MOSCOW — Yevgeny I. Ignatenko laughed when asked who is now in charge of the Soviet Atomic Energy Ministry. "If we understood that ourselves, it would be easier to answer that question," the ministry spokesman replied. "I suppose we're all our own bosses. Anarchy is the mother of order, they say."
Anarchy, in a slow, creeping form, has plagued the tottering remains of the Soviet central government since the August coup attempt. And now, with the new Slavic-based Commonwealth of Independent States' declaration that the Soviet Union and its government are defunct, even the flimsy temporary structures thrown up after the coup are falling under ever greater doubt.
Who is running the Soviet government? The question brought repeated head-scratching at a round of interviews with Soviet ministries on Wednesday.
At the Interior Ministry, which controls police and internal security troops, deputy spokesman Alexander Yanchenkov said that, as far as he could tell, the ministry's status as a national Soviet body remains the same--or at least, he said, its employees had not been told of any changes.
"Of course, we're worried now," Yanchenkov said. "It would be strange if we weren't. The coordinating structures or whatever they might be are now to be moved to Minsk. What kind of structure it is to be--no one knows anything at all. No explanations have been given on that score."
Nina Likhacheva, business manager at the Soviet Culture Ministry, was equally nonplussed.
"We haven't gotten any instructions or explanations yet from the interim committee," Likhacheva said. "I wish someone could tell us what our status is."
The interim committee, formally known as the Committee for the Management of the National Economy, was set up in August as an ad-hoc governing body after the fallout from the coup attempt brought the abrupt dismissal of almost all national-level ministers. But it was caught in the same drift that afflicts the rest of the government, struggling just to keep the economy functioning and unable to make policy without a clear idea of the shape of its country's future.
The Inter-Republic Economic Committee, formed as a steering body when eight of the Soviet republics reached a major economic accord in October and also intended to partially replace the dissolved Cabinet, has run into the same problem.
And the grouping of republics it is supposed to represent never quite materialized. The committee "was considered an institution of the economic community, but this economic community has not been finally created, so it's all still in process," said Valery Ovcharenko, committee spokesman.
At this point, he acknowledged, "The process has been going on for months and some structures don't know what they are, or where they are."
Russian Federation officials have said that there will be one more government shake-up now, as the republics that join the commonwealth decide which parts of the economic committee and the ministries they are willing to finance. Many ministries have already been carved up and parceled out to the republics, turned into private concerns or simply closed down.
Government workers, of course, continue to show up for work; they tackle necessary tasks before them. But the prolonged drift at the center inevitably hurts the performance of the Soviet ministries that remain, officials said.
Ignatenko of the Atomic Energy Ministry said that, without a general state policy on atomic energy, it has been impossible to formulate a long-term plan.
"We're supposed to have a general program and there is none," he said. "There's no plan under which we develop sites and build buildings and change power blocs. That's very harmful."
Now, with the new commonwealth, Ignatenko said with a hint of disgust in his voice that the ministry will probably have to undergo one more restructuring.
"We're tired of having lots of different bosses," he said, listing the last two Soviet prime ministers, Nikolai I. Ryzhkov and Valentin S. Pavlov, and ending with Ivan S. Silayev, current head of the inter-republic committee. "When they change so fast, it's not good."
At the Culture Ministry, Likhacheva said the governmental juggling could prove catastrophic. The ministry had just finished working out plans for 11 major cultural programs and had won approval for them and for millions of dollars' worth of government financing from the 12 remaining Soviet republics.
"What will become of them now?" Likhacheva asked in frustration. "We are in an absolute state of suspension.
"For example," she said, "take the program on 'art and the disabled,' " which had been planned for the 12 republics jointly. "OK, Russia can take it over, but the program was meant for all the republics. Not only Russia has its invalids. Who will finance the program for the rest of the republics? So, you see, our hard work is all ruined and our prospects are very uncertain.
"We read in the papers yesterday that we'll get funded for December," she added. "And what then? No one knows."
At the Communications Ministry, an official who asked not to be identified said the lack of leadership seems not to bother most employees, who are carrying out their technical tasks just as they always have. He admitted, however, that he has no idea where his salary will come from in 1992.
"Salaries?" he said. "I don't know. I think the financing is coming. . . . We have no official documents (on the ministry's status). We can only function on the basis of general knowledge."
It was to end this kind of confusion that the three Slavic presidents decided to form a new government once and for all, said Ovcharenko of the Inter-Republic Economic Committee.
The three leaders had seen the country drift for months, he said, "and what Mr. Yeltsin and representatives of the Ukraine and Belarus suggested was actually directed at settling this situation as soon as possible."