her family name, is a member of the emerging class of the Russian nouveau riche. For the last year, her husband has run a food store at nearby Moscow State University. It is evidently a profitable enterprise because during this past year they have bought an apartment and two automobiles.

"I look at the price only to judge the quality of the goods," Lena says. "You can find anything now. You can choose."

Down the avenue, at a state-run gastronom whose cracked tile floors are tracked with mud, World War II veteran and pensioner Pyotr Ivanovich Nazarov and his wife Nadezhda Valielovna Nazarovna wait patiently in a long line to fill a jar with vegetable oil.

"Before perestroika, we lived three times better," Mr. Nazarov declares, referring to the start of reforms under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Every summer they went to a state-run health resort, or rented a dacha, or even took river cruises, he recounts. Now almost all of their combined pensions of 14,000 rubles, supplemented by 6,000 rubles he earns working part-time, go for food. The Nazarovs are ready to go back to the old days in a flash but, like many of their countrymen, they also defian tly proclaim their ability to survive these hard times.

"Of course, we can't allow ourselves any extras, such as bananas or oranges," Mrs. Nazarovna says. "But we're not starving."

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