MOSCOW — They tell a story here about a man from Soviet Georgia who was on a flight to Moscow when hijackers took over the plane and announced that it would be detoured to Paris.
The Georgian leaped into action. He overpowered the hijackers with his bare hands, and the pilot resumed course for Moscow. Later, asked why he reacted so boldly, the Georgian replied, "What could I do in Paris with 10 suitcases full of flowers?
The story illustrates the lucrative private business in the so-called Green Market that has allowed go-getters from Georgia and other southern Soviet republics to get rich in a hurry. Packing fresh-cut buds in brown cardboard suitcases, they take advantage of low air fares to fly them to Moscow, Leningrad and other cities where the demand is virtually without limit.
10 Times Average Wage
With the winter price of a single rose going to five rubles or more, freewheeling speculators can earn up to 20,000 rubles a year, more than 10 times the average industrial wage. (The ruble is valued at about $1.25.)
This has brought consternation to Communist ideologues, who believe that only labor for the collective good, not for private profit, should be rewarded. But even though it may not be what Lenin had in mind when he launched the Bolshevik Revolution, the flower business seems to be here to stay.
A recent article in the young people's daily Komsomolskaya Pravda deplored what it called rose fever in the village of Krasnoye in the north Caucasus. The writer, a farm worker herself, said that nearly everyone on her state farm, from field hands to top specialists, had gone into the private production of roses.
Called 'Rose Maniacs'
"We were called 'rose maniacs,' " she wrote. "You don't have to be a doctor of economics to calculate that for each 100 rubles invested in rose bushes, you'll get a return of 1,800 rubles at least . . . and the black market has even higher prices."
As people quit their jobs on the farm to grow roses, they began to grow rich, she said, adding: "They have palatial premises and cars. . . . Even their kids in school boast of luxuries unavailable to honest adult workers."
Attempts to stop the private rose-growing failed, however, and, according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, the only way to halt the "rose maniacs" is to tax their income.
It is said in Moscow that a man from Kazakhstan, in the southeastern part of the Soviet Union, came to town with a suitcase full of flowers and left with a suitcase full of money.
"I hate those speculators," said a resident of Moscow, who buys all his flowers at stores where prices are set by the state.
But the tremendous year-round demand for fresh flowers encourages the underground delivery system, which seems to be far more efficient than any such operation run by the government. Even though flowers are considered a luxury, they have become virtually indispensable in daily life here.
Members of the Politburo are presented with flowers as they stand atop Lenin's mausoleum to watch parades, a woman cosmonaut was given flowers in outer space, bouquets are lavished on ballerinas at the Bolshoi Theater and the dissident Yelena Bonner carried roses when she left the Soviet Union for medical care abroad.
At theaters, admirers sometimes throw flowers from the galleries, pelting musicians in the orchestra as well as artists on stage. At a recent concert by Soviet rock star Alla Pugacheva, a young man with a bouquet approached her while she was performing, touching off a rare display of impatience with the flowery custom.
'Fool ... Go Away!'
"Why are you standing here, fool?" she asked. "Put them down and go away!"
It is considered a social gaffe for dinner guests to forget flowers for the hostess. Children always bring them for teachers on the first day of school.
Once a year, at least, fresh flowers are placed on graves, and woe betide the husband who fails to bring a floral tribute to his wife on her birthday or wedding anniversary. Brides cling to wedding bouquets for days and days.
And there are taboos. It is considered bad luck to give someone an even number of flowers, so no one ever orders a dozen roses. Usually, one, three or five flowers are given.
"Of course, it's all right to give an even number for the dead, since they can't notice anyway," a Moscow driver said.
Men Rarely Get Them
Except for arriving dignitaries and stage performers, men are rarely given flowers. An exception is the bouquets bestowed on veterans on the anniversary of the end of World War II.
Dried flowers, plastic flowers and even paper flowers are sold, but fresh-cut flowers attract the most buyers. On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of customers appeared at a modest, state-run flower store in central Moscow. A clerk there, Irina, said that on an average day the store sells about 7,000 rubles worth of flowers. On busy days, she said, sales can be as high as 10,000 rubles.