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Wild-wild Western things - a hit back in the USSR

YOUNG Soviet women these days are wearing a rather sporty denim dress with the label ''Montana'' in clear view. A new brand from the United States or Europe? No. ''Montana'' clothing is made in Eastern Europe. It is considered to be of reasonable quality, and the women say they feel stylish in it.

Why ''Montana''? Russians associate the name with cowboys, horses, the American Wild West. ''Montana'' just sounds right, as some will tell you, with that ring of the distant, exotic, and American about it.

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This desire for things Western troubles the Soviet authorities. They call it veshchism (from the Russian word veshch, or ''thing'') meaning ''being into things.'' And it is a growing trend in Soviet cities.

When veshchism occurs in the West, the Soviet government criticizes it severely. The American consumer is frequently portrayed as a helpless victim of a constant barrage of advertising, especially on television. The American's spiritual values, the Soviet news media say, have been warped.

When veshchism occurs at home, it sends even larger shivers up Kremlin spines. The Soviet citizen is warned to be on double guard and must refrain from following the bad example of some of his countrymen who have already picked up such ''bourgeois'' tastes from the West.

Soviet veshchism can be said to follow a pattern imported from the West: the desire for a nice apartment, car, furniture, stereo equipment, tapes and records , clothing, jewelry, ad infinitum. But how Soviet veshchism is nourished is quite a different matter, since the availability, quality, and variety of goods can hardly approach that of the West.

For some things, like a car or apartment, there can be a long wait. It also helps to have connections. A friend in a department store, for example, can let you know when a special shipment of dresses or shirts is expected, or can even hold some items for you under the counter.

For many goods, the black market is the only answer. It is the black market in particular that is most closely tied with veshchism in the eyes of the authorities.

A stroll down a street or a ride on the subway in Leningrad or Moscow provides some idea of how extensive the black market in clothing must be. It also suggests that the average Soviet citizen seems not to worry about being criticized for exhibiting his love of things Western.

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It is not unusual to enter a subway car and see the majority of men and women - and 80 to 90 percent of the young generation - wearing blue jeans. Of those wearing American brands, Levi's seem to be the most in evidence, although just about every label can be seen, from Calvin Klein to Gloria Vanderbilt. In fact, the Russian word for ''jeans'' is dzhinzy, pronounced ''JEANS-ee.''

Such an attraction may reflect the tendency to view goods from abroad as better than domestic items. But wearing clothing that may cost as much as a month's salary (average 160 rubles, or about $200), and is available only under the table, may also be a sign of status-seeking.

The quest for status shows up in the direction the black market in clothing has taken in the past year. A number of years back the fartsovshchiki (black-market dealers) were happy to buy any T-shirt or any pair of jeans they could from the willing tourist. Now many dealers will buy only a particular hot brand or style.

What is important is owning a ''genuine'' brand. A pair of Wranglers, for example, fetches the highest price. Moreover, black-market shoppers want not only high-quality goods but also scarce ones.

Any T-shirt, whether the message is associated with musical bands, film, or a university, is still proudly worn by the young Russian today. But now, he is willing to pay extra to stand out among his peers, dressed in all those T-shirts. The least-available and thus most sought-after T-shirt lately has been the Izod ''crocodile'' shirt.

Lately, it is digital watches, Sony Walkman sets, and hand calculators that seem to arouse special interest. Owning a Walkman represents the zenith of status. In the 1980s, electronics will probably attract the most attention and command the highest black-market prices.

Many wonder why the authorities don't try to curb or even eliminate the black market. Western economists point out that the flow of foreign goods, even though through illegal channels, constitutes a thriving second economy that complements the official economy.

More important, the black market helps to appease the Soviet hunger for consumer goods that are often in short supply or completely unavailable. Many Western experts view it as a kind of safety valve for people who have extra money and are looking for better-quality consumer goods, and even a touch of style.

But to restrict the black market would mean restricting the foreign tourist trade, which provides the Soviet government with sought-after foreign currency.

There is no advertising on Soviet TV, except for a half-hour weekly program devoted to ads. But the tens of thousands of tourists who come to the USSR yearly, wearing Levis jeans and Adidas running shoes, serve as models and awaken Russians' desire for certain consumer goods.

Television programs also address the phenomenon of veshchism, often through satire. One half-hour show last summer featured a fashionably dressed woman wearing a suit with high padded shoulders, a glittering belt around her waist, several gold chains around her neck, a stylish fur hat on her head, and fashionably dressy shoes. Her arms are laden with purchases; she's obviously been out shopping a good while.

As well made-up as her Western counterpart, long red fingernails and all, she proceeded to describe her exhausting day. Breathlessly she listed all the things she had been able to buy for herself or her friends, whether through contacts or by standing in lines for hours. She said that she had even taken time off from work to do her shopping because the stores were less crowded then.

As her monologue continued, it became clear that she had no other interest in life except shopping, accumulating things, and talking about them. The viewer can only see her as terribly shallow, pathetic, and ridiculous. The message was: Don't become like her. Don't lose your soul to things.

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