Letter From Moscow: U.S. Dollar Follies

To illustrate how the mighty greenback has fallen, one need only try exchange $300 cash for Russian rubles on the streets of Moscow. I tried this yesterday. They're currently buying U.S. dollars for 23.63 rubles and selling them for 23. 51 – representing a drop of about 12 per cent in 18 months.

Just for background, I'd exchanged a $100 note two days earlier with the help of a neighbor named Valentina, a pensioner in her late 70s who insisted on accompanying me, since my Russian-language skills are remedial. The following interactions took place entirely in Russian. Nobody in this district speaks a word of English. Valentina marched me into Russia's federal Sverbank, staight to the currency exchange cashier, who looked at the bill skeptically through a thick wall of glass and remarked that it didn't look crisp enough.

“It's good money!” Valentina snapped. It came straight from America.

"Seven percent service charge,” the clerk said.

“For what?” Valentina barked back. You're taking your rate from the exchange. What is this robbery?”

The clerk shrugged, put the U.S. bill in a drawer and spilled 2,350 rubles into the tray, along with a receipt. Valentina had made the “service charge” disappear into thin air.

Now by myself, I go to a kiosk that says abmen valyooti (currency exchange) and gives the rates: I put my three $100 bills into the tray. The clerk mutters some harsh words and throws them back at me. I double-check the bills – they look okay to me. I try to ask him what's wrong but he won't even answer.

So I try Sverbank, where I was with Valentina two days earlier. Wait in line 30 minutes for the same currency exchange window, as pensioners cash their checks and argue with staff. Finally I get to the window and the clerk tells me I need to go to Window No. 1., which is a door leading to a booth that contains another window. I wait for another 15 minutes for a customer to leave the booth. I walk in, close the door behind me, and plonk my three $100 bills into the tray at the base of the window. The clerk examines the bills contemptuously, noting a frayed edge here, and hairline tear there, one of them has something small on it written in ink. She puts them through a machine that beams a light through them. She calls in a manager who slithers into her side of the booth. They both examine the bills as though they are turds.

“I can only take one of these,” the clerk finally says. “Seven percent service charge.”

“I was here two days ago, and I received rubles for no service charge” I say.

“And what?” she replies.

“Please give me the dollars back.” I say.

Across the street is a branch of Moscow Capital Bank, a spit-and-polished building with double security doors and two armed guards. I follow signs to the cashier.

Similar routine. “I can't take these,” she says. “Go to the zal (hall).”

Okay. I wait in the lobby, which I think is the zal. Instead of booths, there are desks where you can actually sit in a chair and talk to somebody on the other side. After 15 minutes of waiting in line, I see the bank manager crossing the room, a nattily dressed brunette woman in calf-length skirt and high heels that clippety clop across the shiny tiles.

“Excuse me,' I ask, checking to see I'm not wasting my time. “Where is the zal?”

“This is the zal,” she replies, slightly bewildered by my question. “Is there a problem?”

“I was just at the cashier, and she told me to go to the zal. I want to exchange currency?

“Ah!,” the manager says kindly. “She meant for you to go the cashier next to the zal. Follow me.

Another wooden booth with a door. She says something to the cashier that I can't understand, other than the words “foreigner” and “money.”

“Wait here until that customer is finished. She'll help you,” the manager says warmly.

My new cashier, a blond woman in her late 30s with thick rimmed glasses and a tired face, scrutinizes my bills in machines and under magnifying glasses.

“It's good money,” I say, I received it directly from the Bank of America.

The scrutiny continues. The blonde shakes her head sadly. “We can't take any of these.” I hear voices of employees in adjoining booths, evidently trying to support me.

“All he wants is to exchange his dollars.”

“He said it's good money.”

“What he doesn't understand,” says my clerk, “Is that his money can't buy our rubles if it's a little bit torn or defaced.”

And though this policy has been in place across Russia for decades, the metaphor of America, and her currency, being slightly torn and defaced in the eyes of the world stabs at me.

Russia, however, is a land that blends rigid bureaucracy with stunningly arbitrary enforcement of the rules. Waves of empathy now wash across the the face of my dear clerk.

“Here's what you do,” she says slowly, while placing the dollar bills inside a draw. She speaks as though to a child, knowing my comprehension of Russian is limited.

“Go back to the zal and ask for Oksana. I just spoke with her. She knows what's going on. Oksana, she says once more.

“Oksana,” I repeat.

“Oksana will give you documents. Bring them back to me.”

“Thank you so much,” I reply. “Is there a service charge for this?”

“Five percent” she says.

All right, I figure this is probably not the best time to quibble, since they're obviously being so helpful.

In the zal, I ask a woman at a vacant station where I might find Oksana. The woman is busy on an adding machine, and speaking with a colleague. “Oksana? She's at lunch.”

She must have seen my forlorn expression. She directs me to a different station where sits a bored brunette woman, early 30s. She wears a sheer white top that exposes the flesh of her stomach that's spilling out over the belt of her trousers.

“Your passport, please” she intones, without looking up. She examines it, the photograph of me within it, compares it to the person sitting in front of her.

“No Russian?” She inquires, though I'm unclear if she's asking whether I have Russian I.D. or whether I have contact with somebody who speaks Russian fluently.

“My wife is Russian,” I say, preparing to offer a cellphone number if that's needed. She smiles gently, either because that remark was somehow charming, or because she now thinks I'm a complete idiot. She leaves, taking my passport with her. It occurs to me that while I'm sitting here, they've got my money and my passport. This could be the start of something awful.

After 10 minutes, she returns.

“Is everything alright? I ask.”

She nods, handing me back my passport while her computer spits out six copies of forms I need to sign. I dutifully return to my blonde cashier, who – now 75 minutes later -- gives me 6,600 Russian rubles in return.

At last, I've got some real currency in my wallet.

Also read Steven Leigh Morris' "Letter From Moscow: Back in the USSR."


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