Sunday, March 10, 2013

Money Madness, or What Is It Worth Tomorrow?

I wish I had been born ten years earlier (to have been a twenty-something during the 1990s). That way I would be either rich or dead by now.
  - D's coworker

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rest of the 90s were a time of chaos and hope for Ukraine. Obviously I wasn't in Kharkov then, but a friend of mine was. Here he shares his thoughts on the kupon karbovanets, a currency briefly used during those years before it succumbed to hyperinflation. 
What was your reaction when this currency was first released? Do you remember the reactions of others?

I was more than hopeful, but it was only me. Others were just interested and older people were suspicious. Faith in the soviet currency was immovable (until the annihilation of Sberbank accounts).

From the late 80s I was a great supporter of the idea of Ukrainian independence. In 1987, I dared to predict that Leningrad would soon become St. Petersburg. No one believed me. And they were right, it was beyond their imagination at the moment. So, when the news about our own Ukrainian currency appeared, I was very excited. We were allowed to have only a hundred kupons (that was the name, karbovanci was the Ukrainian word for soviet ruble) when they were released. A person was given a hundred kupons and the rest of their wage in rubles.  

Why did the government begin printing the karbovantsiv in the 1990s? What was their explanation? 

The ancestor of the kupon was another kupon. The last few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union were tough, the shelves in the stores were stuffed with sparkling water or other things that were not in great demand. Rumors of the possible delivery of sugar, butter, meat or even bones (aka – суповые наборы) created long queues of “babushkas" , and I myself spent years (in kid’s perception) waiting for bones and butter. There was no famine, in fact we had enough food of a good quality (much better than we have now), and there was plenty of food at the market and of course under the counter, there was everything!

So the shortage of food and other goods made the government release the first kupons. They were checkered sheets of paper that people received every month with the wage. A little square was cut off every time you bought something. To make a long story short, then came the shortage of cash and the government had to release new kupons that were supposed to run along with the rubles. But then came the Independence and the kupons had to become the actual currency, which they were not. The first kupons had no watermarks, no serial numbers, and the paper wore easily. 

Check out the size difference between the 5 and 10,000 karbovantsiv notes

I noticed that these notes you showed me were printed in 1991 and 1995. Can you tell us anything about your life during that period?

When the kupons were about to be released, there were rumors that there would be a shortage of kupons. A classmate offered me the chance to buy 50 kupons so I eagerly agreed and convinced my mum to overpay by twice the price. Such was my belief in the Independence and high expectations about the new currency. If I could only have known how grossly I overestimated.

1991-1996 were the years of the inflation. Shortage of food, increasing unemployment, a great number of those who were employed yet worked unpaid, prices that literally grew everyday or sometimes even doubled during the day- I can continue but I think you get the idea. These years were… like dusk, one couldn’t be sure of anything – job, money, government, country… that was my time! I was young and could easily go any way the wind was blowing… I miss that feeling of uncertainty, when tomorrow was a mystery. And I think those years formed me and my perception of life. I act like I still live there in the early 90s.

What exactly could a person buy for 5 kupons? For 10,000? How many kupons would the average worker earn in a month?

Oh, it would be hard to tell! It was so changeable! The only thing that remained stable was the dollar. I don’t recall at which rate we started, but by the end the rate was 180,000 for $1.

 What happened to the kupon? Why did the system change to the grivna?

The kupon was doomed. The biggest note was 500,000, which was less than $3. We were rich... by numbers. When the grivna appeared, the kupon was still available for about a month and I remember that I got my monthly wage partly in grivna, dollar and kupon. 

And as a true dreamer, I had no smaller expectations about the grivna. 

We started at $1 to 1.8 uah.
It's $1 to 8 now.
We’ll see- maybe the next currency will be the euro?! 

Hi guys, it's me again, Katherine! I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I did : )

I wanted to share one other thing with you, something that my friend mentioned. The word карбованець (karbovanets) is Ukrainian for ruble. The karbovanets has been used as a unique currency during three periods of Ukrainian history but the word karbovanets was printed on the back of the Soviet ruble. Notice that while some countries of the USSR adopted words similar to рубель (ruble), others used different words like карбованець, сом, and манат.
The back of a 1947 Soviet one ruble note. The Ukrainian один карбованець is listed first. Do you recognize any of the other languages?