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It's on the broken sidewalks outside the barren, dimly lit food stores that the collapse of an exhausted Soviet economy is coming home for Mikhail Gorbachev.

They begin in the mornings, during the Moscow rush hour, and last until the early afternoon as people patiently wait for the stores to sell out their allocations of meat, sausage and fish.In Leningrad, the picture is even bleaker. The only thing on sale at one state-run butcher shop was a tray of chicken feet and chicken heads.

"If there are products I will sell them. It depends not on the shop," says the shopkeeper. "It's much worse now. All the shops here are empty."

That's not exactly correct. There is plenty of food at the new privately run cooperatives, but at prices that are six times higher than those at the state-run stores. And it's misleading to say people are starving.

What's happened here is an example of the risk of introducing just a little bit of free market into a controlled economy.

Under Gorbachev's perestroika program of loosening the Communist Party's iron grip on the Soviet economy, cooperatives were introduced in 1987 to put more food and clothing on sale, and to wipe out the burgeoning black market.

Communists like cooperatives because they understand them, and cooperatives were permitted to find their own source of supplies and set their own prices, as long as they sold in rubles.

On the street, however, the cooperatives came to be hated. Soviets consumers contend the cooperatives are run by brigands and controlled by their own mafia.

The impact of cooperatives has been devastating to the communist food supply system. In theory, Soviet state farms are supposed to distribute their products only through state stores; it's illegal for farms to sell to the cooperatives. But in practice, the black market dealing is a way of communist life. It's impossible to tell the parentage of a sausage.

The profits from such corruption are enormous. After price increases last April, meat now sells for 7 rubles a kilogram (about 10 cents a pound at the current tourist exchange rate) in the state-run stores. That's affordable for the average Soviet, who earns 380 rubles a month, but the stores have no meat to sell. The same meat goes for 40 rubles a kilogram in the private cooperatives, where there is plenty to sell.

The distortions in the food supply are, in turn, creating other shortages.

Factory managers moan their workers disappear for hours to stand in line in order to buy food. Some factories have resorted to making their own arrangements with state farms to have meat and potatoes sold on the shop floor so the inconvenience to the workers will be minimized.

The solution, reformers say, is to move as quickly as possible to a full market economy.

"There is only one option, and that is a market economy. It is clear to every ninth man and woman out of ten," said Lev Lubimov of Moscow's Institute of World Economy, and an economic adviser to Gorbachev.

There are signs now that Gorbachev is coming around to thinking the same way. After tinkering with halfhearted measures, the communists are under pressure to make the system fair for all.