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Waiting, Waiting

As lines lengthen in the Soviet Union, tempers shorten - but at least a line means there's something to buy

TIME was when a line symbolized the failure of the Soviet economic system. These days, it's almost a sign of hope: It means there's actually something for sale. Still, the prospect of queuing up for half an hour to buy some mangy apples or two hours to buy a sweater from Bulgaria (which, no doubt, all the other girls in the office will also be wearing the next day) or a whole day to buy something - anything - that has gold in it does not send shivers of delight down Russian spines.

In the early 1980s, according to the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta, the average Muscovite spent one month's worth of work time each year standing in lines. Now the figure is much higher, and still rising just one of many factors contributing to spiraling Soviet inflation and to the growing sense of national humiliation and rage over the collapse of the nation's consumer economy.

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Nowadays, that rage is so unbridled that the average line-stander doesn't much mind when a Western photographer takes aim and shoots. The standard reaction used to be: ``You're trying to embarrass us and exaggerate our problems,'' typically from a babushka who would patriotically smother the camera lens with her beefy hands. Now you're likely to hear: ``Please, take our picture! Show the West how our leaders have failed us!''

As tempers have become shorter, the etiquette of queues has become stricter: In short, no cutting. And even when you're allowed to jump the line, sometimes it's better to think twice before taking up the offer.

One young man learned that lesson recently while standing on the tarmac at 1:30 a.m. waiting to board an Aeroflot plane for Soviet Georgia. The stewardess called for foreigners to board first, and when the young man in question (who looked Georgian) moved to the front, a beefier man (this one definitely Georgian) lost his cool and planted some choice bruises on the younger man's shins and face.

Probably the most-relaxed line in the entire country is the one that leads to McDonald's in Moscow. It's long, but it's fast, and people are generally in a good mood. They know they'll get what they want when they reach the front.

On a recent visit with a Soviet friend, two young women with heavy makeup slipped into line behind us when we were 5 minutes from the front. My friend didn't even blink, nor did anyone around us. Didn't those two girls just cut? I whispered. ``Yah, but so what?'' he shrugged. ``You got to pick your battles.'' -30-{et

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