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Long Lines, Surly Clerks and Shoddy Goods : Gromyko Hears Shoppers' Complaints

January 23, 1986|WILLIAM J. EATON | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — For decades, Soviet President Andrei A. Gromyko has been enjoying the special perquisites of the Kremlin elite.

Defector Arkady N. Shevchenko, who was once an aide to Gromyko, has quoted Gromyko's daughter as saying: "My father lived in the skies. . . . For 25 years he has not set foot on the streets of Moscow."

So it was a real change of role recently when the 76-year-old Gromyko visited a hospital and food and clothing stores patronized by ordinary workers. The outing apparently was part of a Kremlin campaign to demonstrate official concern for the Soviet consumer, who must battle long lines and surly clerks to get merchandise that is of less than top quality.

Gromyko, who was foreign minister for more than a quarter of a century, found himself listening to complaints from hospital patients, housewives and shop assistants.

The complaints were familiar: monotonous hospital meals, with few fruits or vegetables; a poor choice of clothing, especially winter shoes; shortages of many common household items, and poor packaging of groceries.

Symbolism Apparent

Although Gromyko's reaction was not reported in the Soviet press, the symbolism of his excursion was plain to all. It indicated top-level concern about the day-to-day difficulties that are rarely experienced by top officials, who have access to special stores and service establishments.

The Supreme Soviet, the nominal parliament, recently reported a sharp rise in complaints about services and supplies almost across the board. And with little more than a month to go before the 27th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, more articles about consumer problems are appearing in the state-run newspapers.

Pravda, the official organ of the party's Central Committee, reported that stores have been holding back large quantities of quality food for employees and friends. It said that when this merchandise, including sausage, cottage cheese and poultry, was removed from storage rooms and put on sale, it was snapped up by eager buyers.

Poor Bread Quality

Socialist Industry, a national newspaper, reported recently that the quality of bread is so poor in some places that people are throwing it away.

"This is not bread-baking," the newspaper complained. "It's spoilage of valuable products. God knows what is getting into the dough."

A reader in Tashkent observed, "The worse the quality of the bread gets, the more passionate are the appeals to consumers to conserve it."

Gromyko's rounds uncovered little that was surprising to the average Soviet citizen. At Hospital No. 52 in the Vorshilovsky district, two wings had been closed for years because of the lack of repairs.

At Food Shop No. 27 in the Zhdanovsky district, shoppers grumbled about short supplies of meat, sausage and fish. In Manufactured Goods Shop No. 1 in the Jutsevsky district, women complained that material for dresses was out of fashion.

There is some evidence that attention is now being paid to the customers' complaints.

A Sale on Jeans

The central department store had a sale this week of blue jeans made in the Soviet Union, West Berlin and India. Those from West Berlin commanded a premium price of 100 rubles (about $131), while Soviet-made jeans were available for as little as 32 rubles (about $41).

Business was fairly brisk, but there were no long lines outside the jeans' department, as there were in other sections--for example, where women's stockings were being sold.

"The government is a little late with their jeans," a shopper said. "The peak of demand for them has passed, and it's only the best Western jeans that are really sought after now."

Fancy American jeans bring as much as 200 rubles (about $260) on the black market, Soviet sources said.

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