A cooperative looking for financial sponsorship and a factory seeking to get rid of worthless cans made a tidy profit by canning air that's now selling for up to 5 rubles (US$8), according to a Soviet newspaper.

The government newspaper Izvestia this week ran a front-page article about sales of air from the Black Sea port of Odessa, praising it as a living illustration of the possibilities of free initiative.Izvestia's reaction was an indication of the freer atmosphere fostered by Soviet Communist Party Leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev's reforms. In previous years, any such effort would have been roundly criticized as an effort to bilk consumers that did not contribute to the Soviet economy.

Izvestia said the state-run Odessa firm Studio was seeking financial sponsorship for a cooperative it was starting. It did not say specifically what kind of work Studio or its offshoot are involved in.

One of the places Studio turned for help was a factory that cans fruit, juices and jams. The factory offered to sell thousands of cans it had purchased several years earlier and then decided it could not use.

After short, but fruitful negotiations, the cans were obtained by the cooperative for the reasonable price of 10 kopeks (about 16 U.S. cents) a piece, although it would seem the goods were completely useless, Izvestia said.

The cooperative ordered labels saying: Odessa Air. Gathered on the city's streets during the Days of 'Humor,' and sold them on April 1, April Fool's day, Izvestia said.

The cans of air, originally sold for 60 kopecks (about US$1) but now are going for as much as 5 rubles, the paper said.

The factory received 2,000 rubles (about US$3,200) for the cans, and the cooperative is making 20 kopeks (32 US cents) profit on every can, Izvestia said.

Izvestia noted that not every Soviet city is Odessa, which has a reputation throughout the country for its anything-goes attitude, but said the experience shows a joke can help raise the level of commercial activity, turning piled-up burdens into needed goods.