An exhaustive survey last year of 782 Soviet emigres has provided new evidence of a worsening Soviet food situation in which meat and dairy products often are rationed and only four of 18 dietary staples are available in state stores most of the time.
So serious is the food situation in some cities that one person from Novosibirsk reported that shortages were "making people very malicious and aggressive," and a emigre doctor from Moscow said the "shortages and the deteriorating quality of food products have caused a sharp jump in the incidence of intestinal disease," the survey said.
"The problem of buying food has come to dominate people's lives," said one woman, an economist from Moscow.
The survey on food availability and prices was conducted over a number of months last year by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, which broadcast programs to communist countries and conduct research about them. The stations are run by a private board but financed with U.S. government funds.
Although all of the 782 people surveyed were Soviet emigres, the report said they provided a "solid base of data." Each person filled out a detailed questionnaire and provided several pages of comments. Information on food availability and prices could be checked against other responses, and "inaccurate prices stood out clearly," the survey said.
The bleak picture painted by the survey parallels descriptions from other, independent analyses of the Soviet food and agricultural situation.
A western agricultural analyst based in Moscow reported, for example, that Soviet milk supplies declined from 95 million metric tons in 1978 to 88.5 million tons in 1981, even though the country's cow herd increased by 1 million animals. This happened because the amount of milk that an average cow gave dropped by 15 percent due to shortages of hay, silage and feed grains.
Similarly, meat production also declined slightly, from 15.5 million tons to 15.2 million tons, at a time when a main goal of Soviet planners was to put more beef, pork and poultry on Soviet tables.
The analyst said that the poor performance could be blamed in part on poor harvests in 1979, 1980 and 1981. So disappointing was last year's grain harvest that the government in Moscow has yet to announce a final estimate of its size.
To offset the problem, the Soviets have turned heavily to western food imports. Last year these imports cost an estimated $14.4 billion, or about half of all the convertible currency they earned from selling oil, gas, machinery and arms to the rest of the world.
Between 1978 and 1981, meat imports climbed from 611,000 tons to 980,000 tons--a more than 50 percent increase. And grain imports are running near the 42 million-tons-a-year maximum for Soviet ports.
These massive imports still have not been able to fill the holes in the country's food economy. But they have led to a new set of political and financial problems. U.S. grain trade sources say the Soviets this year are seeking short-term financing of their grain imports for the first time in many years. And the British-Argentine war has created new uncertainties.
Argentina supplies about one-third of the Soviets' imports of wheat, corn and sorghum, and annually ships 100,000 tons of meat, primarily for Soviet sausage factories. Any disruption of this supply line would force the Soviets to rely more heavily on the United States, which already sells the Russians as much grain as Argentina does.
According to the survey, which questioned individuals from 102 cities and towns, only bread, sugar, margarine and tinned fish were available in state stores on a regular basis. At the other end of the scale were items such as beef, pork, chicken and sausage, said by less than 20 percent of the respondents to be regularly available.
More than half the people sampled said that butter, milk, cheese, fruit, cabbage and flour could be bought only irregularly.
Vodka was said to be more readily available in the state stores than any of 18 food items.
This situation has forced many urban consumers to turn to the markets where they can buy produce grown on the private plots of collective farmers. Many items are much more available there. For example, 59 percent of those surveyed said sausage was usually available in the markets, compared with only 18 percent in the state stores.
About 30 percent of all the meat and milk and 60 percent of the vegetables and potatoes are produced on these plots. However, much of the best produce never reaches the urban markets. It is sold "on the left," the phrase denoting the vast Soviet black market, or is consumed on the state and collective farms.
Another drawback of the markets is that prices of commodities are 1 1/2 to 4 times those in the state stores, according to the survey. Also, people with jobs downtown have trouble getting to the markets, which tend to close early and may be inconveniently located.
"In order to buy milk, meat and butter, one had to get up at dawn and travel to the outskirts of the city," said a former Muscovite. Another said that "milk sold out in two hours." Other former residents spoke of butter being rationed to 1.1 pounds per purchase and potatoes limited to 4 pounds per shopper.
An emigre artist from Leningrad said that "butter sometimes disappeared for two days in a row . . . . Milk was on sale in the morning but sold out in two or three hours."
In the Baltic area, an accountant said, "flour was distributed at a rate of 8.8 pounds per person on holidays only--and here again one had to stand in line." In Riga, coffee sold for the equivalent of $15 a pound.
An emigre teacher from Central Asia said that "speculators were flourishing," and added that, "it was better to be paid with food than with money." In Baku in the Transcaucuses, an engineer said, "one could buy food only with the greatest difficulty. The Azeris the local minority population blamed everything on the Russians and the war in Afghanistan."