How Much Hunger?

It's the wisdom of the day: hunger is stalking Mother Russia. Soviet newspapers bristle with panic about the oncoming winter. There are fears of famine and popular revolt. The concerns have spread to the West, and last week President Bush announced a grant of $1.5 billion in food aid, to include not only technical assistance and credits for grain purchases but also direct food shipments, the first to the Soviet Union in 70 years. Even the U.S. Congress called a cease-fire in the sniping over Soviet aid. "It's time for each side to say we're not going to try to score political points on this one," said Sen. David Boren, a Democrat. "It's too serious."

But how serious? The statistics are alarming enough. According to estimates by the Washington firm PlanEcon, Soviet agricultural production is in sharp decline: this year the grain harvest is down 30 percent from 1990's record total; meat and milk are off by 13 percent each. Per capita meat consumption in the Russian Republic has fallen by 10 percent, according to a Soviet estimate. But the figures are misleading. amount of grain and meat is simply not reaching the stores because collective farms are hoarding their produce in anticipation of higher prices next year. Food shortages are chronic, but there's a big gap between shortage and starvation.

In fact, it's hard to find epidemic hunger in Russia. Asked where it expects hunger to strike hardest this winter, the Soviet Red Cross, which is charged with distributing most of the $310 million that Europe has already earmarked in emergency food aid, names a number of Russian provincial cities. A tour through three of them last week-Tula, Kaluga and Bryansk, all large towns south of Moscow-suggested that food is available. It is often of poor quality. There's not much variety. Getting it means hours of standing first in one line, then in another. But predictions that the journey would reveal widespread privation and seas of mud were right only about the mud.

The first corrective to the conventional wisdom appeared on the outskirts of Tula. A street vendor was selling pomegranates by the side of the road for 6.20 rubles a kilogram, or about $1.60 a pound. "We're doing OK with fruits and vegetables here," said the vendor. "And we don't have bread shortages, like you do in Moscow. But it's hard to get meat." Everywhere in town? "Well, you can always buy it at the free market, but you don't see it in the state stores." So will there be hunger in Russia this winter? "No. Not right now, anyway."

That became a refrain across the Russian countryside: not here, not now, not us. Everyone agreed that things were getting worse, much worse, and that this would be a very tough winter. They lived life by the Ration Coupon, and they resented it. A sense of foreboding hung over all three towns, and no one wanted to deny the possibility of mass hunger. But no one could produce an example of it, either. In Bryansk, passersby asked about the poorest section of town at first couldn't think of one. Finally, one teenage girl gave directions to a "barracks," a run-down dwelling originally built as temporary billeting and now housing several families, all share one kitchen and one toilet. "There's no danger of hunger here," said one young mother we found at home. "We grow things at my mother-in-law's dacha, and my husband and I make decent salaries. All I need is a new apartment." No Western government can send her that.

And what could a Western government send a huge, jostling line on a Bryansk avenue? "It's the first time we've had vodka this month," explained one elderly woman, or babushka. Vodka is rationed to one bottle a month in Bryansk, she said. "Maybe America will send us vodka!" she suggested, and exploded into peals of laughter. Food supplies in the hospital where she worked were adequate, she added. "I'll tell you what we really need," she said, pointing to her feet. "Look at these beat-up shoes. I need a pair of decent boots, but I haven't got 250 rubles to pay for them."

The local Red Cross was supposed to be in touch with the truly needy. Two prim, provincial ladies from the Bryansk chapter arranged a visit to a warm, brightly lit children's home, where many offspring of alcoholic parents live. The director had received aid packages last year from a U.S. charity, the Americares Foundation, and harbored very definite ideas about what she wanted next time around in the form of humanitarian aid. "Please don't send any more of that awful soy flour for veggie burgers," she said. "We don't feed that stuff to our children and I can't believe you do either." What kind of aid did she prefer? "Our children really liked those chocolate candies with the peanuts in them. Could send more of those?"

In Moscow, one Red Cross official had privately admitted that emergency food aid would hardly make a difference in the vast Soviet Union. "It's a drop in the sea, really useless," he said. "Still, it has an important psychological effect. People need to know the outside world hasn't forgotten them." But the proprietor of one of Kaluga's few private stores, an antique shop on the town's main drag, snorted derisively at the very idea of Western assistance. "We don't need your food packages," he insisted. "We need you to take us over completely. We need you to shake out Russian society from top to bottom. We need about a hundred years to make this country work." Weren't there any people who would suffer in the coming winter? "Nobody in this town will go hungry," he said. "But you might try the countryside, down in the southern part of our district."

