MOSCOW, NOV. 28 -- Not long ago, the Soviet television program "Fringe" showed a funeral cortege rolling slowly down Tverskaya Street. Strains of Chopin's funeral march played mournfully in the background. The hearses were marked "Bread," "Fish," "Milk" and "Meat."
"With deep sorrow," the announcer said, "Muscovites and guests of the capital today bade farewell to food. Its memory will long live in our hearts."
The mock funeral was so painfully true to everyday life here that the officials who still run state television began cracking down on "Fringe," cutting segments for "technical reasons." But there is no censoring the scenes played out everyday in Soviet stores: the flashes of tension, whispered rumors of hunger for the coming winter, the occasional fight.
"You see this every day in the stores now," said Vladimir Bobrov, a young worker standing in a long line to buy some spaghetti to feed his children. "I don't think we'll starve, but we may hurt each other badly while we hang on. In a way, perestroika is like a war," he said.
Bobrov was among 50 people standing in line this morning at Grocery Store No. 4 on Bolshaya Dorogomilovskaya Street. They waited an hour for the chance to buy a box of spaghetti big enough to feed two or three people. But for some dusty jars of sickly sweet fruit juice, the store was empty. They waited in grim silence, each person breathing the wet wool smell of the coat ahead.
Finally, when the saleswoman appeared with the spaghetti, the shoving began. It was clear there would not be enough for everyone, and the shoppers, most of them ageless women with blocky hips and baleful stares, could not keep calm any longer.
First the shouts, then the shoving:
"I was here before you!"
"I just left to check on my son . . ."
"You'll wait like the others!"
Suddenly, one woman dropped her bags and slugged another woman, the blow landing square on the jaw. A pair of glasses skittered across the muddy floor. More shouting, more pushing. Finally, the salesclerk, in her mud-spattered smock, shouted that if it didn't stop, she would take her "spaghetti to the streets and that will be that." The line straightened out, suddenly tamed. A tiny stream of blood forked across the old woman's lips.
On another side of town, at the main butcher shop on Taganka Square, hundreds of people line up and wait for the "sausage dump." A few workmen open a mesh cage and dump in dozens of foul sausages. The weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta determined that 90 percent of all cats tested would rather starve than eat such meat. But on Taganka Square, people have little choice.
"Worse, worse than the war," said a 60-year-old man named Oleg Sinyakov. "At least in Stalin's time you could get some meat, some vegetables without a battle."
"Yeah, you could get it, as long as no one shot you first," a young student piped up.
"And maybe we should blame Raisa Maximovna," said another woman, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev's wife. "She flies around the world eating in all the best places, and we have nothing."
At a food store in Moscow's Mytishi district, shoppers waited for hours with their empty bottles to get some cooking oil. The shelves were empty, but they were promised that a truck was coming "soon." When no truck arrived, people left in despair, leaving their empty bottles in a long line as a kind of silent protest.
Personal humiliation and a haphazard, scanty diet are greater dangers here so far than real, widespread starvation. Although Russian President Boris Yeltsin speaks publicly of the possibility of famine this winter, the greatest costs of the growing shortages here are endless wasted hours in line, public confidence, social tension and fear -- fear of the future.
Vladimir Tikhonov, a legislator in the Congress of People's Deputies and a highly regarded agricultural expert, said that while there are some instances of hunger, especially among poor pensioners in the provinces, the main problem here is a serious "irrational structure of nutrition" -- unhealthy diets caused by the shortages of basic foods, especially fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and milk products.
"We compensate for the shortage of food products that a normal person needs by eating more bread and, to some extent, more potatoes," Tikhonov said. "We especially don't get enough vegetables, which are necessary for children." He added that through sheer mismanagement, the Soviet Union lost 60 percent of this year's vegetable crop.
Members of the Moscow City Council have said the city's food shortages are so serious that they are preparing to petition the central government and the military to open up the huge caches of supplies stored up for use in war or natural disasters. Moscow's current meat reserves already are down to 15,000 tons, about one-third of the usual supply, a city official announced today.
The city council members are also considering a rationing system to ensure that people at least have a chance to buy enough basic foodstuffs to survive.
Leningrad has already put in place an across-the-board rationing plan. "Our problem is that we're finding that we don't yet have enough food to match the ration cards we've handed out," said Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
Moscow's deputy mayor, Sergei Stankevich, said Moscow is desperate for, among other things, milk. The capital needs about 900,000 tons of dairy produce annually, but has only signed agreements for next year on 77,000 tons. Dairy regions such as Penza, Rostov, Orlov and Vladimir have reneged on agreements to deliver food to Moscow, citing their own shortages.
The economic links forged for decades between Moscow and the Soviet republics began to disintegrate this year when their relations soured. Because the Soviet economy is based on state orders and monopolies, the shutdown of a single factory can set off a devastating chain reaction across the country.
Earlier this year, a series of rail strikes in the Transcaucasus made the delivery of cigarette filters from Armenia impossible. It turned out that no other factory in the country produced the filters and there were "tobacco rebellions" and mass protests across the Soviet Union about the lack of cigarettes. The same has occurred with everything from baby food to aspirin.
Some regions also have tried to make political demands on Moscow by threatening to withhold their products or resources. In the Tyumen region of Siberia, oil workers have repeatedly threatened to shut down wells and refineries unless their living conditions are improved. Moscow, which had always gotten special supplies of food to satisfy its large population of government workers, is now seen in many regions as the symbol of all that is wrong with the system, and therefore is constantly threatened with a cutoff of a range of supplies.
As one woman said in line today at Grocery Store No. 4, "What we are witnessing is the death throes of the old system, the collapse of what we knew."
While republics and cities and factories battle over who should get what and the food distribution system suffers constant breakdowns, thousands of Communist Party bureaucrats and petty black marketeers are more than willing to step into the breach. They simply steal from state stocks and sell the food "off the back of the truck" at three or four times the state prices.
Last week, the newspaper Moskovski Komsomolets reported that one shopkeeper was caught hoarding more than three tons of frozen chicken legs imported from the United States. Other store managers have been found stashing away 18,000 cans of Chinese pork, 4,000 tons of sugar, 1,800 jars of caviar, 6,000 crates of tea.
The manager of Grocery Store No. 4, a young and weary-looking woman named Valentina Vasilyevna, said she, for one, was making no money off the current crisis. It made her "feel like crying," she said, every time someone walked up to her booth and asked when there will be something to buy and she had to tell them, simply, that she has no idea.
"People are just afraid now, afraid of how bad it's gotten and if it could get worse," Vasilyevna said. "Everyone wants to live well, but nothing works. Nothing. Something is terribly, terribly wrong."