Rubles: Who Needs 'em?

SCOTT SHANE

April 20, 1991|By SCOTT SHANE

MOSCOW. — Soviet and Western economists say the root of the economic catastrophe here is that the government has been printing too PTC much money. To a layman's clearer eye, it's obvious that the government has not been printing too much money. It has been printing the wrong kind of money -- to wit, rubles.

Rubles -- who needs 'em? There's less and less available for rubles, and it costs more and more. The government canceled the old 50- and 100-ruble notes and is reported to be preparing to withdraw 25-ruble notes. The Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis at the Central Market won't take even the new 50- and 100-ruble notes for their melons and roses, reasoning that if the old ones were withdrawn, maybe the new ones will be, too.

The two guys who recently built some shelves for The Sun bureau understood the unreliability of the ruble. They wanted only ''zelyonenki'' -- from zelyony, the Russian word for green. Greenbacks.

''Nobody's gonna withdraw these,'' said Kostya, clutching a fistful of dollar bills with satisfaction.

The Soviet government should quit printing rubles and print zelyonenki! Hey, the dollar may not be the strongest currency in the world, but here in Russia it's well-known and well-respected. The only currency more freely convertible than dollars is vodka, and the bottles are awkward to carry around in the necessary quantity.

There's all kinds of stuff available here for dollars. I know, because entrepreneurs get my name out of the phone book and send me their advertisements. (The phone book, which lists only foreigners and is the only one in Moscow with residential listings, is sold only for dollars.)

For starters, for $20 an hour, I can abandon Moscow's 15-kopeck metro, buses and trolleys and ride around in a chauffeured silver Lincoln Super Stretch Limousine from Intourservice.

''We offer the utmost in comfort and elegance: VCR, hi-fi stereo, tinted windows, privacy divider, intercom, double climate-control system, soft-drink bar and overhead control system,'' -- so says the ad, accompanied by a photo of a car that makes Mikhail Gorbachev's ZIL look positively sawed-off.

If I want to buy a car, and I have only rubles, the best thing is for me to make a deal with, say, a World War II vet who's been on the vets' waiting list for a decade or so and may have a shot at buying a boxy little Soviet HD. When it breaks down, if I am lucky, I can flag down a fellow-suffering motorist and get him to tow me with a rope to my friend's aunt's cousin's friend, say, who fixes cars on the side.

For my dollars, by contrast, I can buy Nissans or Toyotas or Volvos or Mercedes, equipped to order. If the one I choose breaks down, dollars will persuade a real tow truck to take it to the dealer-licensed repair shops that have opened up here.

An ordinary Muscovite trying to move out of his parents' apartment can, if he's lucky, sign up at work and wait for many years with his fingers crossed. With dollars, I can choose tomorrow from 14 apartments on the list somebody left in my mailbox: ''Leninsky Prospekt. Universitet metro. Beautiful two-roomer, Western kitchen. Nicely furnished. $450 per month.''

Hungry? You can take your rubles and slog around hunting for a line with something at the end. I can take my zelyonenki, or my credit card, to a grocery store such as Stockmann's (Finnish) or Sadko (Swiss) and push my cart around, loading it up Western-style with bananas or kiwi fruit.

I can get Pizza Hut pizza or Baskin-Robbins ice cream without a wait. I can pay $2 a cup for coffee at the Cafe Vienna or $20 for brunch (six kinds of juice!) at the Hotel Metropol, where the plaque says Lenin himself visited and spoke on numerous occasions, presumably before the brunch was on offer.

Feeling ill in Moscow? Ordinary folks can take their chances on 20-to-a-ward hospitals that boil their syringes, you hope, between patients. They can search for medications in drugstores where herbal cures are readily available but antibiotics not usually to be had, not even for bribes.

I can take my dollars to one of a half-dozen joint-venture medical or dental clinics with modern equipment and a cornucopia of drugs.

If whatever a person has come down with is truly life-threatening, his most realistic ruble option is simply to die. With dollars and the promotion telexed to my office from Euro-Flite Ltd. in Helsinki, Finland, I can phone for an air ambulance.

A Falcon-20 jet, with room ''for 10 passengers or two stretchers,'' staffed by doctors and nurses ''who understand the needs of the airborne patient,'' will fly me out to Helsinki or the European city of my choice.

The price? On the steep side, what with the cost of jet fuel and everything -- 10,000 zelyonenki and up.

Start the printing presses.

Scott Shane, The Sun's Moscow correspondent, is paid in dollars.

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