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Soviet leaders try to soothe fears of winter cold, hunger

With winter already at the door, Soviet officials tried Monday to reassure a population frightened by erratic food supplies and growing economic chaos that they would not spend the coming months cold and hungry. Despite their efforts, there were signs of widespread fear and reports of shortages.

Trying to allay fears that this winter would be the worst in a generation, Deputy Prime Minister Lev D. Ryabev reported to the Supreme Soviet that the country's fuel reserves would last until spring.

Despite Ryabev's comforting statistics, which showed a drop in oil and coal supplies offset by a rise in gas, Supreme Soviet deputies took the floor, one after another, to describe areas where they knew that the energy system was falling apart.

"Whole neighborhoods are frozen in Novosibirsk, Kemerovo and other Siberian cities, as well as in central Russia," Vladimir V. Kazarezov of Novosibirsk told other members of the Supreme Soviet, the country's legislature.

"In recent years, we were saved by warm winters," he said. "If a heavy frost sets in this year, that's the end of us."

Deputies blamed governmental incompetence on all levels for the energy shortfalls, particularly condemning the decision to cut capital investment across the board in order to funnel more money into satisfying the public clamor for consumer goods.

"How could they allow a cut of 30 percent in capital investment in energy?" Kazarezov demanded, pointing out that building houses does no good if they cannot be heated and growing more food has no effect if there is no fuel to get it to the stores.

Ryabov said that, in all, 40 major Soviet cities are suffering from a 10 percent to 20 percent energy shortage. Among them are the Volga industrial center of Kuibyshev and Vorkuta, beyond the Arctic Circle.

Those dry statistics did little, however, to capture the utter misery of complaints like those that have poured into a special series now being run in the Communist Party daily, Pravda, under the headline "Will We Be Warm?"

"We've been cluttering the doorsteps of officials for three years on the question of condemning our building," said one letter from the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky. "It's impossible to live here because of the cold and damp; in the basement there is a foot and a half of water. The walls are covered with a thick layer of fungus. In the winter, our 77-year-old mother-in-law, who lives here, walks around in a fur coat and felt boots."

Moscow Deputy Mayor Sergei B. Stankevich also tried to calm fears of the coming winter, announcing at Moscow City Hall that the capital's food stockpiles equaled last year's.

Earlier reports indicated there was a major shortfall in potatoes, a key staple of the Russian diet, and most vegetables. Stankevich did not deny that supplies fell short; he said only that Moscow was working on importing all the food it needed to replenish its stocks.

And to ensure enough fuel for heating and electricity, the Soviet Union has cut its oil exports, mainly to Eastern Europe, despite a desperate need to earn more foreign currency.

"With its peasant history, our people have always feared winter," said Alexei M. Yemelianov, an economist. "But today they're awaiting winter with true anxiety. This winter could be not only cold and hungry, but politically explosive as well."

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