The ruble gets ready to shed some zeros Money: Russian paper money since the time of the czars has registered the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of a society.

Sun Journal

November 02, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Anna Ivanovna Rutskaya, guardian of Russia's monetary past, heaves a delicate shoulder against the 8-inch-thick steel door that keeps thieves and other meddlesome visitors out of her museum.

Several elegant shoves later, the door creaks open, and Rutskaya admits the rare outsider to the monetary museum, hidden off a quiet corridor on the second floor of Russia's turn-of-the century Central Bank building in old Moscow. She smiles as she clangs shut a cell-like barred door and crisply turns the lock shut.

"It's all here," she says. "On paper money you can see all the fluctuations of our economy and society, all the surges and falls. Our Russian history is very rich."

That history is about to take another twist. On Jan. 1, the government plans to come to terms -- if only emotionally -- with the inflation that has impoverished the Russian people since the Soviet Union dissolved Dec. 31, 1991.

The Central Bank will lop three zeros off the ruble and issue new notes reflecting the redenomination. Overnight, 50,000 rubles will turn into 50. Ten thousand rubles will become 10.

"Maybe once again we can buy something for 15 kopecks," says Rutskaya, recalling the price of a subway ride in 1991. That ride costs 2,500 rubles today. With redenomination, the price will be 2 rubles 50 kopecks in January.

The old and new rubles are to circulate simultaneously throughout 1998, in an attempt to forestall any panic over the change. At the end of 1998, the old rubles will be withdrawn.

Over at the museum, the money of two centuries lies in glass cases, silently testifying to the convulsions of war, famine and revolution that have accompanied earlier monetary reforms.

Over the years the money has sometimes been grandiose -- in 1896 the 100-ruble note measured about 4 by 8 inches, printed in a rainbow of pink, blue, green and yellow with Catherine the Great in the center. Sometimes it was self-effacing. In the early 1920s, some bills were about the size of postage stamps.

The first paper money was issued in 1763, in the reign of Catherine the Great. It was emblazoned with the czarist emblem, the double-headed eagle, and engraved designs of leaves, scrolls and curlicues. The faces of czars turned up in 1860.

Perhaps the money of the first Soviet years bore the most hubris.

In 1919, the hammer and sickle appeared on the new rubles, along with the revolutionary slogan "Workers of the World Unite." Those words were printed in Russian, Chinese, English, Japanese, French and Italian.

"They thought they were in the beginning of a world revolution," Rutskaya says, "and this would be the only money in circulation." Thoughtfully, they wanted workers of the world to be able to read their new world currency.

The economic and social chaos of those first years after the revolution led to terrible inflation. A currency reform of 1922 exchanged 10,000 old rubles for one new ruble.

The next year brought yet another reform, with one new ruble replacing 1,000 of the 1922 rubles. In 1924, another new ruble replaced 30,000 of the 1923 rubles.

Lenin appeared on money in 1938 and stayed there until 1992, through war, peace, Cold War, redenominations and the collapse of the Soviet Union. From time to time, other images were introduced -- during the war years a soldier was on the green 3-ruble note -- but Lenin could always be found on some of the money. The death of the Soviet Union toppled him. In 1993, the Russian government replaced him with images of Russia.

"Too many people wanted to be on the money," says Valentin Rachilin, a collector and historian. "Buildings were safer."

In 1993, Russia printed 100, 200 and 500 ruble notes with pictures of the Russian flag flying above the Kremlin.

In 1995, it printed notes with scenes of Russian cities. The 1,000 ruble features Vladivostok, in the east, and Novgorod represents old Russia on the 5,000. The 10,000 has Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia. St. Petersburg has the 50,000 note. And the Bolshoi Theater, in Moscow, is on the 100,000.

Last March, the 500,000 bill came out, and it was devoted to the north, depicting a 15th-century monastery on Solovetsky Island. Unfortunately, the picture was from an era when the monastery was used as a Soviet prison camp. Deemed too expensive to change, the picture has not been replaced.

In the interest of continuity and economy, the money being issued in January will look just like today's money, but with fewer zeros.

Rachilin says the country's leadership didn't have the courage to shear the ruble of four zeros instead of three.

"If they dropped off four, the exchange rate would be the same as before perestroika," he says. "If you drop off four, you would immediately see what kind of chaos we live in now.

"Before perestroika, a pension was 120 rubles a month. If you take four zeros off today, the pension would be 35 rubles. Everyone would immediately see the difference between 120 rubles then and 35 rubles now. This calculation applies to everything."

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