Gray Bread, Black Berets, And Plenty Of Vodka

The turbines of Volgograd's hydropower station are humming quietly deep inside the dam that blocks a mile-wide expanse of the Volga. Despite temperatures of -20F or colder, massive slabs of ice melt in the steaming water that cascades from the station's outflow pipes. Gennady Korostnikov, a construction worker, is pointing at other spots of dark, ice-free water. "That's where sturgeon and beluga come to lay eggs, so we have to send icebreakers there to keep the water free." Can one buy caviar here? He laughs: "Only if you know whom to bribe."

Welcome to the Volgograd region, the once-bountiful land of black caviar, magnificent white bread, and sweet tomatoes. I still savor their taste, though I was only a child when my family moved to another part of Russia. Thirty years later, these goods have become luxuries, and there's no point asking for them at half-empty state food stores or even at farmers' stalls. Now, dozens of people lining up in front of a meat store turn to look at six Mercedes-Benz trucks with white and blue "Help Russia!" logos.

RADIOACTIVE RIVER. They know the trucks have brought food from Germany. Local newspapers have talked about it for days. Almost 50 years ago, thousands of Hitler's Panzers rumbled over these same routes toward Volgograd, then called Stalingrad. But the German offensive turned into a bloody rout that cost 150,000 lives and marked a turning point of World War II.

Many similar ironies struck me as I rode with the trucks 1,500 miles across Poland and then through the woods, fields, and steppes of the Ukraine and Russia. For starters, the convoy's leaders were 11 former officers of East Germany's People's Army who lost their jobs after reunification and now drive trucks for a living.

All 11 are sleepy and cranky one morning at 6:30 at the Hotel Prolisok near Kiev. There is no water for morning showers.

But the problem isn't bad plumbing, explains Valya Volozhko, the hotel administrator. It's Chernobyl. Because of an accident, a dam on the Pripyat River about 60 miles north of Kiev has been temporarily breached. Radioactive wastewater from the stricken nuclear plant that had been held back by the dam now flows into the Dnieper, the river that feeds Kiev. So the city's waterworks have been shut down.

For millions of Kiev residents living in Chernobyl's shadow, the danger of radiation is ever-present. At a gas station, Nikolai K., a veteran traffic cop who is guiding the convoy through the city, complains that his nine-month-old son must grow up eating and breathing Chernobyl waste. He angrily kicks a tire of his battered blue-and-yellow squad car. "No one cares about common people, not the communists, not the nationalists," he says. Could President Mikhail Gorbachev help? "Ha!" Nikolai turns and spits.

Some 275 miles later, we're in Kharkov, a major defense-industry center once off-limits to Westerners. The surrounding region used to be known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Today, state food stores are nearly bare. Other than half-pound bricks of Turkish and Georgian black tea, grayish bread, and powdered milk, there's little to buy.

GROW YOUR OWN. Nevertheless, the dinner table of Natasha Kirnichny, chief technologist at the Kharkov Wine Factory, groans with food. On it are piled plates of smoked ham, pickled cabbage, and tomatoes. "Most of what you see on my table we grow on our dacha garden plot," she says.

The centerpiece is a large dish crowded with overripe yellow grapes--a gift from a winemaker in Georgia. The grapes would no doubt attract lots of customers in a market, "but you can't buy them--the collective farms don't want to sell anything at today's prices. Everyone is sitting on mountains of fruit or bartering it away bit by bit for spare parts or fuel. All are waiting for a price reform." Indeed, Moscow intends to free food prices soon in hopes of getting more food to the marketplace. In Ukrainian cities, many residents are already going into private business deals with farmers who contract to raise pigs and calves. The meat is then shipped to the city customers.

It's Sunday night at the Hotel Intourist in Rostov-on-Don, a major river port. Although it's -15F and blustery outside, the restaurant's dance floor is steaming. A five-piece band bashes out a mixture of heavy-metal rock and popular hits about lost love and the war in Afghanistan. Every weekend, there's a wedding reception or birthday party. On the tables, there's vodka on ice. Chunky pork chops and shish kebab drip juice on the tablecloths. On the dance floor, girls in miniskirts sway with young men in double-breasted suits. Some break into a wild cossack dance, smashing several glasses for luck.

Amid the hilarity, the revelers glance nervously at three men in black berets and battle fatigues who sit impassively at a small desk where they can see who enters and leaves. They are troopers of a special police unit created by Gorbachev last year to combat civil disorders and hold the Soviet Union together. Such units have already broken up demonstrations in Moscow and Lithuania. In Riga on Jan. 20, they invaded a building held by the secessionist Latvian government. Five people were killed in a hail of machine-gun fire.

'LAW AND ORDER.' But this unit seems interested only in surveillance. Occasionally, the leader, wearing the two small stars of a lieutenant, lifts the receiver of a black phone and speaks briefly. He won't give his name but says he and his group had served together in Afghanistan. What are they doing here? "We're helping to keep law and order."

Traveling through a heavy snowfall, our mission of mercy reaches its destination: the Volgograd regional social-services department. But Director Anatoly Yegin expresses mixed feelings about the aid we've brought. "We could do without your food parcels," he blurts out. "What we can't do without is medical drugs." At one time, East bloc countries supplied medicine. But now, their trade is being transacted in scarce dollars, so drugs can't be had. "Nobody goes hungry here," says Dr. Yegin. "It's our patients in hospitals who are on a hungry diet for even basic drugs."

By unofficial estimates, a third of all Western food aid ends up on the black market. In Rostov, Kiev, and Kharkov, some food-aid items, such as canned fish, powdered milk, and chocolate bars, turn up for sale in pricey farmers' markets shortly after their arrival.

That almost happens to the cargo of one of our trucks, which goes to Sredne-Akhtubinsk, a small town near Volgograd. The delivery is bound for a welfare agency that covers more than 80 villages scattered across the Volga steppes. But as it is unloaded, a local trade official, a plump woman in a beige winter coat, shows up and announces: "We have decided to store the packages in our warehouse."

She insists that the food supplies will be guarded there. Welfare agency officials reply that the food is to be distributed to villagers immediately. The woman shouts back: "You don't understand." She retreats only when told that a foreign journalist is present. As she leaves, a welfare official mutters: "Yeah. Guarding. I know how you'll guard it. In your pocket."

At those words, I reflect on the traits of the country I remember from when I left it a decade ago: the graft and the gripes, along with the basic decency of most people. But today, there are two new wrinkles. One is widespread disrespect for the Gorbachev government. It enjoyed wide support in the early days of perestroika but began losing popularity in the late 1980s when living standards failed to rise. The other new wrinkle is a budding entrepreneurial spirit among average people, which, if allowed to grow, could help the Soviet Union feed itself, with maybe a little caviar on the side. That is, if the black berets and Moscow's reactionaries don't snuff them out first.

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