MOSCOW — Sophia Nuravlev, 79, was walking home a tired but satisfied woman. After only two stops, she had bought a small bunch of green onions, a jar of salted tomatoes and two pounds of beef cutlets. In Moscow terms, it had been a successful shopping day.
Nuravlev, who is retired, said she searches half a dozen grocery stores every day to find just a few items, sometimes braving long lines. She occasionally returns home empty-handed.
"Comrade Gorbachev's promises of reforms have raised our hopes, but our lives are no better so far," she said with a weary smile as she trudged out of Food Store No. 49.
Food is the issue that President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the Communist Party Central Committee will address in a crucial meeting today and Thursday that is expected to produce far-reaching changes in the Soviet agricultural and economic system, changes aimed at increasing output.
If Gorbachev cannot solve what is known here as the "food problem," many believe that his overall reform measures will fail as well.
Average Soviets are beginning to see \o7 perestroika\f7 , Gorbachev's plan to restructure the Soviet economy, as a lot of talk and no action. The Soviet leader himself has acknowledged that it is critical that he prove otherwise, and soon, to counter the impatient and the skeptical.
Soviet citizens are forced by food shortages to eat twice as many potatoes and 50% more sugar than Americans, and they get only about half the fruit and meat. About 30% of the potato crop rots on the way from farm to market. Last year the country had to import 36 million tons of grain in order to meet its needs.
May Be Disbanded
Gorbachev's initial attempt to eliminate food shortages was a dismal failure. In 1985, he set up a super-agency, Gosagroprom, merging six agriculture-related ministries to oversee the production and distribution of food. But it simply made a system that was already too centralized even more bureaucratic, according to a devastating review of the agency's activities in the Communist Party daily Pravda. Many people think Gosagroprom may be disbanded at this week's meeting.
Now Gorbachev is calling instead for a return to family farming where possible, with 50-year land leases, even though this would mean breaking up some state and collective farms. His new proposal "will change the concept of socialism," the official news agency Tass commented.
Supports Collective Farms
But his ideas smack of free enterprise, and that has conservatives up in arms. His most visible opponent is Yegor K. Ligachev, a proponent of orthodox communism who was removed last September from his position as No. 2 man in the Kremlin. Now, Ligachev oversees agricultural policy, and in the past few months, he has strongly reaffirmed his belief in the need to preserve collectivized farming.
Whether Gorbachev can push his plan through the Central Committee during the two-day session will be a key test of his strength.
Even if he succeeds, Gorbachev will meet some resistance on the farm. Economist Geli Shmelev, writing in the weekly Moscow News, warned that some farmers are wary of reform. Their fears stem from the memory of Stalin's repression of private farming 60 years ago, when farmers were forced to give up their land and in some cases were deported to Siberia; many died.
But these issues of power and politics, of resistance to change, mean little in the Moscow marketplace. Here the question is simply: What can I buy, and how can I turn it into a decent meal?
Apples $1.20 a Pound
A look at how Muscovites answer that question offers some insight into the problems that Gorbachev faces.
Food Store No. 49 is a typical state-owned neighborhood shop. On the day Nuravlev found beef cutlets there, there were no vegetables. But one small stack of shriveled red apples was selling for about $1.20 a pound, and a dozen bruised grapefruit were available for about $1.70 a pound. The beef Nuravlev bought cost about $1.60 a pound. There was no other meat.
Many foods not available in the state stores can be found in farmers' markets. People who have small plots of land--farmers and factory workers alike--grow food or raise livestock in their free time. Then many of them use their vacation time to travel to Moscow to sell their produce.
Prices, set by the individual with an eye to supply and demand, are sky-high, so most Muscovites usually shop at these places only for special-occasion meals.
Nevertheless, Western experts say, without the farmers' markets the Soviet Union would not be able to feed its people.
At one such market on a recent day, small watermelons, rare in winter, were selling for 40 rubles, or about $64 apiece at the official exchange rate. Oranges were selling for $2 apiece; dried apricots cost $8 a pound and cauliflower was available at $12 a pound.