Dollar Guilt in the Land of the Collapsing Ruble

by Yael Levine

I’ve gotten a 100 percent raise. Not as a reward for hard work or long-term loyalty to my employer, but as a gift of timing. This windfall isn’t a one-off like a bonus, nor is it evenly spaced like paychecks after a promotion. I get richer at random. Almost every time I visit the ATM, what I take out is a smaller slice of what I make than it was the time before. I’m paid in dollars, but I live in Russia, where the currency is currently collapsing; as the ruble loses value, I effectively get a raise. This week alone, at the time of this writing, my salary’s worth has increased by 20%. It’d be a gross simplification, but you could say my raise comes courtesy of Vladimir Putin.

As the ruble falls, I think back on a night in late autumn of 2007 when Moscow’s streets were windswept, but not swept clean of ice, and I decided to spring for a taxi. The gypsy cab I hailed was an old car of Russian make, not rickety, but the kind you can feel laboring at getting you where you’re going. Its fenders were obscured by a rich paste of chemical salt and mud, as were the peripheral views from the rear window, which were covered by the gathered pleats of burgundy polyester curtains. These, the smell of the car’s interior suggested, were sometimes drawn so that the driver could stretch out for a nap in the back seat.

That year, 2007, Moscow had been named the world’s most expensive city for expatriates to live in for the second year running by a cost-of-living survey produced yearly by American consulting firm Mercer, which provides websites like the Huffington Post reliable slideshow fodder.

My driver heard my foreignness in the way I pronounced my address. He inquired, and I told him where I was from. He spoke heatedly, then, about terrorists and democracy and empires and fate. Mainly, though, he laughed. All the way home, he was taken with a scary hilarity, and as he sped along the 10-lane highway that crawls with traffic during the daytime and forms a racecourse around Moscow’s center at night, I wondered if my Americanness would be both our downfalls. Russians’ savings had repeatedly been reduced to nothing by economic calamity during the 1990s; if my driver himself had not been impoverished by capricious shifts in the currency’s value, surely many he loved had. Now that the tables were turned — or shifted — he had every reason to relish the moment.

“Americans, what do they think in America now that it’s 25 rubles to the dollar!” he demanded.

I did not have many thoughts on currency rates, however. No matter, his own belly laugh was the most satisfactory answer of all.

“America! How do you like 25 rubles?!” he laughed, animated by a shameless, revelling schadenfreude. I wouldn’t have dreamed of explaining that Americans gave little thought to the value of the ruble. Driving me home seemed like the best thing that had happened to this guy in a long time.

When I first visited Russia seven years ago, Ziploc bags were commonly washed and hung to dry on a clothesline in the kitchen, and not out of environmentalism. My host mother wouldn’t let me wash my jeans in the laundry machine for fear that their heavy thrashing would break her most prized possession. The money my presence in her apartment earned was to fund the kitchen’s renovation. Russia was “rising from its knees” according to a common cliche used to describe the 2000s, but it hadn’t stood up quite yet. Moscow’s streets weren’t cleared after snowfall and would regularly become treacherous with ice. Huddles of men drinking vodka studded my walk to the metro. I saw desperately sad-looking prostitutes lurking in the stairs leading down to a pedestrian tunnel passing under the highway. But although the city felt, objectively, far from the most desirable place in the world to live, a personal-sized pizza with gluey cheese cost $30, and if I wasn’t careful, I’d find that I had ordered a $14 bottle of water.

For the next six years, Moscow never fell below the top four in the ranking of most expensive cities for expats. In 2014, it was rated 9th, “due to a dramatic depreciation of the ruble to the dollar.” The ruble had fallen in value from around 30 to the dollar to around 36 to the dollar in the time between when Mercer took its 2013 and 2014 surveys.

By the time I arrived for my gig in Moscow this June, the ruble was clocking in at around 35 to the dollar. I knew that customs duties drove up the prices of consumer goods imported to Russia, and prepared for my move by buying and bringing whatever I thought might be expensive: a couple extra bottles of the fancy shampoo I like, a jumbo jar of peanut butter, which is notoriously hard to find.

The ruble didn’t start to slide further until July, and when I went back to America for a couple of months starting in early September, it was at 37. Economic experts speculated as to whether the ruble would pass the “psychological barrier” of 40.

While I was gone it reached 45.

There is a giddy gambler’s thrill to watching your money gain value for reasons beyond your control. The world becomes your Costco; “gotta stock up on house slippers, they’re so cheap and you never know when you’ll have ten people over and they all need to wear house slippers!” As the ruble’s decline accelerated, my dollar-denominated friends and I looked up exchange rates as frequently as sports fans who can’t not check the score on their phones under the table at a nice restaurant. We texted each other the latest numbers, strategized about the timing of ATM visits and large purchases. (One friend who has held off on extending her gym membership until it runs out this month gloats daily as the currency collapses.) Taxis no longer felt like an indulgence and on more than one occasion, I ordered an extra two entrees for dinner to meet the delivery minimum. On Black Friday, I went on a HEATTECH shopping spree at Uniqlo. Of course, Black Friday isn’t a holiday (not even a fake holiday) in Russia, but sale or no sale, the clothes cost a third less than the dollar and euro equivalents marked on their price tags.

