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Muscovites in search of winter boots find a full array of summer sandals

ONE sector of the Soviet economy is really down at the heels. The problem is so bad that tongues are wagging even in the Kremlin. In fact, it has caused a lot of sole-searching all over the Soviet Union.

And it has even given American propagandists a chance to hit the Soviet Union below the belt, as it were.

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The problem is shoes (in case you hadn't guessed). And puns aside, it's not funny for a lot of Soviet shoppers.

For Moscow is coated in muddy slush and the temperature is skittering just below the freezing point. Shop around for a good pair of winter shoes, and you're in for a long trek.

A recent shopping trip found two of the city's largest shoe stores closed for inventory-taking - although this is one of the Soviet Union's heaviest shopping seasons. (One of the shops, according to a man who had intended to go inside, had only started doing business a few weeks before.) There were no signs informing shoppers when the stores would reopen.

The women's department in a shop on the Garden Ring Road around Moscow had 32 open-toe and summer styles for sale. All save one of the 14 pairs of boots on display were black or brown. A brown suede pair, lined with synthetic pile, costs 93.50 rubles, or about $112. They're seamed so that the white pile lining is exposed to the elements along the length of the boot, wicking water inside and sopping up mud.

There are lots of shoes in the men's department, but almost all of them have stacked heels - the kind that faded from popularity in the West in the 1970s.

At a children's shoe store on Kutuzovsky Prospect, there are eight models of sandals, but only four styles of boots (two each for boys and girls).

Judging by recent newspaper articles and official speeches, the situation is no better elsewhere.

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Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, says it has been inundated with letters complaining about shortages of shoes. Why, shoppers are asking, was it hard to find sandals last summer, but now they're in abundance? And why, they ask, is it so hard to find winter boots now?

Pravda said that the government official responsible, Minister of Light Industries Nikolai Tarasov, has been severely criticized for the situation at closed sessions of the country's parliament.

Even Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko has singled out the footwear industry as meriting special censure for failing to meet consumer needs.

In 1983 this country manufactured more than 700 million pairs of leather shoes and 200 million pairs of felt and rubber footwear. In addition, it imported more than 60 million pairs from its East-bloc allies.

But the problem cannot be fully explained by statistics, for it seems that much of the footwear is poorly made, badly styled, or both, and consumers are loath to buy it.

''We do have a problem with shoes,'' concedes one woman from Moscow. Her own beige leather boots, she admits, are imported and expensive, but she says she was glad to be able to get them at all. (A friend who works in a shoe shop kept them behind the counter for her.)

Others are not so fortunate. Earlier, Pravda revealed that consumers had returned more than 6 million shoddy pairs of shoes during the first six months of this year. Pravda also wrote of major shortages in stores even as warehouses bulged with unwanted footwear.

A scientist from Sverdlovsk, writing to the newspaper Soviet Culture, noted the irony of shop windows, counters, and warehouses spilling over with goods while consumers walk past them with a ''sour look'' on their faces.

The consumer, he said, cannot understand why ''footwear looks as if it has been chopped into shape with an ax, and why shoes pinch one's foot as if made of wood (and) yet fall to pieces after one week's wear as if made of cardboard.''

The problem is even worse for fashion-conscious young people. The trade-union newspaper Trud said that surveys by the All-Union Research Institute of Popular Consumer Studies revealed that Soviet young people are keen to buy running shoes (along with blue jeans and T-shirts with logotypes on them), but can't find them.

The government's economic plan, according to the Trud article, calls for 250 boutiques catering to young people. In fact, it says, there are only 37.

While hapless Soviet consumers slog on in search of wanted footwear, America's imagemakers have been handed a great propaganda opportunity. And they have, pardon the expression, run with it.

The magazine America Illustrated - a Russian-language magazine sold here by the United States government - published a 13-page spread last summer about the American shoe industry. There were lavish color close-ups of women's pumps, men's boots, and babies' booties. If shoes ever looked smug, these did.

And what the pictures didn't say, the numbers did. One featured shoe style, an article noted, was one of 400 designs produced by one shoe company, and that company was only one of 10 subsidiaries of a corporation that turned out 10 million pairs annually. And that company is only the third-largest shoe firm in the United States. Such variety and choice born of competition is unheard of here, given this country's centrally planned economy.

One article in the magazine detailed the use of computers to design and manufacture shoes. Another was accompanied by a color photograph spread over two pages showing the display window of a Chicago-area shoe store. Its title was perhaps the unkindest cut of all: It read simply ''shoes for every foot.''

The Sverdlovsk scientist, E. Rozenberg, suggested that the Soviet state should strive for the ''unequivocal eradication'' of shortages of popular goods, stop producing ''unsellable'' goods and concentrate instead on those that are in demand, and target new consumer goods ''to the conditions of the real life of the people.''

His final plaint was about the economy's consumer shortcomings. But it could just as easily have been about a shoe that pinches.

If the problem is not dealt with, he said, ''as time passes, (it) can only get worse.''

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