Four years of perestroika has given Soviet citizens multicandidate elections, freedom to travel abroad, beauty contests and even the chance to read "Lolita." And empty supermarket shelves.
"For all purposes, you can say there is practically nothing in the stores; even soap is rationed," said Evgeny Sheludikov, 37, who was visiting Moscow from his native Feodosia in the Crimea on the Black Sea.The rapid disappearance, or just plain absence, of sugar, soap powder, cheese, tomatoes, shampoo, face creams, perfume and shoes has reinforced the conviction that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, or economic restructuring, is not working.
The lack of goods never before in short supply has baffled, perplexed and angered Gorbachev. In his visit with miners in the Ukraine in late February, the Soviet president expressed his frustration.
"Why, Mikhail Sergeyevich, people say, why is it that all of a sudden all the things that only yesterday were available are now in short supply - laundry soap, all kinds of toothpaste, everything that used to be in abundant supply, where has it all gone to," Gorbachev said in the city of Donetsk.
"As sad as it is to say, we will have to introduce rationing of sugar beginning in May," V. Zharov, a high-ranking Moscow municipal official, said. "Every Muscovite, including children and temporary residents will be guaranteed 2 kilograms for May, and 3 for June and July during the jam making season."
The sugar shortages can be explained in part because of Gorbachev's restrictions on alcohol sales. Sugar is being used for making moonshine.
Panic buying and hording are aggravating the shortages. One woman says that in her Moscow neighborhood nearly every household has bought 10 or more kilos of sugar. "That's why there is none in the stores," she said.
But there have been pleasant changes, too, in Gorbachev's Russia.
This month, newspaper readers devoured with relish the results of the first multicandidate elections in 70 years and the trouncing of scores of Party candidates in Moscow, Leningrad and other major Soviet cities.
They also read about the latest round in the selection of the first Miss USSR.
In a weekly newspaper supplement, Nedelya (Week), Masha Kalinina whined about how tough it was to be Miss Moscow, a title she captured in the country's first ever beauty pageant.