MOSCOW — Bread, a staple of the Russian diet for centuries, does not taste so good anymore.
No less an authority than Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, has confirmed that the quality of bread has slipped noticeably in many parts of the Soviet Union.
"Unfortunately, this is really so," Pravda recently reported to its readers, who have sent in thousands of complaints about their daily bread.
It said that about 24 million loaves had to be thrown away last year because they were inedible.
A typical complaint, according to Pravda, came from a man in Krasnodar who wrote: "It was only comparatively recently that the smell of freshly baked bread was evident long before the shop came into view. . . . Now the bread is devoid of any smell and it has a highly unappetizing appearance. It is my opinion the baking industry is lame in both feet."
Despite Pravda's report, customers interviewed at a bakery on Moscow's showplace Gorky Street after the report was published said they believe that the bread they buy is generally good and inexpensive. Some complained about the lack of variety.
One man noted, however, that "it is hard to find whole-grain bread, although it is supposed to be better for your health." One woman said it is difficult to find fresh bread unless you shop early, and another woman said the bread is all right, then, referring to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, added, "but not as good as it was in Stalin's time."
Consumers here are demanding about their bread, usually buying it unwrapped and poking the loaves with a fork or spoon provided by the store to test for freshness.
The price of bread, subsidized by the government, has remained stable for the last 30 years. It ranges from about 15 cents for a small loaf of dark rye bread to 30 cents for the best and biggest loaf of white bread, weighing more than two pounds.
Bread also has great symbolic value. Along with salt, it is considered a sign of hospitality. In a memorable scene from the classic Russian opera, "Boris Gudonov," a peasant chorus pleads with the czar for bread.
Pravda went to V. Bodryagin, head of the retail inspection service that acts as a watchdog over food quality, for comment on the widespread complaints about the quality of bread.
At first, the official defended the bread, pointing to new baking equipment, better transportation and--in some stores--new packaging with wax paper and plastic film. An increasing volume of bread, he told Pravda, is being made with less flour and more whey, a milk product, to improve the taste.
But then he disclosed that bakery managers in the major cities of Kursk, Pskov and Altai were fired for "systematic production of substandard bread." Criminal investigations are under way in the widely scattered cities of Rostov-on-Don, Novosibirsk, Shaty and Chelyabinsk to find why the bread is so bad there, he added.
In several other areas, he acknowledged, baking equipment is worn out or obsolete. In other cities, there are no proper storage facilities for grain or fresh-baked bread, spoiling the taste.
"I share the indignation," the official declared.
Asked about frequent disruptions in bread deliveries, he exercised a bureaucratic option and--despite his earlier claim of better transportation facilities--blamed another ministry for not supplying enough trucks.
Pravda said the Ministry of Trade has ordered an official in each of the nation's countless bakery shops to monitor the quality of bread from now on and to report any deficiencies.