MOSCOW — How many pounds of fresh meat does a new computer cost? How can Moscow's collective farmers get videotape recorders, instead of almost worthless rubles, for their vegetables? And where can a builder get plumbing fixtures when the state supply agency has stopped selling them?
As the Soviet Union's economic breakdown accelerates, its state-managed, centrally planned system is less and less able to meet the needs of either producers or consumers, and the country is facing increasing economic paralysis as products of all sorts no longer reach their intended users and the Soviet ruble loses its value as a currency.
"The centralized system we have had for decades for planned production, allocation and distribution has collapsed, simply collapsed," said Gennady M. Poleshuk, a Soviet economist-turned-businessman. "The present situation is extraordinary--goods are still being produced, demand for them is still present, but retail and wholesale outlets are virtually empty and consumer frustration has long ago boiled up into anger."
The problem, simply put, is that the Soviet Union's transition from a planned to a market economy is stalled. The old system, which had long ceased to function effectively, is disintegrating much faster than its replacement is developing.
"Markets must grow--they cannot be planned or pre-structured," Poleshuk said. "But they do not grow overnight, and they do need some nurturing. . . . We say we want to develop a market economy, but where will the market come from? How does it grow?"
Poleshuk's answer to that question is one of the boldest of the reforms now under way here--the establishment of a series of commodities exchanges, trading marts where all sorts of goods, ranging from agricultural produce to construction materials, from computers to consumer goods, can be bought and sold at freely negotiated prices.
"We can cut through most of the theoretical debate and get to the core of the problem by responding to the market," Poleshuk said in an interview. "The market already exists, but it is hidden and rather savage and primitive.
"To cope with the collapse of the state-managed system, enterprises are already exchanging products directly, sometimes by barter, sometimes at absolutely wild commercial prices, sometimes for hard currency. We should move, as a step that we can accomplish virtually today, to get this trade into the open as a basis for a market economy."
Poleshuk, co-chairman of a planned Moscow Commodities Exchange and the director of a Soviet-Yugoslav-Italian construction venture, said that perhaps as much as 15% of overall Soviet sales already take place outside state channels and that this volume could quickly double and even treble as the government withdraws from day-to-day management of the economy.
"Our plan is to use trade in three or four types of commodities to establish a market where buyers and sellers know what the supply-and-demand situation is, what the prices are and where they can deal," Poleshuk said. "In economic terms, this is a very, very basic market, but we have to go back to where we left off 70 years ago and reestablish what we had."
Commodities exchanges were at the center of the Russian economy as it began to industrialize at the turn of the century; businessmen not only traded in commodities there but raised investment funds through the sale of bonds and shares in their enterprises.
More than 100 of the exchanges continued to operate under V. I. Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state, after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. But they were closed by Josef Stalin with the establishment of centralized state planning and management of the economy.
"Although no one remains who remembers exactly how they worked, we still have a feeling of affinity for this type of economic organization," said Poleshuk, 36, a research economist who came to Moscow three years ago with many other reform-minded academics from Siberia. "A commodities exchange seems more Russian, less foreign, and thus more acceptable. . . .
"We also expect that in its second phase it will have a department, which is being organized by Moscow's new commercial banks, for trading in stocks, bonds and other equities. This again is a Russian tradition--keeping the capital market within the commodities exchange and linking them directly."
The Moscow Commodities Exchange plans to open in borrowed quarters next month, with sales of goods in four high-demand areas--construction materials, metal products, agricultural produce and high-tech goods, including computers and audio-visual equipment.
Poleshuk projects that the turnover in the first year could be as high as 3 billion rubles, which would be the equivalent of $4.8 billion at official exchange rates--but about $200 million at the prevailing black market rate for the ruble.