MOSCOW -- When I went grocery shopping recently, I found the salt shelf all but empty. All I could find in the huge, shiny supermarket close to my place was a few expensive varieties of salt in fancy bottles, imported from France. Russia's "salt fever" had finally reached my neighborhood.

It began with mysterious rumors that the salt supply was dwindling in Russia. This was enough to cause people all over the country to rush to food stores and buy salt in wholesale quantities. In some regions sales of salt have gone up ten- to twentyfold, leading to price hikes. According to official figures released this month, the price of salt went up 45 percent over January and February. Local authorities did their best to convince people that there was plenty of salt and thus no need to buy emergency reserves -- but to no avail. In some of those places the salt panic extended to sugar (the price went up 33 percent), and before long people were making strategic stockpiles of that product as well.

In mid-February reports of salt frenzy came from Bryansk, Tula, Tambov, Kaluga, Vladimir and Voronezh in central Russia; Nizhny Novgorod and Mordovia in the Volga region; and Orenburg in the Urals. The list is far from complete.

Salt (and matches) have always been perceived as basic, almost symbolic staples that one must lay by in time of trouble such as war or famine. Russia's history is rich in war and famine, but the Soviet Union was notorious for its economy of shortages even in time of peace. The lack of consumer goods was a cultural as well as an economic phenomenon. It was the subject of academic research, literature, folklore and, of course, jokes: "What would be the impact of Soviet rule in the Sahara? A sand shortage."

Memories of waiting in long lines for even basic commodities are deeply ingrained in the minds of the older generations, those mostly unaffected by today's capitalist lifestyle. But apparently the salt frenzy has gone far beyond those circles. The head of the Moscow Department of Food said salt purchases had grown almost tenfold by the peak of the panic. They have gradually subsided, but in early March demand has remained three to five times normal levels.

Clearly not even Moscow, a place teeming with expensive restaurants, malls, gyms, boutiques and other trappings of an oil capital, is immune to panicky buying of basics. Beneath Russia's growing wealth there seems to be a sense of insecurity.

Ever-rising oil and gas prices have generated enormous revenue for energy-exporting Russia, and some part of it has trickled down to ordinary people. The government has increased social spending, which has cut the number of those living below the poverty line. Market analysts talk about the overall growth of consumer potential; news media are trumpeting the consumer boom, and consumer-goods investors in Russia are happily toting up their returns. Polls register growth in the number of people who believe their situation has improved from last year and who expect things to get better still in the next.

In the meantime, the Kremlin has consolidated state power, dramatically curtailed political competition and emasculated democratic institutions, stripping the public of any meaningful role in decision making. The public does not seem to mind. In a pattern common to petro-states it has accepted the contract offered to it, trading political freedoms for welfare and stability. But while welfare is directly related to the amount of money distributed in salaries and pensions, stability depends on a variety of factors, all too often intangible.

While people feel more secure economically, other polling questions yield responses indicating a lack of security. Comparative results from the Levada Center, Russia's best polling agency, indicate that people believe the government is less professional and more corrupt and bureaucratic than it was back in 2001, when Vladimir Putin had just replaced Boris Yeltsin as president and the nation was expecting changes for the better. Today the public assessment of the government's corruption, unprofessionalism and alienation from the people is almost as bad as in 1998, when oil was selling for $10 per barrel, creating a genuine financial crisis.

The Russian people, it seems, will readily give up political participation, but deep down they don't trust the government to take care of them or expect it to ensure security. Indeed, the Levada Center reports that 70 percent of Russians say the nation's sense of security is down from 2001; 65 percent say there's less joy; and 60 percent believe there is more fear. Sociologist Boris Dubin, one of the most insightful observers of Russian attitudes, cites a growing sense of "background anxiety" and "a rising fear of the indifferent government steadily breaking up with its population."

Russian consumers may enjoy the new buying opportunities, but they would much rather believe bizarre rumors about disappearing salt than trust their own government when it tells them there is nothing to worry about. The consumer boom in Russia is often seen as evidence of an emerging middle class expected to buttress political stability. But it could also be viewed as a frenzied rush to seize as much as possible, since at any moment this magical, bountiful world could suddenly disappear.

Masha Lipman, editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Pro et Contra journal, writes a monthly column for The Post.