SVERDLOVSK, U.S.S.R. -- Valentina Ligotsova visited the largest supermarket in the Soviet Union the other day to buy some eggs. By the time she reached the front of the line, all the eggs had been sold out, so she settled for six packages of biscuits instead.
"We no longer buy what we need. We buy what we can find," said Ligotsova, explaining the new consumer strategy adopted by millions of Soviet housewives. "Whenever I see any macaroni, I buy at least four packages."
Designed to serve an entire suburb of 50,000 people, the Kirov supermarket was hailed by the Soviet press as the most up-to-date store in the country when it opened several years ago. It boasts its own bakery, a foyer full of slot machines and a private sauna for the staff. The director is particularly proud of the conveyor belt that automatically collects shopping baskets at the exit and returns them to the entrance.
The wonders of modern technology have not, however, succeeded in filling the shelves of the Kirov supermarket, which are almost as sparsely stocked as those of any other Soviet store. Meat and chickens are rationed. Vegetables are in chronically short supply. Sausages have not been seen for nine months. Even canned fish, once plentiful, has disappeared.
Chronic food shortages have become the most obvious and socially painful symptom of an economy that has broken down. The long lines and empty shelves at the Kirov supermarket are merely the final flimsy link in a food chain that has been ruptured in several places. Economic ties between the countryside and the towns have been disrupted. Much of the food that does arrive in the cities is siphoned off to the black market. The shortages have been compounded by hoarding and panic buying.
One reason for the food crisis is the collapse in economic discipline. In the old days, big industrial cities like Sverdlovsk could count on guaranteed deliveries from agricultural regions in southern Russia. As the tyranny of the five-year plan is relaxed, collective farms are withholding their produce from the cities in the expectation of big price rises or selling it on the open market. Trade officials in Sverdlovsk say state deliveries are down by at least 20 percent this year.
But an equally important reason for the empty stores is the collapse in financial discipline. As President Mikhail Gorbachev has admitted, the government has completely lost control over the money supply. Ever since the failed anti-alcohol campaign of 1985-88, which cost the treasury billions of rubles in lost revenues, no attempt has been made to balance the budget. Almost half the budget is now spent on subsidizing the price of food.
"Prices must be freed from government control. There is no other way out of this mess," said Igor Kovpak, the director of the Kirov supermarket. "Otherwise it will be impossible to stop speculation, no matter how many workers' commissions you appoint."
Such reasoning does not impress Kovpak's customers. The vast majority are violently opposed to any price increases. Few people believe that the government will keep its promises of financial compensation. When Gorbachev came to the Kirov supermarket in April during his visit to Sverdlovsk, he was surrounded by angry shoppers demanding that the authorities keep prices stable.
"We already spend 90 percent of our income on food. If they raised prices we simply could not cope," said Lena Bogdashova, a sales assistant at a pharmacy. "As it is, I'm already afraid of having a second child because I don't think we could afford to raise it properly."
In an attempt to ease the food crisis, the Russian legislature this month legalized the private ownership of land. The Sverdlovsk regional council says it has received about 400 applications for private farms. But many of the prospective farmers complain that they are still discriminated against by the state.
"There are a lot of people who would be willing to take land. Our problem is that we do not have the equipment to work the land," complained Nikolai Leskov, who is negotiating with a local council for a 30-acre farm. "The state farms still enjoy a virtual monopoly. They divide up the land, distribute the technology and control the allocation of animal feed."
Communist Party officials in charge of the agricultural sector have a different explanation for the food crisis. They claim that the real problem is the neglect of state farms.
"Private farmers will never be able to feed anyone," said Valery Romanov, the former Communist Party secretary in charge of agriculture in the Sverdlovsk region. "I predicted a year ago that there would be hunger if we did not increase investment in agriculture. And look what is happening now. Even Hitler did not dismantle the collective farms when he invaded the Soviet Union. This is folly."