MOSCOW -- Here in the Soviet Union, where dollars seem to be worth more than they are in America, news that the United States is altering some bills to deter counterfeiters has set off a panic.
Russians are terrified that the new markings being added to $50 and $100 bills will make the old ones useless and that they will be called in just the way 50- and 100-ruble notes were called in here last winter.
Dollars are the mark of privilege in this classless society where privilege is valued above all. Dollars mean you can sit right down at a table in the hard-currency side of Pizza Hut, without having to wait for hours in the ruble side. Dollars are the only way to a Rocky Road ice cream cone at Baskin-Robbins or to a table at a good restaurant or to a flight out of the country.
Dismay over the dollar grew so intense in the last few days that U.S. Ambassador Jack Matlock appeared on Russian television Monday night to say a greenback is a greenback.
"That does not mean the old ones will lose their value," he said.
The Russian announcer was not so sure. "There remains the question how the gradual exchange of bank notes will be carried out on the territory of the Soviet Union," he said. "We hope it won't be another pretext to take away our money."
Last winter, the Soviet government recalled 50- and 100-ruble notes in what it said was an attack on black marketeers, presumably the only ones able to afford such wads in a country where the average monthly wage is 300 rubles. But many citizens, unable to find any thing in the shops to buy, saved their money instead and lost it all.
Soviet newspapers said the scare was caused by a report on Leningrad television, which joked about the new bills.
Americans in Moscow were besieged by questions. A Russian woman who works for a vacationing Australian was desperate to find out how she could protect the $300 her boss left in the office. A young student who had accumulated nearly $50 wondered if it was gone, along with dreams of trips to America.
It is illegal to pay dollars to Soviet citizens working in this country. It has only recently become legal for a Soviet citizen to have a dollar in his pocket. But judging by all the consternation, somehow there are a lot of them out there.