Out of Russia: Old system's heart beats in the bakery

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The Independent Online
MOSCOW - These are lean days for students of Soviet silliness. No more congresses. President Boris Yeltsin finished off the last one with tanks. Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow, something of a Bolshevik himself in his bulldog intolerance and black leather jacket, wants to shut the Lenin Mausoleum too.

But even after Lenin's pickled corpse has been carted from Red Square, the real, not merely symbolic, heart of the old order will beat on - the bakery. I recommend a visit; change is closing in here too.

Let us go to No 7 Bread Factory Lane, to the second floor of Bread Factory No 15. Just look for dozens of rusty, mud-splattered blue lorries parked outside with a single word stencilled in grubby white: Bread.

A tiled corridor leads from the main ovens, past cages full of cakes, to a reinforced metal door. Inside is a small room with potted plants and rickety wooden chairs covered in threadbare red upholstery. This is the mausoleum of the central plan. Only the body is still twitching. Every afternoon at 4pm the room, and identical rooms in Moscow's 30 other bread factories, come to life for the Moscow City Daily Bread Conference.

Each room has a plastic contraption, a Selektor, with a speaker, a red button and a green light. Shortly before the hour, the duty bread officer in each factory plugs in the machine. This connects them to a special communications circuit run by the Moscow Bread Consortium, municipal branch of Ros- khlebprodukt, the nation's Ministry of Bread - and curator of a quaint, if costly, relic of the Soviet system.

At exactly 4pm a woman's voice crackles over the speaker and calls the day's session to order. A roll call follows: 'Bread factories, who is present?'. Each bakery responds: No 4 is represented by a Mrs Chudyakova, No 9 by Mr Ivankin, the Experimental Bread Plant by Mrs Makarova, the Vykhino Bread Works by Mr Vasin. You can almost hear the noise of heels clicking together. Next to report for duty is Moslegtrans, or Moscow Light Transport, and half a dozen truck depots responsible for getting the bread to shops.

Albert Mkrtychan, the director of Bread Factory No 15, breathes a sigh of relief: 'There is nothing important today. You know when they have something to say, the big boss chairs the Selektor meeting.' The last time he did that was a month ago. September was a bad month for bread: Roskhlebprodukt, the state grain monopoly, raised the price of flour twice. It went from 50,000 roubles a ton to 84,000 in just over a week. Far bigger convulsions lie ahead. Radical free-marketeers in the government want the monopoly shut down. A sharp new price hike for flour is due any day now.

When Mr Yeltsin first lifted price controls in January 1992, the bread industry went into a tizzy. Managers like Mr Mkrtychan had spent their whole careers baking centrally planned bread. They were orphaned. There was no one to give orders. A solution was quickly found: with the state no longer fixing prices, factory directors decided to fix them themselves. A loaf that cost around two roubles then, costs around 150 now. The state, though, did not vanish as many had expected. Flour remains a monopoly; the transport companies have been renamed 'joint-stock firms', but little changed.

Lenin promised 'Peace, Land and Bread'. The Communist Party delivered on only the bread bit. Mr Yeltsin must make sure he does the same. 'Bread is a political as well as economic product,' explains Mr Mkrtychan, responsible for 300,000 of the nearly 5 million loaves Moscow needs a day. Bread takes up a bigger part of incomes than housing: 8 per cent in the first half of the year. 'If bread prices increase, so will opposition to the President. This is dangerous.'