Russians are not yet "eating the sawdust," as some people in the West seem to think. But there is no doubt that this country is bracing for what many expect to be one of the most difficult winters for years.

The grain harvest apparently has been disastrous. Food is in short supply. Life, in general, has become more costly.

In the past year, everything ranging from food and clothing to gasoline, transportation, cars and Letter From Moscow entertainment has become more expensive. Skyrocketing prices have produced the sort of inflation that this centrally planned economy has not known for decades.

The latest bad news to hit Soviet consumers was a proposal by the nation's deputy planning chief, Arkady Aloyants, that water meters be installed in each Soviet apartment. This would give the government the means to induce energy savings through higher tariffs on "excessive" use of hot water.

But this also would lead to higher rents. Russians now pay for water and heating as part of their rents, which are very low indeed.

"Christ, we do have inflation," said a Muscow resident recently. "We are joining the rest of the world."

Officially, of course, inflation is an economic malady confined to the unhealthy capitalist environment. Even the term inflation does not have an equivalent in Russian, presumably because it does not exist in the Soviet Union.

But rising prices and rumors of increases to come after New Year's Day have produced a collective groan of distress. One average Moscow housewife said that to feed her family of three is more than twice as costly as it was 10 years ago. The cost of clothing has quadrupled.

Some price increases of the last three months were cited by this housewife.

A small can of fish in tomato sauce, which cost $1.26 last summer, now costs $2.71. Quality brands of vodka that had been less than $14 a liter cost $17.74. A pair of winter boots that sold for $84 last summer now cost $168. The price of gasoline has doubled to $2.20 a gallon. The cost of Russian-made Java cigarettes also has doubled, to $1 a pack.

The traditional Russian "shapka," or winter fur hat, has doubled in price to $492 -- or two average monthly salaries. The price of a woolen sweater has increased by more than 30 percent to $77, as has the price of an overcoat, which costs $309 today.

Experts writing in the Soviet press talk in general terms of the increased purchasing power in nearly all segments of society as the reason for price rises. What this means is a realization that endemic shortages are likely to continue to plague an economy where the supply of desirable goods cannot keep pace with rising demand.

The experts also point out that the prices on some basic staples have not increased for two decades. Muscow residents still enjoy subsidized subway rides for seven cents, just as they did in 1961.

Similarly, potatoes still are 15 cents a kilogram. Beef, when available in the state shops, still is $2.82 a kilogram, and half a liter of milk is 22 cents. Rents in state housing units remain fixed at $17 to $25 a month for two rooms.

But a large number of people have been moved into new and more costly apartments. And Soviet managers, much like those in the West, increasingly are introducing "new and improved" varieties of standard items as a way of raising prices. This has come to affect virtually everything, from bread to automobiles.

One of the signs that rising prices are having a profound impact on Soviet consumers can be seen in the appearance of water rat meat at the flourishing private farmers' makets here. It is the first time since World War II, according to those with long memories, that such meat has been sold for human consumption.

The water rat is similar to rats living in cities, except that it is larger and is found in swampy areas and near lakes and rivers.

I found its meat selling at the Cheremushk market in central Moscow for 3 rubles ($4.20) a kilogram much faster than nearby chickens and rabbits, which each cost 5 rubles a kilogram each, or beef and pork, which cost 8 rubles a kilogram.

A woman who offered me a piece of what she said was marinated and roasted rat swore that it was delicious and tasted better than rabbit. This may be true -- if the diner has no inhibitions and wants to beat the high cost of other meats.

A saleswoman said that peasants are finding water rats a lucrative business. Apart from their meat, she said, the rats also provide cheap skins for shapkas. Hats of such fur reportedly sell for $70 to $84.

Another sign of difficulties in the consumer market can be seen in the fact that growing numbers of workers are leaving factory jobs to seek employment as shop assistants or sales clerks. This problem has been aired frequently in the press.

A Communist Party activist from the Ukraine last week wrote an article, for example, denouncing the practice.

"Why does a qualified worker making 250 rubles a month seek a job of sales clerk who makes 90 rubles a month?" he asked.

The answer was obvious, although not fully described. Once the worker becomes a sales clerk he gains access to consumer goods at nominally low prices, and can help his friends and relatives to do so.

Moreover, in a complex system of underground barter economy, a sales clerk can provide a service to other people and in return gain access to other consumer items he needs. For this reason, consumer goods literally are kept under the counter or hidden away in back rooms, creating artificial shortages.

Talking of inflation in the Soviet Union is like stumbling about in a fog. The absence of candid public discussion, and the secretiveness about actual price hikes make it impossible to develop anything comparable to the cost-of-living figures that are published in the United States.

But official figures provide some clues. The average monthly wage today is 175 rubles or about $246, which is up 35 percent from the figure for 1970. The ruble is worth about $1.40.

In the meantime, the price of coffee has gone from $5.60 to $28 a kilogram. The Zhiguli, a Soviet automobile, has risen in price from $4,647 to more than $13,000. Prices for virtually all "nonessential" commodities also have risen three to four times.

Soviet commentators continue to insist that prices for "essential" items, such as milk, butter, bread, eggs, meat and meat products, will remain unchanged. Price increases for other commodities, the official news agency Tass said recently, are needed in part to allow the state to subsidize such basic items. These subsidies reportedly now are about $35 billion annually.

Today, said the Tass commentator: "Soviet housewives buy food at the same prices as their mothers did decades ago."

Muscovites scoff at this claim. I have yet to find a houswewife who agrees with it.