To the delight of many citizens, Soviet authorities have started a long-awaited crackdown on corruption. Hardly a day now goes by without disclosures of scandals. From the glut of detail, one gets the impression that bribery, extortion and speculation have reached such proportions that it is virtually impossible for the average citizen to go about his daily business without breaking the law.
Soviets have long been used to the concept of "greasing the palm." It is a procedure required for services rendered by just about everybody -- from physicians and plumbers to clerks in food shops and petty officials.
But public anger over corruption has risen sharply in recent months. This is largely due to rising prices and shortages of some staple foods and other consumer goods. Some managers keep commodities under the counter for friends and special customers.
Whatever the reasons, there has been a deluge of complaining letters to the newspapers here. The authorities in turn have decided to take firm action, presumably keeping in mind the popular revolt touched off by shortages and corruption in Poland last summer.
The anticorruption drive was touched off by a secret Central Committee letter read to closed party meetings throughout the country. A similar letter two months ago warned of expected food shortages as a result of this year's poor harvest. That led to food rationing.
The use of "secret letters" in itself reflects the leadership's intention to demonstrate it is aware of the problems and trying to deal firmly with them. This type of device for mobilizing opinion on other than strictly party matters is not thought to have been used here for more than a decade, although it used to be the main form of opinion molding during the years of Nikita Khrushchev.
Countless officials, managers and other personnel have been dismissed, fined or reprimanded. Last month, the manager of a cotton mill in Kirghizia was sentenced to death for running a million-ruble racket. A policeman in Azarbaijan got 11 years for taking bribes.
The sort of corruption detailed in the press ranges from a whopping embezzlement in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic to a meat racket in Minsk, where workers at a packing house in collusion with plant security guards stole large quantities of meat over several months.
Then there is a case of two employes of a transport firm in Moscow who were caught selling more than 6,000 gallons of state-owned gasoline to private motorists. A certain R. Makzhanova, professor of English at the Byelorussian Polytechnical Institute, was described as charging 300 rubles for passing grades in her course. And so on.
The latest campaign is one of the most candid public critiques in years of the shenanigans of some senior bureaucrats and the vast scope of the country's second economy.
This hidden economy is based on private enterprise, by definition illegal here. It handles an enormous volume of secret production and trade parallel to the state-owned economy.
Recent articles in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda pointed out that in the Tula region south of Moscow, there were 59 private manufacturing firms employing "thousands" of workers -- "most of them migrants" -- producing items ranging from paper clips, plastic shopping bags and industrial alcohol to screws, labels and industrial posters.
These enterprises functioned entirely outside the centrally planned system, yet were a needed lubricant for its rigidities and inefficiencies. To get raw materials, Tula entrepreneurs had to resort to bribes, black marketeering and theft from the state -- yet there was often collusion.
Pravda also told of a parts firm in Tula, nominally attached to the Red Star collective farm. This arrangement provided a way to circumvent legal restrictions and to register workers as members of the Red Star collective. The collective in turn received 1.5 million rubles ($2.1 million) annually from the firm.
The firm made what Pravda called "criminal deals" with bookkeepers of several neighboring collective farms and with an industrial complex in Podolsk. The deal with the bookkeepers was necessary to maintain large numbers of fictitious employes, all allegedly drawing monthly salaries. In fact, the firm paid its workers very high wages, up to 1,300 rubles ($1,850) monthly, or about eight times the average Soviet wage.
Through the state complex at Podolsk, the firm was able to market its products. State industrial managers, pressed to meet their production quotas and unable to obtain spare parts for their equipment, happily cooperated.
Just how many persons had to have their palms greased in undertakings of this nature was not disclosed. But it is clear that the losses of state property are huge. Although the Red Star collective farm showed a net income of 1.5 million rubles, its income from agriculture was zero, according to Pravda.
Other press accounts frequently mention that a complex system of checks and controls of farms, warehouses, factories, railways and many other organizations sometimes fail because the inspectors are involved in conspiracies.
The local police are frequently pictured as corrupt. The traffic police in particular have become notorious for extortion, stopping drivers on lonely roads for imaginary offenses and getting money before permitting them to proceed.
One account described Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital Number One, which was supposed to serve railway workers and their families. It seems to have served anyone but them.
According to Literary Gazette, the Ministry of Railways took over a part of it to set up deluxe medical facilities for ailing high officials and their families. The rest of the facilities were used by doctors as a private clinic for paying patients. The losses to the state were estimated to run in millions of rubles.
While doctors received large bribes from their rich patients, they reportedly ignored or mistreated the few railwaymen and their families who managed to get in. The Gazette said a drunk doctor went so far as to molest a female patient in a "forbidden gynecological examination" that led to a "scandal" and his dismissal