Sirloin steak in Moscow costs only about half what it does here. That's the good news. The bad news—maybe you've guessed it already—is that there isn't any sirloin for sale, at least not in the government stores patronized by ordinary Muscovites. If you could locate a piece of sirloin at all—a feat intermittently possible in a handful of the Soviet Union's biggest cities—the true cost (the cost in work-time units) would be about 130 percent higher than in the United States.
Consider: The average factory worker in the USSR makes $237.90 a month (according to Narkhoz 80, a Soviet publication) and a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of sirloin steak costs $4.12 (translating rubles into dollars). On the other hand, Ivan's counterpart, the exploited American proletarian, takes home $983.98 a month (according to the US Department of Labor), and his kilogram of sirloin costs $7.46. That means that Ivan has to serve the Motherland for three hours and two minutes for his (elusive) sirloin, while John need slave for his capitalist masters a mere one hour and 19 minutes for the same size cut of meat. (And you can bet your A-1 sauce that John's local supermarket has lots of sirloin on hand.)
This somewhat facetious but pointed example of the disparity between the Soviet and American worker is only one of many nuggets of information, many of them more important, contained in a new survey of consumer prices and take-home pay in Moscow and four Western metropolises: Washington, London, Paris, and Munich. The survey focused on blue-collar workers.
Keith Bush, director of research at Radio Liberty and possessor of an international reputation in the field of Soviet economics, led a team of 60 in collecting the data earlier this year. Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, a sister organization, between them maintain the largest staff of Soviet-bloc experts in the world, outside of government.
In every area of the survey the American worker comes out on top. His wages are higher, his cost of living lower. Western Europeans follow fairly closely behind.
Ivan lags badly. The same "weekly food basket" (23 items, from bread to sausages to cigarettes) that costs John $108.47 in Washington costs Ivan $90.68. That might seem good, but wait. John pays 20 percent more for his weekly groceries but earns a whopping 313 percent more. And that despite the fact that Soviet industrial workers are the cream of the Revolution, making on average 10 percent higher wages than comrades in other occupations. John spends 18.6 hours on the job for his groceries; Ivan, 53.5 hours.
Besides tallying a weekly food basket, Radio Liberty charted prices for 177 separate consumer goods and services, all the way up to such major items as cars and television sets. Of 99 foods compared, only three—rye bread, codfish, and beets—were cheaper in Moscow in real terms; that is, in work-time units, the most accurate measure of living standards. Of 20 cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and the like, Moscow produced one "find": cotton balls.
The Soviet capital is a sweet eater's nightmare. A chocolate bar "costs" 92 minutes there to 6 minutes here; a liter of ice cream, 118 to 12; and a liter of soft drink, 57 to 5. (Cuban sugar doesn't come cheap.) Coffee addicts, too, are in trouble in Moscow. The stuff is liquid gold: $27.82 a kilogram—two and a half days' work.
If coffee is liquid gold, alcoholic beverages are liquid silver. Anything stronger than beer—even wine—is priced prohibitively in a so far vain effort to dry out the populace. A fifth of vodka—the fluid a Russian bleeds if you prick him—goes for $10.22: almost a day on the job. (Beer, by contrast, costs "only" 50 percent more than in the United States.)
There simply aren't many good buys in Moscow. Bus and subway fares are inexpensive. So are hotel rooms (if you can get permission to rent one, which you can't), gas and electricity (but for how much longer in view of the USSR's peaking energy output?), phone calls, telegrams, haircuts, manicures, and above all, apartments. (They're free but also scarce and rationed. About 30 percent of Muscovites live in dormitories, communal shelters, etc.) As against the above, it would take another 10 or 20 column-inches to list all the things in the Radio Liberty survey that are anything but bargains. To cite two examples: A small car, the equivalent of a Ford Escort, sells for $12,656—nearly four and a half years' wages. A color TV is $945 or four months of work (two weeks for an American).
Still, Moscow residents are better off than their rural relations. By Soviet standards, the stores of the capital are amply stocked, even though the Radio Liberty shoppers could not find basic commodities like pork chops, tomatoes, and Kleenexes (and sirloin steak).
Prices in the government stores are tightly controlled and lower than on the black market (obviously) or what the operators of kolkhozes (private farm plots) charge. But the "low" prices are sustained by government subsidies, and when an item becomes too expensive for the state to produce, it disappears. Thus, gaps on the shelves or bare shelves. It is the Soviet way of coping with an inflation that officially does not exist.
When Muscovites get to feeling glum about the quality of life, at least in its material aspects, they might console themselves by reflecting on the people of Krasnodar. No tiny village, it is a city of half a million inhabitants. A correspondent for Literaturnaya Gazeta, sent there to scout the local stores for evidences of soap, socks, underwear, toothbrushes, and other articles, was forced to write back that no such exotica were to be discovered in all of Krasnodar.
Even Pravda recently reported a national shortage of eyeglasses—which might or might not explain something about the bad and worsening condition of the Soviet economy and consumer. After all, nobody ever accused the Soviet central planners of far-sightedness.
Robert de Camara works in public relations for a large corporation.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Cost of Communism".