Roubles and beryozkas

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Foreign currency

Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, the chairman of the tenants’ association of Bolshaya Sadovaya 302-bis, gets arrested because the bribe that he had accepted appeared to be foreign currency. In Bulgakov's time the rouble was - since 1932 - no longer a convertible currency, so government was constantly in need of foreign currency to trade. The exchange rates for foreigners visiting the Soviet Union were extremely high.

Soviet citizens were not allowed to have foreign currency. Buying or selling foreign currency on a black market was a serious crime until the late eighties. Sometimes government went even further. In 1928-1929 and in 1931-1933, the Объединённое государственное политическое управление (ОГПУ) [Obedinyonnoe gosudarstvennoe politicheskoye upravlenye] (OGPU) or the United State Political Administration organised a campaign to confiscate foreign currency, gold and jewels of the population.

The suspected валючыки [valjuchiki] or foreign currency speculators were put in jail for several weeks until they «voluntarily» gave up their foreign currency and their valuables. The confiscated items - jewelry, icons, Faberge eggs, porcelain and rare manuscripts - were sold abroad, mainly in the United States. The regime needed hard currency to import goods to ensure the success of the Five Year Plans. The American historian Robert Chadwell Williams (1917-1991) summed it up as: «Tractors were needed more than Titians, Fords more than Fabergé». A wide variety of methods were used to get the population handing in their goods, such as giving salted foods and abstain people from drinking water. More sinister methods are described in the book I Speak for the Silent (1935) by Professor Vladimir Vyacheslavovich Chernavin (1887-1949), a contemporary of Bulgakov.

Click here to download the full text of I Speak for the Silent [en]


Strange enough, there existed the phenomenon of the берёзка [beryozka] or foreign-currency-only shop. Normal shops in the Soviet Union had a huge problem of goods supply and the goods presented were strongly uniform. And it was quite common to queue for a long time to buy the most basic things. The beryozkas or currency stores, however, overflew with a wide variety of quality products, often from abroad, that had to be paid with dollars or special coupons. A well know example of such store was the Государственный универсальный магазин [Gosudarstvenny universalny magasin] or State universal store, now called Главный универсальный магазин [Glavny universalny magasin] or Main Universal Store on the Red Square in Moscow. Both the old and the contemporary names are abbreviated ГУМ [GUM].

The beryozkas were operated by government and exclusively meant for foreigners and their families, but Communist Party officials, high-ranking bureaucrats and other privileged Russians having foreign currency or special coupons could enter too. Writers like Bulgakov, who sometimes received foreign currency for the publication of their work abroad, were even bound under an obligation to spend their currency there. Bulgakov regularly went to the currency shop Torgsin on the corner of Arbat and Smolenskaya, where, in chapter 28, Behemot smashed everything in sight to pieces and even burnt the place down.

The currency problem has not yet really disappeared in today's Russia. It is no longer like it was under Stalin, but foreign currency is still subject to discussions. When, in the eighties, a free conversion of currency was allowed, the exchange rate plummeted from its official values by almost a factor of 10. That's why Russians often express the value of durable goods, houses or trips abroad in US dollars, although everything is to be paid in roubles. The use of the dollar to express the value of things is  a thorn in the flesh of the Putin administration. In May 2006 a bill was put forward in the Duma, the Russian parliament, to forbid such practices. Yet I still know many Russians who get their salaries - or part of it - paid in US dollars or in euros.

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