MOSCOW — It was fear that drove Valentina Grebenschikov to stand in line to buy two packages of imported razor blades for which she had no use, the same anxiety that made her, for the first time in memory, salt away in her cupboards extra sacks of flour and rice against Moscow's long winter.
It was fear, she explained, of ever-emptier store shelves, of rumors of total government rationing of food and energy, of a downward spiral in day-to-day living conditions that shows no signs of abating.
"It has gotten more difficult in the last two months. There are shortages in practically everything right now," said Grebenschikov, a 44-year-old economist and mother of two. "So, for the time being, I buy anything that's available."
In Moscow, the city to which much of the rest of the country travels for shopping sprees, a firm conviction has grown this fall that for the consumer things are worse than almost ever before.
Ask for anything from shampoo to shoes, and the salesman is likely to reply " Nyet ."
While long lines and empty stores have long been an inescapable part of life in the Soviet Union, staggering shortages today in what always have been considered the basics are sparking unprecedented panic buying, Muscovites say.
And as people grow more worried and anxious, they also grow increasingly disillusioned with President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, the restructuring of Soviet society, which has been unable so far to improve their economic plight.
"Gorbachev says we are on the verge of a crisis, but he is wrong. We are already in a crisis," said 34-year-old Tatyana Otson ofKiev, who came to Moscow to buy winter clothes for her three children. "I'm not worried about me. I'll survive. But I am worried about the future of my children."
Gorbachev himself acknowledged that, despite a 10% increase in consumer goods available for sale this year--three or four times the annual increases of the past--"our shops are empty."
"Sales are up 10%. There is too much money chasing the goods," he told journalists at a U.S. trade show last week. "We did not pay sufficient attention to this new development at the right time, and this has caused many uncontrolled problems and uncertainties.
"Customers are hoarding these days, and of course there are shortages," he continued. "For us today, the market is our No. 1 problem."
The shopping hysteria and hoarding of the last several weeks have magnified shortages in a broad range of consumer goods that initially were caused by a breakdown in the transportation network and a dip in production in some industries, according to Soviet economic analysts.
Other factors cited as possibly contributing to the barren store shelves are outright sabotage by conservative opponents of perestroika and the raised expectations of consumers, who are buying more of certain products than they ever did before.
Glaring shortages in basic items such as soap and matches are caused primarily by panic-buying, according to Mikhail L. Berger, one of the country's most respected economic commentators. Berger, who works for the government daily Izvestia, points out that production of these items is no less than it was before and generally is greater.
Fear of the loss of basic, everyday goods became widespread in Moscow last month when families, returning from vacation, found no school notebooks on sale for their children. The absence of something so commonplace, which had always been available, set off alarms.
Many Muscovites say that, in preparation for winter, they are now storing nonperishable food, just in case. Here their voices often trail off, but the implication is clear. What if there are shortages in the critical items, things that have always been available except during times of war?
"I personally feel a sinking feeling, almost a physical sensation of going under," Berger said in an interview. "People like me don't have any trust any more, any faith that the government is going to get them out of this. They aren't confident that what they see on the shelves today will be there tomorrow. So, almost without thinking, they just buy."
Economist Grebenschikov is a case in point. She saw a line outside her office and found out people were waiting to buy the imported razor blades.
"They were just snapping them up," she recalled.
So, although her husband has a full beard and the family does not even own a disposable razor, she found herself rushing downstairs when the line had shortened to buy some blades to take home. "Maybe we will give them to someone as a gift," she said, "or trade for something we need."
Irina Popov, 29, is another example. She was standing in a long line in GUM, the Soviet Union's largest department store, just across from the rust-colored Kremlin walls, waiting to buy an iron for 7 rubles--or about $11 at the official exchange rate.
"Sure, I already have an iron," she said with a smile. "But what if it breaks? I always try to buy extras. I'll probably buy two today."