Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Russian currency

One of the aspects of culture shock (for me at least!) is dealing with a new monetary system. Perhaps it seems like a minor issue, but if you knew about my fear in the checkout line and the bags of change in a drawer, you would think differently.

In many ways, Russian currency resembles American money. There is a basic unit, the ruble, which is distributed in different quantities in coins and bills.

The coins consist of .01 ruble, .05, .10, .5, 1, 2, 5, and the occasional 10-ruble coin. The basic bills consist of 10, 50, 100, 500, 1000, and 5000-ruble notes (I’ve never dealt with anything larger).

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that 1 dollar=25 rubles (although it’s a bit less).

Now here’s the shocker: cashiers often can’t or don’t want to give you change. In fact, cashiers can dictate whether you should pay in larger bills or in itty bitty coins, based on what’s in the cash register and what the amount comes to. As they announce the bill, you start to take out certain bills, only to hear them say, “don’t you have anything smaller?” And they might even state the exact small change that would be helpful. For example, if the bill is 54.33, they might say, “do you have 4.33? Or .33? Or even 5 rubles?” That way, they won’t have to give you smaller bills. And sometimes, the situation arises when you don’t have anything smaller and the cashier doesn’t have anything smaller. And then you have a problem.

Let’s say that individual daily transactions cost under 100 rubles. Transportation: 16 or 17 rubles. A box of cookies for tea: 30 rubles. In these cases, using a 100-ruble note is okay. Or if you have to pay a few hundred rubles for groceries, using a 500 might be okay. But using a 500 in the trolleybus is not such a good idea. Sure, it might be strange to pay $20 for something that costs 50 cents. But that is what the bank gives out. In the U.S., ATMs commonly dispense $20. And that is convenient. But in Russia, $20 is a lot for a single transaction. So why does the ATM dispense that much?

It gets worse. Sometimes, all you have is (are?) 1,000 rubles. If you try to pay with a 1,000-ruble bill, you may get a cold stare and a scolding, or the cashier may even refuse initially to take it. You can however ameliorate the situation by adding some small coins to the mix. Again, 1,000 is a lot: $40. But it’s what the bank dispenses. Why do Russian banks dispense 1,000-ruble bills when even a U.S. ATM doesn’t dispense bills of that amount?

In the U.S., I can’t even recall dealing with coins. It is a total blank in my mind. The quarters and dimes used to be helpful for buying stamps or using vending machines. But now, nothing is that cheap. And I can’t recall even counting out nickels and pennies outside of Math class. I remember vaguely certain jars where I saved up coins. But what did I do with them after that?
Here, there is a completely different approach to store etiquette. In the U.S., I would never think of keeping someone waiting while counting out pennies. This is why, when I first moved to Russia, I often said “No” if asked to produce change. Although the coins do not differ so much from American currency, I felt very clumsy counting them out. I collected them in various purses and coat pockets, and later, jars. Not because I didn’t need the money, but because I hadn’t memorized the colors and shapes of different coins and had an American fear of keeping people waiting.

And so, I lived in fear of not having the correct change, or of having to count it out in front of everyone. That is, until I learned to relax a little, to plan ahead which bills and coins to have on hand, and to count change more quickly…or, as some Russians do, to reach into my pocket and produce a handful of change, from which the cashier then picks out the needed coins.

What inspired me to write this commentary was a situation that arose yesterday evening. I boarded the bus at 11 pm. We began to travel very slowly, and I was eager to get home. I also wondered why so many people were going home at 11pm on a weeknight. But then again, this is the city “that never sleeps.” The bus pulled over to the side of the road, and the conductor shouted “This isn’t a bank! Go and change your money yourself!” (This is an outburst that I hear fairly often) Then, she forced the young man off the bus so that he could go and get change. Not wanting to miss the last bus home, he shouted, “I’m leaving my things!” as he rushed off. And we sat, waiting for him to find change. The conductor announced to the rest of us that he had tried to pay for the bus ticket (a little over 1 dollar) with a 5,000-ruble bill (about 200 dollars). The rest of us groaned and rolled our eyes. A few minutes later, he was back and we were moving. I have been to the ATM before when it dispensed only 5,000 rubles, and the bank didn’t want to change it for me. So the young man wasn’t at fault, nor the conductor, who didn’t carry that much on her person. But still, it was a funny reason to be sitting by the side of the road at 11pm.

I realized later that the Christian thing to do would have been to pay for the man’s ticket. It hadn’t occurred to me. Had it occurred to any of the other passengers? Instead, I had tried to tune out the argument the minute that I began to hear the raised voices.


  1. Oy, yes! It was always annoying when you got large bills, because people would resist breaking them...makes me grateful for something that I hadn't really noticed before.

  2. What a tremendously interesting post! Firstly - oh, isn't it sad that so often the kind and Christian thing to do only comes to mind later? I hate that about myself.

    Then, of course you made me remember all my "money" situations in Russia, and enlightened me about some of them. For example, I thought I was a real fool when the cashier demanded I open my hand so she could count out the change (though, frankly, it was a huge relief) I'm glad I wasn't the only one, ever, that such a thing happened to!

    I also remember waiting while a shopkeeper would run around the area - once a little indoor "mall" another time an ouside kiosk - to get the proper change. I kind of admired the "we all work together" feel of the thing. (And remembering THAT makes me remember the fresh bread I was buying and groan with desire).

    Unlike you, here in the US, I am just obsessed with paying with exact change....and usually quite quickly hand it over to the penny. (Only occasionally, when I am eeeking out the last penny for an ice cream, or something, do people have to wait.) However, this trait was useless in Russia as I could not figure out the smaller coins at all.

  3. I can see how this is soooo true! Thanks for the lesson in the money though!


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