Рубли и берёзки
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. There were two major campaigns, with raids on private houses, informers, imputations and all that follows, to confiscate jewellery and valuables from citizens.
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.
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 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 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 international hotels are more careful. Their tariffs are published in "units", and the value of one "unit" is somewhere between one dollar and one euro. But the final invoice is made up 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.