MOSCOW — It was a big day for Anya. For the first time, the 7-year-old was asked to go to the store for bread by herself. Equipped with a plastic bag and two rubles, she proudly set out --only to return minutes later.
"There was no bread," she said this week with a look of great disappointment.
Those four words have become increasingly common in Moscow in the last week since Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin announced his radical economic reform plan and warned that price controls would be removed on most consumer goods.
The city's bread factories are actually producing more bread than usual--2,600 tons per day instead of 2,100 tons--because of increased demand, Moscow officials said. But Muscovites are hoarding it at an even greater rate.
"We are producing 25% more than we did just two weeks ago--and that's not enough," said Mikhail A. Kovlenkov, president of the Moskhleb concern, which controls production and distribution of bread for the city. "People are just buying much more bread. They take it home and dry it because they're afraid of what will happen when price controls are lifted."
A mini-survey this week of 19 typical bread stores in downtown Moscow found 10 closed, eight open but with no bread and one bakery with bread and a very long line.
To cope with the shortages of bread and other basic foods, Moscow Mayor Gavriil Popov announced Wednesday that the city will begin rationing some basic goods Dec. 1, including bread, meat, sausage, eggs and butter.
Under the plan, the city's residents will get coupons entitling them to buy restricted amounts of the rationed foods at the present prices, which are kept low through government subsidies. Additional amounts could be bought at the new, higher prices.
Popov said that the higher food prices will probably not be introduced until after Jan. 1. But he acknowledged that the end of government subsidies will probably send prices soaring and worsen shortages as consumers rush to buy scarce commodities.
A shortage of bread offends the Russian sensibility more than that of any other food. While price increases have made many other basics too expensive for most people, bread, which is subsidized, is still affordable. "Most other products have been scarce before and people are used to it--they just bought more bread to make up for it," Kovlenkov said. "But bread had always been there."
Bread is much more than just a staple of the Russian diet. Many proverbs extol the virtues of khleb , Russian for bread. Among the sayings: "Bread is the root of everything. . . . Bread is our wealth. . . . There is bread, there is a song. . . . "
Unlike Americans who generally buy bread with the rest of their groceries, most Russians buy it daily at neighborhood stores, where unsliced, unwrapped loaves of white and black--a vinegary rye--can be poked with a metal spatula to test for freshness.
Outside the Filippov bread store on Tverskaya Street, Moscow's main shopping street, a few hundred people waited anxiously for the store to open after an hourlong lunch break. The doors opened, and people pushed and shoved like rock fans trying to get the best spots at a concert.
For Vyacheslav S. Tatirentsev, 62, a retired factory worker, it was serious business. Filippov was the sixth bread store he had checked since leaving his home on the edge of Moscow.
"There's no bread anywhere else in the city, so of course I bought much more than usual," said Tatirentsev, who clutched a shopping bag stuffed with two large loaves of white bread, three smaller loaves and 20 rolls.
A stout woman, pressed against shoppers in line, gave Tatirentsev's bag an irritated glance. "You're taking more than your share," she snapped.
"I have a large family--eight people--I'm entitled to this much," he shot back.
This angry exchange between two strangers typifies the Moscow mood these days.
Maj. Gen. Viktor Ivanenko, head of the Russian KGB, told Argumenty i Fakty, a Soviet weekly newspaper, that the danger of food riots will peak in December. "The main danger today is a series of directed social explosions," he said. "The people are exasperated, rumors are flying around about prices being freed very soon. Add to that the irregular supplies of the most basic foodstuffs. . . . "
Many people say that feeding their families has become such a challenge that they lack energy for their jobs. "I have a day off today, but even when I'm on the job I cannot concentrate on my work," said Valentina S. Ivanova, 47, a tired accountant.
She said the daily troubles are growing so overwhelming that people like her find it difficult to believe in Yeltsin's ambitious reforms. "I want to hope, but everything is getting worse and worse," she said.
To many, the empty shelves in bread stores point to even harder times ahead. A sign on the door of a bakery on the Garden Ring Road encircling the center of Moscow said ominously: "There's No Bread and There Won't Be Any."
Nikolai N. Skonov stopped in his tracks after reading that phrase.
"I never saw such a sign in my life," said Skonov, a movie lighting technician. "This means things are really bad. I don't know how we will survive in the future."
Despite his apprehension, he said he generally supports Yeltsin's reform program. But he, like many others, worries that people will not be able to make the quick transition from socialism, with all of its assurances, to capitalism.
LINE UP AND WAIT
The basic goods that are toughest to find in Moscow:
Sugar. 3.3 pounds per person per month.
Vodka. About a quart per adult per month, but only with presentation of an empty bottle. Extra vodka can be purchased if there is a wedding or funeral in the family.
Cigarettes. 10 packages of 20 cigarettes each per adult per month.
RATIONED AFTER DEC. 1
Bread, meat, sausage, eggs, butter.