Capitalism -- of a sort -- in the shadow of the Kremlin
''Beef, pork, mutton,'' chants the stocky, aproned farmwoman over the counterful of meat she has carted into the Soviet capital at dawn from her home hundreds of miles to the southwest. ''Eight rubles a kilogram. . . .''
''Seven rubles,'' ventures a well-dressed woman flanked by a husband toting two straw shopping bags.
''Seven-and-a-half,'' comes the rebuttal, with a fatal hint of compromise. And the haggling begins.
Capitalism, of a sort, is alive and well in Moscow's Central Market.
Gosplan, the mammoth state planning organization, does not reign here. Supply and demand do - with an OK from the Soviet powers that be.
Prices are steep, and inching steeper. But none of this seems much to deter the steady growth of such private farmers' markets in the capital and in other Soviet cities. By official figures, some 20 percent more vegetables have found their way to such outlets during the past five years, and 50 percent more meat.
For consumers with rubles to spare, the bustling rows of farmers' stalls mean an escape from chronic shortages - particularly of meat and dairy products - in state-controlled food stores.
Not just quantity, but quality, attracts shoppers. In the Central Market - which is actually smaller and less well-stocked than some other private markets in Moscow - enticing rows of watermelon carry a price tag of anywhere from 1 to 3 rubles per kilogram. This works out to something like $20, at the official exchange rate, for the average melon.
Some prize specimens go for twice as much - or about 10 times what you would pay in a state store. Yet a slight Tatar woman peddling her own watermelon crop seems unconcerned by the official competition. ''Do you like green watermelon?'' she asks, smiling.
Even in the farmers' markets, not all is as rosy as a ripe watermelon. There, too, beef has been scarce of late.
''This is not the time that cattle are being slaughtered,'' explains a farmwoman at the Central Market. Visually, the markets can be unappetizing. They are also often overcrowded.
And the prices, even with haggling, are beyond the reach of many Soviet consumers. Eight rubles a kilogram (some $10 for 2.2 pounds) is a lot to pay for meat in a nation where the average daily wage is a little under 6 rubles.
Still, the Soviet authorities have been moving to encourage the so-called ''private plots'' that supply the markets. These small parcels of land are tilled by individual workers outside the framework of the huge state and cooperative farms.
A Pravda commentary Aug. 23 had some nice things to say both about farmers' markets and about their distinctly noncommunist approach to pricing.
The article suggested that rather than artificially limit prices in these markets - as the state does, with much propaganda fanfare, in official food outlets - the authorities should try to lure more farmers to peddle their goods there. Increases in supply would naturally draw prices downward.
The Pravda commentary's ideas for encouraging the farmers' markets included a general improvement of the physical environment in the markets and construction of special hostelries for peddlers from the countryside. It is conceivable that, gradually, such reforms will occur.
From a purely economic standpoint, some quite influential officials here see value in using free-market forces to help sort out the inefficiencies and shortages generated by the centrally directed Soviet system. But as one such official commented to the Monitor, this kind of economic issue involves political choices as well.
For the time being at least, the focus of Soviet agricultural policy is likely to remain the large state and cooperative farms and, on the marketing side, the heavily subsidized but irregularly supplied state shops.