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Soviet consumers get a price break

The Kremlin seems to be on a smile-at-the-consumer campaign. Its focus is the nation's huge array of centrally set consumer prices. A few have been raised - without formal announcement. A few others have been cut - with announcement.

Moscow has also inaugurated the nation's first full-fledged ''autumn sale'' on some items, with the stated aim of replacing these generally outdated or unpopular consumer products with better versions.

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Finally, in recent days and without immediate public announcement, a key product in day-to-day Soviet life - vodka - has become cheaper. What the Kremlin has done, to the gleeful surprise of consumers attuned to recent Kremlin calls for heightened social ''discipline,'' is to add a new, cheaper brand of vodka to state store shelves.

The reason for the vodka price trim can only be guessed at. Yet politics is an obvious possibility. Yuri Andropov has no Minsk or Moscow primary to worry about. But, especially amid his early calls for ''work discipline,'' he may, a diplomat argues, ''want to toss in a carrot among the sticks.''

The most visible recent move on the consumer-price front has been the start of an ''autumn sale,'' rare in its nationwide publicity and scale, of specific consumer goods. The official news media say the intention is to clear 3 billion rubles' worth of goods off store shelves at half that price.

Here, similarities to American Labor Day shopping bonanzas end. There are no bright banners in store windows, no full-page ads in Pravda. With few exceptions - like the imported Indian beads that are much prized, but overpriced, here - the items involved are outdated or slow-selling local goods the planners want replaced by newer versions.

A shop attendant, asked for the sale-model color televisions mentioned in the Soviet media, replied: ''We sell only newer models.''

Still, an official suggested in Izvestia that the sale might be part of a long-term move to raise the general quality of consumer goods.

''The stocks of the goods on which the prices have been cut will not be replenished. We shall never put them on sale again. Newer and better goods will take their places on the shelves. . . . In the long run, these, too, may be replaced by more modern goods.''

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Whatever the true root of recent consumer-price moves, the Kremlin has, of late, shown itself sensitive to the political side of the issue.

Shortly after Mr. Andropov came to power nearly a year ago, prices were raised on a number of items, including sewing needles, irons, phonograph records , and various paper goods. The increases, in breaking with past practice, were not formally announced. The government did, however, announce other price decreases a bit later - for fur collars, wool shawls, and silk bedspreads.

One key price issue remains unresolved: huge subsidies on various staples, such as bread, which is sold at a fraction of production cost. In past years, and more visibly in recent months, there have been hints in the media and from various officials that the Kremlin may be weighing some revision of subsidies as part of a cautious, gradual move toward greater use of free-market levers in the economy.

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