MOSCOW, DEC. 13 -- With a mixture of gratitude, frustration and shame, the people of the Soviet Union are watching the footage on television every night of endless crates of food arriving from the West.
For a country that once exported huge trainloads to Europe and still grows, by all accounts, more than enough food to feed itself, the scope of aid from abroad is astonishing. When President Bush announced his plan Wednesday to give Moscow $1 billion in aid credits, food and medical supplies from 21 countries had already arrived at Soviet rail yards and airports.
The German government is planning to ship 214,500 tons of meat, milk and medicine from a Cold War emergency stockpile maintained in Berlin for 40 years. The Dutch are holding telethons. Swiss Army volunteers are getting ready to truck in food to Leningrad. CARE, the Red Cross and various churches have set up airlifts. The European Community is likely to approve a plan this weekend for $1 billion in food grants and credits as well as $1.4 billion in technical assistance. India has promised to lend 1 million metric tons of wheat.
At this point, however, food aid is more political than nutritional. Considering that the Soviet Union's population is more than 280 million and the aid already arrived amounts to 2,500 metric tons, the deliveries so far amount to morsels, a fraction of a pound per person.
Among officials and shoppers here, the reaction is one of thanks and, at times, shame. The same television news programs that are showing the aid arriving are also describing tons of food rotting at railway stations and ports, and black marketeers and a collapsing infrastructure making a mockery of the country's distribution system.
"Food aid? It's like rubbing an ointment on a man whose entire body is sick," said Yuri Chernichenko, a writer and head of the new Peasants' Party. "As a writer, I'm glad that some people will get something to ease their problems. But the problem is the entire economic system."
Another well-known legislator here, Alexei Yablokov, said, "Food aid is fine for bettering human relations, but at the same time it puts us in the wrong position as a country. We don't need food aid. We have food here."
At Ochakovo railway station in Moscow, a major supply depot for the capital, engineer Mikhail Gladishev said that the prospect of foreign aid made him feel "ashamed."
"It's a disgrace for Russia," Gladishev said. "If you give me a Big Mac, I'll just eat it and want another. It doesn't do much good. If this country were actually trying hard and had absolutely nothing, or if we were dying of thirst and hunger, I could understand . . . . But with this sort of aid, I fear that we will develop a psychology of dependence."
The aid comes at a time when the system seems incapable of dealing even with success. The Soviet Union had a record grain crop this year, and yet millions of pounds of grain rotted because of inadequate storage facilities, inefficiency and a shortage of workers to bring in the crop quickly.
The distressed response of consumers has also made it more difficult to find basic foodstuffs easily. Ever since Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov proposed tripling the price of bread and other basics in May, people have responded by sweeping everything off the shelves in waves of panic buying.
KGB Maj. Gen. Alexander Karbainov told reporters that while food aid sent from the West so far seems to be reaching its intended targets -- mainly orphanages, hospitals and old-age homes -- about 1.6 million tons of imported goods, including 11,000 tons of food, are simply stuck in ports with no one bothering to unload them.
The Communist Party newspaper Pravda surveyed Moscow rail yards over the weekend and found that 20,000 containers and 300 freight cars, filled with medicine, tobacco, fruit and other goods, have been left unloaded for weeks. "The situation," Pravda said, "is catastrophic."
Deputy Foreign Minister Lev Voronin, who heads the government commission monitoring the distribution of food aid, said today that hundreds of Soviet troops have been sent to railway stations in Brest and other cities to guard the unloading of aid parcels.
Western aid specialists who are here to distribute food and map their future strategies say they are well aware of the structural problems and are trying to avoid a situation where aid is wasted and, as a result, Western goodwill is exhausted.
"We have to make sure that aid is structurally relevant, otherwise people at home will get fed up with paying for it," said Lionel Rosenblatt, president of the D.C.-based Refugees International, who is here on a fact-finding tour with officials from CARE.
"The comparison has to be with the Marshall Plan, and Americans then could see that aid was getting through and having a real effect, both immediately and structurally. What is happening now can become a multilateral Marshall Plan. But if we go too quickly too soon, and the public starts hearing about pilfering and food rotting, then we'll have serious problems continuing any sort of programs."
Ty de Cordova, program director for the private U.S. aid organization AmeriCares, said he is making "the maximum effort" to see that crates of food and medicine are not hijacked and then sold at black-market prices. He said aid groups have been able to cut through some of the usual bureaucratic red tape and have won assurances from top-level Kremlin officials that they can personally monitor distribution.
De Cordova is no innocent when it comes to the Soviet system. He remembers immense frustration two years ago when he worked as a volunteer for a month after the earthquake in Armenia. He said that on coming to Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and Moscow he saw tents, boots, overcoats and countless other items that had been sent for the earthquake victims being sold by black-marketeers.
"We're not kidding ourselves. There's no way aid can fix a system that's broke by ourselves," de Cordova said. "But I think doing something is better than nothing, and there are hopeful signs that the Soviets are much more serious this time about making sure the aid goes where it's supposed to go."
De Cordova has tracked food aid shipments to Moscow and regions of Byelorussia most severely affected by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
He added that while it is clear that the Soviet Union's food problems are mainly caused by poor distribution, the country simply is not producing enough basic medicines.
"When it comes to drugs and the simplest medical equipment -- everything from aspirins to syringes -- there is no question that there is a huge need," he said. "In a way, medicine is a less complicated issue from an aid point of view than food."
Some Western officials are concerned that the current political struggles among Moscow and the various republics could also interfere in the efficient distribution of aid. However, Kremlin officials have conceded that aid workers can fly shipments directly to the areas of greatest need. According to municipal and Supreme Soviet sources, the areas of greatest need are Moscow and Leningrad.
Officials at the Ochakovo railway yard, for example, said that shipments such as a daily train filled with fresh milk from the Kaluga region stopped arriving in Moscow this year when local officials decided they needed the milk for their own area.