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VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — A cloud of wheat billows across the Sea of Japan as the U.S. freighter Juneau vacuums its hold and unloads 80 tons of grain onto a smaller Russian vessel capable of navigating shallow ports in the region.

The shipment, which began in Vancouver, Washington, two weeks ago and will end up as bread and macaroni in kitchens throughout the Russian Far East, marks the first load of food for the Russian Far East under a $1 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture aid program for Russia.

Over the next few months, the United States will provide a nation in crisis with 3.1 million metric tons of food, including wheat, corn, rice, dry milk, poultry and seeds. This shipment will be distributed by ship and rail to eight cities throughout the Russian Pacific region. A shipload of seeds has already been delivered in St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea.

More than half of the foodstuffs — 1.8 million tons — will be provided free by the U.S. government, and the rest is being sold on a long-term credit basis, said Dennis Walker, director of the USDA’s Moscow office.

In a nation where billions of dollars in public money and worker salaries have a way of evaporating, the U.S. and Russian governments worked out an unusual arrangement for making sure the aid doesn’t end up profiting shady businessmen or corrupt provincial government overlords. The food will be sold to the public, officials said, ensuring a wider food supply and cheaper prices in a region where the average wage is $52.90 per month.

The grain, for example, will go to flour mills in cities ranging from nearby Ussurisk to distant Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, where it will be ground and sold to the public as bread, macaroni or even flour. Profits will then go to the pension fund, increasing the money for elderly Russians, who have been hard hit by the nation’s economic free-fall since the August ruble devaluation (the average pension in Primorye is $17.68 per month). Because both governments know in advance the approximate value of the commodities, they can investigate any mill that fails to cough up sufficient money, officials say.

“You even have places in major cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow where pensioners are starving because of the high cost of food,” Walker said.

The aid comes at a difficult time for America’s former Cold War adversary. The heady years of Moscow’s crony capitalism never brought an improvement in life for most citizens, particularly in the Far East. And with the economic crisis, the standard of living has plummeted in the provinces. Since the devaluation, a region that was not self-sufficient in food has found it can no longer afford most foreign imports.

On top of that, Russians are suffering the trauma of seeing their former superpower collapse into irrelevance and beggary. Everyone from unemployed cab drivers to President Boris Yeltsin have expressed indignation at the NATO bombing of Yugoslav Serbs, a historical ally, over the objections of Russia. Perhaps more than anything else, people are aware that their dreams of forging a mature market economy have ended in unpaid wages and industrial collapse. It is hard for some to accept the idea of handouts.

Alexander Reznichenko, spokesman for the Vladivostok branch of the Communist Party, said Monday, “When I see that 50 percent of our people live from hand-to-mouth, I agree that somebody should help them. On the other hand, American policy uses every means in order to humiliate our country. You can say whatever you want about our past, but we didn’t have hungry people under communists.”

At the same time, some local officials are snipping about food shipments that the U.S. government and Moscow are watching like hawks. The wheat is arriving in the Primorye region, the far southeastern finger of Russia whose governor this year created a “humanitarian aid” effort that critics said was nothing more than a vote-buying scheme. Red Cross officials, who have joined in the governor’s aid effort, say the U.S. effort isn’t even really aid because some of the cost must be repaid.

The Juneau’s crew of 24 has a break after a two-week sea voyage, and 40 Bulgarians, Indians and Russians have come aboard to unload the vessel. Capt. Ron Snyder of Bangor, Maine, said his ship is one of eight vessels sailing for Sabine Transportation Co., based, improbably enough, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Juneau left Portland, Oregon — its second stop — only two-thirds full. Any more grain would have meant it dragging bottom the length of the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific.

Twenty-five percent of U.S. foreign aid shipments must be sent in American ships, Snyder added, and the Juneau has hauled grain everywhere from Bangladesh to Russia in recent months. “We’re pretty much feeding the world,” he said.

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