After he took over the Moscow city Communist Party leadership in late December, Boris Yeltsin went to see for himself what life is like for the more than 8 million people who live in the Soviet capital.
According to stories now making the rounds, the tall, broad-shouldered, 55-year-old party leader stood in lines for pastry on Gorki Street and tried to buy a cut of good meat from a surly waitress at a food counter at the Hotel Minsk.
To see how snow removal was going, he is said to have walked the back streets. To find out about the city's cheap but overcrowded transit system, he rode the bus.
Late last month, at a conference of the Moscow city party, Yeltsin delivered his verdict in a detailed and scathing speech that quickly became the city's most popular reading: Moscow, rather than showcase of the nation, was something of an embarrassment.
The public critique of Moscow and Yeltsin's firsthand investigations are characteristic of the new team forming around Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev's solution -- a wholesale purge of the Moscow city party leadership, which followed shortly -- was a local reflection of the rapid turnover of personnel pushed by Gorbachev at higher levels of party and government.
To Moscow, Yeltsin is an outsider. For nine years until 1985, he was party chief in Sverdlovsk, a military and industrial center in the Urals. He first came to the capital in July, as one of Gorbachev's first additions to the powerful Secretariat of the Central Committee.
Like a mayor elected to sweep out an old machine, Yeltsin apparently came to Moscow's city hall with a mandate to weed out the old gang and their old ways. His targeting of the old guard here is also an echo of the criticism accumulating against the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and his associates.
In his speech to the Moscow party, Yeltsin never explicitly said who bore the brunt of the blame for the incompetence and inefficiency in the city's management. But to those present, it was clear that the chief culprit was Viktor Grishin, Politburo member, close Brezhnev associate and for 18 years chief of the Moscow party committee, who was sitting on the dais, along with other Politburo members.
Grishin, 71, was eased from his Moscow job on Dec. 24, as Yeltsin was ushered in, and he is expected to be retired officially from the Politburo soon.
His ally, Moscow Mayor Vladimir Promyslov, 77, who had held his job for 22 years, also has been retired, and replaced by Valery Saikov, manager of a major auto factory.
The pressure on Grishin and Promyslov began last summer when newspapers ran articles about a Moscow housing swindle that involved falsifying reports on the completion of construction. The investigation into this and other problems at city hall resulted in hundreds of city officials being accused of receiving kickbacks.
Although neither Promyslov nor Grishin has been charged with direct complicity in the building scheme, critics long have complained that the two treated the city and its resources like a private fiefdom. Certainly, if there was anything wrong, they never said so.
"Owing to the party's unabating concern, the city has been successfully settling the task of promoting the people's welfare," Grishin said at a city party conference five years ago.
In contrast, Yeltsin, in his speech last month, passed briefly over the accomplishments and then said bluntly:
"Comrades, today we will talk mainly not about what was done, but what was neglected and the nature of our mistakes."
Yeltsin not only ticked off the problems -- in housing, in transport, in services, in health care -- but he also named names.
"The time to remove the head of the health department has long past," he said, for example.
But mainly the speech was a list of the broken promises and unfulfilled plans, the fraud, corruption and cronyism of the previous regime.
"It is necessary to stop the lies," he said at one point.
"Frankly speaking," he said in the speech, printed in full in Moscow papers and broadcast in part on national television, "it must be said that the city party committee, Politburo and Secretariat failed to carry out the necessary reordering of the party and other personnel."
He said there had been "a tendency to stress achievements and a silence about shortcomings, which has resulted in complacency and inertia."
In general, he concluded, it was no wonder that complaints from city residents had doubled in the past three years: Moscow -- which has amenities that provincial cities only dream of -- has fallen behind norms for the supply of social needs.
Yeltsin mentioned his experiences on Moscow buses, where at rush hour, passengers can find themselves literally lifted off the ground by the press of bodies.
"Muscovites are not simply complaining; they are indignant," he said, explaining that he had found that up to 35 percent of the vehicles fail to make it onto the roads daily.
Yeltsin's critique was followed the next day by complaints from all sectors in the city. A school director complained about equipment that dated from the "stone age." A health official complained about poor conditions at city hospitals. The first secretary of the Moscow's writers' organization called for more criticism of "weak" works by well-placed or famous writers.
This sort of free-for-all delighted many Muscovites. "It is like a detective story," said one young woman. "For us, it is something new," a hospital worker said.
Yeltsin's speech last month was to the Moscow city party, which, with 1.2 million members, is one of the nation's largest. The meeting was held to prepare for the 27th national party congress this month.
Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin, in his cleanup campaign, has focused first on personnel. The results of his crackdown were published in city newspapers: of the 175 members of the city party committee, only 37 were holdovers from five years ago. Of the 14 members of the governing party bureau, only two had served since 1981, and 10 were appointed last month.
Yeltsin said 86 managers of factories and organizations were expelled from the party during the past two years, many of them prosecuted and fired.
He is also said to like novel approaches. One report said that in Sverdlovsk, to make managers more aware of the need to clean up city streets, he took away their government cars so they could experience the problems for themselves.
In Moscow, he forced the head of the transportation department to ride the public transit system Muscovites are so indignant about.