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The American dollar was the embodiment of capitalism, the Soviet government believed. Therefore, it was as difficult to get it as any Kalashnikov assault rifle.
The Soviet people knew the dollar sign well - it could often be found in cartoons of Soviet magazines directed against the West - the "capitalist enemy". Did they know exactly what a dollar bill looks like? Most - not for a long time. Simply because many before the collapse of the USSR never held dollars in their hands (there were cases of fraud when currency dealers sold red dollars on the black market - and they said that they were exchanged abroad at a higher rate).
It was possible to acquire any foreign currency only under strict conditions. Violation of the rules was followed by severe punishment - up to and including execution.
First, the state had a monopoly on all foreign exchange transactions. There were no exchangers in the underpasses or on the main tourist routes.
Secondly, an ordinary Soviet man in the street dealt exclusively with the ruble. And only if the authorities allowed him a short trip outside the country, he could exchange rubles for currency. The exchange took place only at the branch of Vneshtorgbank (bank for foreign trade of the USSR) and only until 12 noon. They were allowed into the police station in small groups, and at the entrance two policemen checked the permission to travel abroad.
State Bank of the USSR. - Jacob Berliner / Sputnik
Upon returning to the country (having previously declared the currency at customs), it was necessary to hand it over to the state within a few days. In exchange, special certificates were issued that could be spent in the Berezka chain of stores.
Unlike ordinary stores with empty shelves and a total shortage, there was always an abundance in Berezka. But there were very few such lucky ones who could go to "Beryozka": as a rule, they were diplomats, sailors, members of the party "elite", athletes or artists.
Customers of the Beryozka store in Leningrad - Boris Losin / Sputnik
But this procedure only concerned the exchanged money within the Soviet Union. If the currency was earned directly abroad, there was another scheme: first, you had to hand over the money to the state, which took interest, and put the rest into a bank account in your name. It could be cashed only on the following foreign trips.
To transfer money abroad and cash it in a foreign bank, you also needed a special permission from the state.
Trading floor of the "Berezka" store - Y. Levyant / Sputnik
All these rules did not apply to foreigners who could easily spend dollars in the Soviet "Beryozka" or exchange them for rubles at the official rate. How was the rate set, you ask, if there was no way to justify it by supply / demand? Well, the Soviet system provided for this moment too.
Leningrad. Souvenir shop "Berezka" at the hotel "Sovetskaya" (now "Azimut Hotel St. Petersburg"). - Vladimir Celik / Sputnik
It was possible to receive a limited amount in exchange for rubles, even with a permit. Officially, no more than 30 rubles were subject to exchange. “Soviet citizens, by the way, carried a suitcase of canned food with them, so as not to spend precious currency on food, but to buy something from their clothes,” they recall today on the Internet.
The official exchange was carried out at an unjustifiably low rate of 67 kopecks per dollar. The paradox also lay in the fact that every month Izvestia, the official newspaper of the governing bodies of the Soviet government, published the ruble exchange rate against foreign currencies, with minor fluctuations from month to month.That is, every Soviet citizen could read that, for example, in September 1978 they gave only 67.10 rubles for 100 US dollars, 15.42 rubles for 100 French francs, and 33.76 rubles for a hundred German marks.
Foreign citizens during currency exchange at the Intourist hotel bureau - A. Babushkin / TASS
Looking at such a course, the conclusion was unambiguous: the Soviet ruble is the world's strongest monetary unit. Such summaries of exchange rates had only one propaganda purpose. In fact, all of this was very far from the real market price.
Prison and execution
The Soviet people were "cut off" from foreign exchange in 1927 when the Bolsheviks banned the private foreign exchange market. Until that moment, it was possible to sell, store and make transfers of currency of any country without hindrance. And exactly ten years later, the 25th article appeared in the criminal legislation, in which foreign exchange transactions are equated with state crimes.
Joseph Stalin explained the ban on the dollar as follows: "If a socialist country pegs its currency to the capitalist currency, then the socialist country should forget about an independent stable financial and economic system."
Valuables confiscated from speculators are shown to journalists at a press conference in the Main Department of Internal Affairs of the Moscow City Executive Committee. - Alexander Shogin / TASS
For illegal sale of currency, they were imprisoned for a maximum of eight years. And already in 1961, under Nikita Khrushchev, article 88 appeared in the criminal code: it assumed punishment from imprisonment for three years to the death penalty (execution), if it was about especially large amounts.
Such a fierce persecution of currency traders (those who traded currency) was explained by the really thriving black market against the background of official bans. It was on it that the real exchange rate of the Soviet ruble to the US dollar was established, and it corresponded not to 67 kopecks, but to 8-10 rubles per dollar.
Yan Rokotov is a Soviet merchant and currency dealer. He was sentenced to death. - Archival photo
Currency traders, in turn, bought dollars from foreign tourists, lying in wait for those at the hotels. Foreigners, having heard an offer to make an exchange, willingly agreed - currency dealers paid for the dollar five to six times more than in a Soviet bank at the official rate.
The Stalinist ban and the "execution article" for illegal possession of currency lasted until 1994. Although they began to close their eyes to this, as they recall now, they began a little earlier: “I ordered two hundred vodka and two sandwiches with ham in bulk (this was the year in 1990) and silently put my first dollar in (they gave it to me). I was also silently given some change in rubles”.