Wednesday, 2 November 2011
I am probably the only person in Moffat who was in Moscow the day that all foreign currency disappeared. Up to then, Russia had undergone a chaotic period of some months or even years of transition at the end of the Communist era when everything worth having had to be paid for with cartons of cigarettes. Not just any sort - I think it had to be Marlboro. Then, the dollar became the only effective cash currency. Most nice or useful things, including food, could only be bought in foreign currency shops known as 'Berezky' (Birch trees). I was staying in Moscow on some kind of diplomatic errand and had taken $10,000 in a money belt for my Russian host to pay for some home improvements. As I went through the check point at Heathrow, one of the security men said to me 'That's a lot of money you've got there' - he could see the notes on the x-ray. In certain parts of the city, there were lines of kiosks which either converted roubles to dollars or dollars to roubles, never both. I had brought some dollars of my own, and was changing only what I needed day by day into roubles for things like metro tickets. Then, overnight literally every cent, dime and dollar vanished from Russia. My hostess was nevertheless that day able to buy herself a fridge freezer in a Berezka using a Russian credit card belonging to a bank that also vanished. I am reminded now of the run-up to this remarkable event, by the extraordinary once (well, for me twice) in a lifetime circumstance we are living through in western Europe. As a result, I have heard myself urging friends to provide for a period of uncertainty eg by filling their car up regularly with petrol ,keeping a little more cash (say £200) in their wallet than usual, and stocking up with household necessities. If - when - we experience something similar to that which I lived through in Russia 19 years ago, one can at least have lentils and loo paper until normal service is resumed. Come to think of it, there is another developed economy which underwent a not dissimilar banking event: France in 1968. My sister and father were driving through France at the height of the evenements when suddenly everything ground to a halt. The banks all closed, there was no petrol etc. They limped south to Le Lavandou where my father had a flat, and enough local contacts to live on credit until within a week or so the system gradually crept back into life. Stuff happens, and it is about to happen again. I've joined UKIP.