MOSCOW — Members of the ruling Politburo are not known for riding in overcrowded buses, standing in long lines to buy food or tramping through impassable back streets in winter to check on snow removal.
But one member has done all these things. He is Boris N. Yeltsin, who as Moscow Communist Party chief is the man who runs the city. Since his appointment to the post ten months ago, he has emerged as a remarkable example of a senior party official who has at least sampled the hard life of an ordinary Muscovite.
Unlike most of the city's long-suffering citizens, however, the tough-talking Yeltsin can do something about it. He has been assigned by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to make Moscow work better.
Judging by the official media, it might be easier to clean the city's streets with a clothes brush than to rid the Soviet capital of corruption, inefficiency and inertia in housing, transport and retail services.
Before Yeltsin, Moscow's party boss was Viktor V. Grishin, banished in disgrace last December after 15 years of complacent leadership and silence about the city's shortcomings.
"It is necessary to stop the lies," his successor, the 55-year-old Moscow chief from the city of Sverdlovsk, said in one of his milder remarks about the Grishin era.
Candor and Action
Combining candor with action, Yeltsin has purged the Moscow party of Grishin men and installed hand-picked replacements to reinforce his own vigorous approach.
Last summer, Moscow blossomed with outdoor cafes selling a wide variety of juices, as part of Gorbachev's anti-alcohol drive. Attractive booths appeared, offering the biggest supply of fresh vegetables and fruits that residents have seen for many years.
In a nod to Moscow's ancient past, historic street names were revived, and Yeltsin took a personal interest in restoring some architectural landmarks. Work was even stopped on a grandiose World War II victory monument when Russian artists denounced it as "pompous" and "dehumanizing."
Yeltsin's hard-boiled style, perhaps reflecting his career as a construction engineer, have not delighted everyone.
He reportedly has received death threats. At a recent party meeting, he received one anonymous note that said:
"We know you are Gorbachev's stooge. Why don't you go back where you came from?"
Other messages mocked his habit of riding the buses and subways to get a first-hand look at transportation in Moscow, which is cheap but often overcrowded. Yeltsin replied that he found that up to 35% of the buses did not work on any given day, adding: "Muscovites are not simply complaining, they are outraged."
When he visited the Moscow markets where private goods are sold on a supply-and-demand basis, Yeltsin was startled by the prices.
"A miserable bunch of parsley costs 50 kopecks, sometimes as much as a ruble," he reported, "a kilo of meat, 8 rubles"--2.2 pounds for about $12 at the official exchange rate.
Yeltsin proposed a remedy already advanced by Gorbachev--cooperative shops where farmers could sell their goods for less than they do in the markets but more than in the state stores where the prices are fixed by the government.
"It doesn't matter if they sell sausage at 8 rubles a kilo in those shops," he said. "At least they would be selling sausage which smells of meat."
He also struck at entrenched corruption among store managers and clerks. A total of 800 employees of retail stores were arrested in a two-month period after Yeltsin came into office.
Moscow's perpetual housing shortage also is on Yeltsin's list of long-neglected problems.
He has said that 2.5 million families need apartments. About one million Muscovites still live in communal flats where they share a bathroom and kitchen with other tenants, and tens of thousands of people still occupy buildings condemned as slums. Yet, he noted, the largest city in the Soviet Union only ranks eighth in new housing construction.
The city's famed subway system, with its heavily subsidized 5 kopeck fare, also desperately needs modernization, Yeltsin believes. It has 2,000 accidents a year, and the rolling stock is worn out, he says.
Yeltsin has acted to cut off the flood of workers who come to Moscow from the provinces to get the coveted propiska , or residence permit. This influx adds 70,000 to 80,000 people to Moscow's population every year, strains public services and pushes up the crime rate, he said recently.
For all this, Moscow has a shortage of workers. To remedy that, Yeltsin has ordered a widespread crackdown on Muscovites of working age who do not hold a job.
"There's a shortage of 5,000 drivers, yet Moscow has 200,000 people just loafing about," he said.
His most daring act so far has been to remove some long-established perks of party officials and preach socialist egalitarianism to Moscow's elite.
Ban on Official Perks