Nuttin Like New Money

How much is a ruble worth these days anyway?

When I first arrived in Moscow, almost a year ago now, I remember the confusion
of dealing with the currency. It was about 5,500 roubles to the dollar then,
and falling daily. The money was a bit confusing because you never knew what
the price really was. Did 6.00 in a store mean 600 roubles, or 6,000 roubles?
I finally got used to saying “five thousand, five hundred” for something
worth about a dollar, when the Russian government deiced to re-denominate
the currency.

The government lopped of three zeros, making the exchange rate six to the
dollar, instead of six thousand [Jan 99 Update: Its now 23 rubles
to the dollar
]. This created a bit of confusion for those of us used
to the old system and completely flips out the tourists. I still have to
say “ten thousand, five hundred” for a cashier to understand I want to purchase
something worth ten roubles and fifty kopecki.

Now I may give her a bill with ten on it, or ten thousand, or two coins with
five on them, or a bill with five thousand and a coin with five. Yes, it
is confusing, but at least the Russian government made the new bills the
same color as the old bills, so they look the same. If it is ten or ten thousand,
it is the same color and shape, just one is missing the zeros. After a while
we are to move onto the new currency exclusively, but I am dreading this
day.

As much as I enjoy paying a reasonable amount for products, and don’t have
to figure out how to say” six million, five hundred forty-two thousand, six
hundred to purchase something, I hate the new money. We now have coins again!
I was so happy to live here for the fist six months and not have to carry
any change around. I dislike coins. They are bulky, heavy and fall out of
my wallet and pockets all to frequently.

Now, as I walk around Moscow, I am constantly refusing to take coins, and
paying in exact change whenever I am forced to take the damn things. Of course,
my plight in Moscow is nothing compared to the currency injustices in the
provinces. Just check out what happens in Vladiviostok:

The Moscow Times, April 25, 1998

You Need Strong Arms On Payday in Far East

By Russell Working

The other day, our accountant, Nelly Fyodorovna, stuck her head in the door
and asked for help. The car had returned from the bank, and she needed some
men to carry the bankroll upstairs.

We sprang to help. Our monthly payday was late, and most of us were eager
to stuff our pockets with packets of tattered 500 old-ruble notes, a few
crisp Peter the Greats, or whatever they gave us this time. Only when we
got to the car did it become obvious why our help was needed. The entire
payroll had arrived in 5-ruble coins. Nelly Fyodorovna did not appreciate
did not appreciate our guffaws. She was going to have to count it out.

Not long ago, I fretted in this space about what might happen if we were
paid in change; we used to get 500-ruble notes, worth 50 kopeck now. Five
rubles are a little easier to deal with, but getting a month’s salary in
coins worth 83 cents apiece somehow devalues the experience. (I hasten to
add that I am grateful to get paid at all; we have gone up to two months
without pay in the past.)

And the problem originated in Moscow. The Central Bank, our accountant said,
had ordered local savings institutions to distribute a vast run of 5-ruble
coins. So Inkombank provided our company’s payroll in a form about as convenient
as a shipload of pieces of eight.

The problems were obvious as we lined up at the cashier’s window. Nelly
Fyodorovna counted the coins one by one into her skirt. When she reached
40, she scooped them up and dumped them in our hands. Then she started again.
We dropped the coins into whatever receptacle we could find. I brought a
box that houses our two-volume desktop Time World Atlas and Dictionary/Thesaurus,
but it was quickly apparent that it wasn’t big enough. I dashed to a market
next door- and bought a sturdy plastic shopping bag. When we were done, I
sulked away like Judas Isacariot, clutching my silver.

Now I face the difficult task of getting rid of the coins. People were paid
in change all over Vladivostok and even in Chita, where an employee’s
mother-in-law took a silver salary.

“Can I please exchange these for bank notes?”
“No. 1 have too many of those already.”
“How about 50?”
“No.”
“What about 10 rubles? Please?”
“Oh, all right.”

The cashier slides over a grubby 10 and I experience a minor triumph. My
personal finances are evolving, step by step, like the Russian economy, to
a higher level. It would be easier to take my silver back to Inkombank
but that won’t work. The banks refuse to exchange them.

Russell Working is editor of the Vladivostok News