When the ruble broke the new “psychological barrier” of 50 a dollar, the habitual mental math I did to convert prices into dollars became easy. It was also then that the euphoria of money for nothing began to dissipate for me. I think it was the cold. There is nothing like cold to clarify why people need money. Shivering burns extra calories that must be made up for with food, or forgotten with vodka. Long before Russia became a petrostate, sable fur was its main export, and in some areas, served also as currency. To my mind the most Russian expression of female sophistication, no less striking for its ubiquity in central Moscow, is a woman in a fur coat, her hair draped over its folds. The straight, shining hair is an uninterrupted sheath, as if of silk, and is unruffled by the wind, as if by magic.

How badly I wanted the ruble to stop falling struck me as I climbed a flight of frost-encrusted cement steps, my hair well hidden by a hat, listening to liberal Russian talk radio on headphones. I could hardly feel the cold, my new clothes were so warm, but when I touched the metal bannister, it registered through my HEATTEACH that, were I to touch it barehanded, its iciness would burn. The guests on the radio discussed how long it would be before the masses became disenchanted with Putin. The consensus was: once everything that makes life comfortable and pleasant had become too expensive to have, no sooner, no later. Some commentators thought this would take two years, others said more quickly. I walked in the cold among these masses and the thought went through my mind repeatedly: “I’m getting richer and richer, they’re getting poorer and poorer.”

That night I gave the woman who walks my dog while I’m at work a 60 percent raise.

A couple days later, I met up with a group of mainly-expat friends at a bar called Lumberjack, where the waiters have the kind of facial hair favored by Civil War soldiers and wear tight flannel shirts and wool slacks fastened to suspenders. (Moscow is obsessed with Williamsburg.) When the conversation among the expats inevitably turned to the ruble, the group was split into two camps along the lines of the currencies in which our paychecks were denominated. While those of us paid in dollars, euros or pounds lived in a time of bounty, a woman paid in rubles said she wouldn’t be able to leave the house when she went home to America for the holidays, she was so broke. One half of a very cute couple was paid in dollars, while her boyfriend was paid in rubles. One small step in the fight against the gender pay gap?! No, that was the cheap cocktails’ expensive ingredients talking.

The bar was loud, but I felt we ought to be whispering, or not discussing the topic at all. When I first drank at this bar in September, I ordered the Penicillin, a cocktail made with ginger, honey and lemon, blended scotch whisky and Islay single malt scotch. I had first tried it at a bar with not unsimilar decor underneath the BQE. It cost 450 rubles, and my credit card bill reflected this with a charge of $12.60. When I recommended the drink to the expats at the table, it cost $8.54. How can a bar in central Moscow stay in business serving excellent, strong, classic cocktails made with imported liquors? If Lumberjack has yet to raise its prices, yesterday the Penicillin would have cost anywhere from $7.72 to $5.68, depending on the time of day you ordered it.

Gradually companies that import consumer goods to Russia are announcing price increases. The period in which Russia was the cheapest place in the world to buy an iPhone was all too short. Still, prices haven’t kept pace with the ruble’s depreciation. Russians aren’t getting raises and can’t afford to spend more money on the same stuff, and retailers won’t be able to hang onto business if they hike up prices. Yet the experts on the radio promise inflation of 15 or 20% early next year. What will happen when people can’t afford to buy groceries?

After the ruble hit 80 to the dollar yesterday, I walked down Tverskaya Street toward the Kremlin. Every single pedestrian I passed averted their eyes from the neon displays that advertise currency exchange rates. I ducked into Sephora’s Russian franchise to replace a shattered compact of Clinique powder; the markup on imported make up had evaporated.

Not long before, at a flea market in Moscow’s suburbs, where people sell Soviet bric-a-brac, zippers on strips of every color, samovars, record players and old china, I had met a woman. She grasped my gloved hand with her bare one (gloves got in the way when arranging her wares), and shifted a ceramic bowl filled with old 9-volt batteries into her other hand. Twenty years ago, she told me, she had been working in a market, when an American man picked her out and asked her to dinner. She went with him and a translator, and he asked her to come back to America with him.

“But what about, you know, when the translator can’t be there?” she asked him delicately.

“In those moments, you don’t need to talk,” the lascivious American answered.

Her Russian husband (who had not come up in the story to that point and, she said, had later died in a car crash) had refused to give her permission to take their son to America.

“I wish I had gone,” she said.

I felt sad that she wished she had gone with the creepy American. Later, I was seized by the improbable idea that her husband had been my manic taxi driver. Perhaps his rapture over the ruble’s strength had killed him after all.

Yael Levine is a writer living in Moscow and a fellow in the Alfa Fellowship Program. In the past she has worked analyzing political risk in Russia for Eurasia Group and as a news producer at Russian-language TV station, RTVi. This is a picture of her dropping a coin for good luck outside the gates of Red Square. It was taken in 2007.

Top Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.