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How to eat dinner without offending your comrades

WHEN you drop a fork during a dinner party, it is not advisable to crawl around on the floor to retrieve it. Before going out to eat, practice at home -- eating with a book under each arm. If you don't drop the book when you raise your arms, there's a good chance you won't be elbowing the person at your side. And if the main course is fish, don't launch into a lecture on the weird parasites that live in the bodies of marine creatures.

These are some of the nuggets of wisdom that Soviet readers have been getting in their newspapers and magazines of late. Various periodicals claim that Soviet manners are awful, and, worse, that there are few guides to etiquette available. What a pretty pass things have come to, complained an editorial in a weekly supplement to the official government newspaper, Izvestia, if ``like little children'' citizens must be ``continually reminded'' how to behave.

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Yet it's true. Every workday evening, for example, stern-voiced announcers on radio and television advise Soviet citizens to turn down the volume on their sets so as not to disturb neighbors. And various articles in the state-controlled press routinely cajole Soviets on the dos and don'ts of everything from the proper way to stand in queues (don't shove and jostle) to how to respond if someone asks you to hold a parcel while they bend over and tie a shoestring (don't respond: ``You've got to be kidding. '')

One of the most persevering publications in the battle against boorishness has been the twice-monthly magazine New Generation, published by the Young Communist League. In the columns of the glossy, youth-oriented magazine, Beata Busheleva -- a sort of Soviet ``Miss Manners'' -- unflinchingly handles some ticklish questions.

What do you do, for example, when guests trudge through the mud and snow of Moscow to come to a dinner party, then threaten to foul your carpets with their filthy boots? Russian tradition calls for offering them tapochki, loose-fitting slippers, in return for leaving their dirty shoes at the door.

But don't people who have given a lot of thought to their attire have a right to feel ``depressed'' at having to ruin their appearance by padding about in house shoes that don't match their otherwise splendid outfit? The solution? Encourage guests to bring their own house shoes.

Don't leave your guests at the door, either, while you dash off to the kitchen to check on the meal. Invite them in, and introduce them to other guests. Otherwise, the evening may pass in embarrassed silence.

And don't invite too many people, since Soviet flats are notoriously small. If you're having to create more seating space by putting wooden planks on top of kitchen stools, your guest list is too long.

Feel free to ``drop polite hints'' when you are ``tired'' of your guests, but don't fling open all the windows to make the temperature drop uncomfortably low. Don't force visitors to look at the family album, or sit through your son's rendition of ``A Million Crimson Roses.'' But do play the guitar, recite poetry, or bring out a chess set.

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If the visitors are the man-of-the-house's comrades from work, the woman should serve them tea and then make herself scarce, ``so as not to disturb the masculine talk.''

If you are the visitor, then accept that your hosts will understand if you accidentally break the crockery, knock over a glass, or splatter the table cloth with dropped food. Don't try to piece the broken plate back together, make loud promises to replace the glass the very next day, or dump salt over the food stain to absorb it.

If the cutlery is dirty, don't make a show of wiping it with your napkin. Drink the soup from the side of the spoon, not the tip, and don't try to fold the napkin back up in the fancy shape in which you found it. Avoid sniffing the food you're offered before putting it on your plate or, worse, passing it on to the next person untouched.

``It is hard to imagine this sort of behavior titillating the appetite of those around you,'' said Ms. Busheleva.

Ah, so many things to remember. Isn't it all written down somewhere in one handy reference? Well, as a matter of fact, no. Since the prerevolutionary (1892) ``Collection of Rules and Advice for All Occasions of Public and Family Life,'' there have been few guides to etiquette published here. Consequently, the new Soviet man has lacked a reliable guide for smoothing off the rough edges of public and private behavior.

One reporter for the newspaper of the Young Communist League set out to track an etiquette guide down. The state publishing committee headquarters drew a blank, and referred her to its ``department of coordination of author's suggestions and realization of requests for publication.'' No luck there, either, but she was referred to the ``all-union bookchamber'' organization. They suggested a reference library, which in turn referred her to the most authoritative of all Soviet libraries, the Lenin Library in Moscow. That library only was able to come up with seven books published in the past five years that bore ``a vague relation to the subject'' of manners.

The weekly supplement proposed, ``Let us think about each other continually.'' Only then, it concluded, ``will we have an easier and more pleasant life.''

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