WARSAW -- The computer specialist from Kiev is selling a used blue plastic bucket that his mother gave him. The engineer from Odessa sells playing cards and scarves. The physicist from Riga is hawking Latvian brassieres.
With runny noses, cold feet and battered suitcases full of goods that they readily concede are shabby, these three over-educated traders are part of what the Polish government expects will be an inundation of Soviets pushing west to escape political turmoil, find work and take their chances in an East European marketplace that is now bracingly free.
"Poland is not exactly paradise. It is too expensive. But I know that here if you work, you will get money," said Samuel Voevoda, 36, the engineer who brought playing cards and scarves from Odessa, a Ukrainian city on the Black Sea. "I think life in Poland will be very good in two years. In my country it will be Stalin again."
The official Polish news agency reports that teams of Soviet construction workers are driving around eastern Poland, offering their services at prices that undercut Polish builders. The government predicts that this spring Polish farmers will illegally hire thousands of Soviets at low wages.
"We have observed an increase in border crossings by Soviet citizens, especially into Poland. Because the Soviet economic situation has turned for the worse, these 'tourists' are mostly traders," said Adam Wojtaszewski, who supervises foreign employment for the Polish Ministry of Labor. "It is not an exception to see Russian tourist buses parked in front of grocery stores."
For Soviet traders and for prospective Soviet workers, a train or bus ticket into Poland has suddenly become a sound investment. While the Soviet economy goes from bad to worse, market reform in the last year here has unleashed a torrent of private enterprise. Communist shortages are a thing of the past, as Polish and Western goods choke the sidewalks of most cities and small towns.
To the delight of its post-Communist leadership, much of Poland has been transformed into a no-holds-barred, no-questions-asked bazaar. A large percentage of sales are made within arm's length of the trunk of a car. If Soviets can buy it or bribe for it back home, some Soviet-made clothing, machinery and electronic goods sell in the streets here for 10 or 20 times their subsidized price.
By working for Polish currency, even at half the normal Polish salary of $150 a month, Soviets can save an average of about five times what they earn at home, according to Polish estimates. The reason for this is that Soviet currency is slipping badly on the black market. With each passing month, the Polish zloty, a currency that is now stable and easily convertible to the dollar, buys more and more rubles.
A Soviet official at a Vienna conference on East-West migration estimated last month that 5 million Soviet citizens want to emigrate to the West and that up to 2 million may actually do so after Moscow relaxes departure rules, a move expected later this year. But rich West European countries made it clear in Vienna that they want to tighten visa requirements for Soviets.
All this leaves Poland, which shares a porous 600-mile border with the Soviet Union, more than a bit jittery. The Polish commissioner for refugees has said that an uncontrolled flood of Soviets into Poland could "finish off our economy in three or four months."
To keep that from happening, Poland announced last week that it is beefing up its new Frontier Guard. In the next six months, 6,800 draftees will be diverted to that force, and the number of guards along the Soviet border will be increased to about 5,000 from 360. Emergency laws allowing the border to be sealed are in preparation.
The Ministry of Labor is drafting new laws to regulate foreign employment and protect Polish workers. While the private economy here is booming, the far larger state-controlled sector is falling apart. Unemployment is expected to reach 12 percent by the end of the year. Officials at the Ministry of Labor say they do not want unemployed Poles to have to compete with Soviets willing to work for subsistence wages.
Just 18 months ago, the idea that Poles would ever fret about foreigners coming to cash in on their shattered economy would have been laughable. Under Communist rule, Poles were notorious throughout Europe for taking "vacations" during which they scrubbed floors in Munich or dug ditches in Sweden.
Before last year's free-market revolution, it was possible for a Polish doctor to work for just two months in a West German grocery and earn the equivalent of 16 years' official salary in Poland.
West European officials complained about such illegal Polish workers, but they could do little to stop employers who were delighted to hire them at substandard wages while paying no taxes or benefits.
Speaking from decades of such experience, Poles say that nothing will stop Soviet workers -- once they cross the border -- from infiltrating the local-manual labor market.
"Just like the Poles in Germany, Russians will find work for half salaries," said a Polish woman who was selling Soviet motors this week out of a flatbed truck in the eastern city of Siedlce.
A consular official at the Soviet Embassy in Warsaw said that under current law, all Soviets with passports are allowed to come to Poland once a year, if they have an invitation from a Pole. He said that with "multiple exit" passports, which are expected to be issued some time this year, they will be able to come to Poland as many times as they can wangle an invitation.
The computer specialist from Kiev, the engineer from Odessa and the physicist from Riga were all peddling their wares -- most of which looked as if they had been taken out of closets and dusted off -- in the shadow of Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, built by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin when Poland was an economic and political vassal of Moscow.
All three explained that they had come to stand in the Warsaw cold because life back home was growing intolerably grim.
"I am from the place they shoot people," said the physicist selling Latvian brassieres. She lives in Riga, the capital of the separatist Baltic republic of Latvia, where Soviet Interior Ministry troops killed four Latvians in an attack on the republic's police headquarters Jan. 20.
"Of course I came to Warsaw to do some business. Prices have gone up three times, and my salary has stayed the same," she said. "I hope to make enough trading to buy some clothes for me and my children."
Next to her, Voevoda, the engineer selling playing cards, said the most intractable obstacle facing Soviet traders was neither immigration restrictions nor suspicious Polish authorities. Rather, he said, it was the collapsing Soviet economy.
"In a while," he said, "Russians will have to stop coming here, because they will have nothing to sell."