Not here, not now, not us. In the southern part of the district, an angry knot of babushkas had gathered outside the village bakery in Duminichi (population: 7,000). The morning's bread delivery was nowhere in sight, and it was almost 9 o'clock. In the Russian countryside, where feed grain is distributed only to state and collective farms, peasants have no way to feed their livestock except with loaves of bread; the problem was not feeding themselves, but feeding their cows. The peasants were resentful, but not hungry, and seemed a little surprised at the question. "We've all got cellars full of tomatoes an potatoes and cabbage and onions," said one woman. True, meat was rationed to one kilo a month. But many people slaughtered their own livestock. "There's no hunger here," said another old lady. "I lived through the second world war, the destruction, the suffering. The Russian people are patient. We'll live through this."

No one looks a gift horse in the mouth. Officials in Moscow last week heartily welcomed Bush's initiative, and even opposition skeptics were reluctant to say flatly that food aid wasn't the kind of help they needed most. But Red Cross officials out in the provinces have other methods of staving off hunger. Nikolai Manuilov, who runs the Red Cross in Tula, has rented a piece of farmland for growing vegetables so he can give his blood donors a good meal in exchange for a pint. "Farming is not the Red Cross's business, and I'm a doctor, not a commercial manager," admits Manuilov. "But these are the times we live in." Russians are finding unorthodox ways to solve their own problems without central government (following story). And sometimes the small-scale solution does more than big-time aid.


The American plan to give the Soviet Union $1.5 billion in food aid is good news for U.S. farmers. But it's help on the wrong scale. The Soviets need something more like George Bush's idea of a model farm where Soviets can learn about efficient production. Here are a few low-cost projects that could help the Soviets to their feet:

In Kiev the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident left immune systems vulnerable to hepatitis, diphtheria and the AIDS virus. The Institute of Epidemiology there hopes eventually to produce diagnostic kits for the entire Soviet Union. But without a $70,000 machine that measures chemical preparations into tiny test tubes, assembling the kits takes too long to be feasible. These machines are made in the West.

Project Hope has already used a few hundred thousand dollars of U.S. money to distribute medicines around Soviet Central Asia. The American doctors were appalled by what they found. One little hospital in Muinak had no running water. Its infant-mortality rate was as high as 100 per thousand births, 10 times the U.S. figure. More medicines are needed. But so is a longer-term project to train doctors in low-tech Western health care. Project Hope has training clinics underway in Moscow and Armenia. Setting up one in Central Asia might cost as little as $3 million over five years.

Everyone agrees that the Soviets need training in Western know-how. But bringing them to schools in the United States is expensive, so the University of California and the Armenian General Benevolent Union have found a better way. This September, the American University of Armenia opened its doors in Yerevan, offering M.A. degrees in business, industrial engineering and earthquake engineering. The university's American professors have imported everything from paper clips to an entire library. One hundred students are now undergoing intensive English and computer training. The university hopes eventually to offer a full range of departments for 5,000 students. But the 6,000-ruble tuition, while more than a year's salary for most Soviets, doesn't begin to cover the school's hard-currency expenses. The university is looking West for funding,

Soviets fear that discontent in the Army could lead to another coup attempt. Perhaps the greatest single source of military anger is a lack of decent housing, especially for troops returning from Eastern Europe. The German government granted Moscow about $5 billion to build housing. But the Ministry of Defense says that defense factories producing the construction materials are overburdened. So why not invite suppliers from outside the Soviet military-industrial complex? Joint-venture construction companies, of which 75 are registered across the Soviet Union, could build villages for the military in the near future. A new contract from the West would give impetus to the private construction industry.

The U.S. public television series "Adam Smith's Money World" has been a big hit on Soviet TV. But its descriptions of leveraged buyouts, greenmail and Christie Hefner's Playboy empire are a little remote from everyday concerns. Soviet programming officials say a simple primer of basic business terms would go along way toward educating the public in capitalist economics. But the officials lack the business know-how--and the ability to make a slick show that would attract viewers. Alvin H. Perlmutter Inc., a New York production company that worked on "Adam Smith," is interested in gearing a series to Soviet viewers, including segments on the concepts of free pricing, accounting, credit and taxes. "The only thing that's keeping us from doing it is money and sponsors," says Nancy Pelz-Paget, director of special projects at Perlmutter. "We used to broadcast propaganda," says Leonid Zolotarevsky, director of international programming at Soviet TV. "Now we're ready for this new kind of propaganda."