Russian rich evade rouble squeeze as old and poor queue: A decision to withdraw old currency hits some harder than others. Helen Womack in Moscow explains how a few can profit from the change

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The Independent Online
ANNA ILICHEVNA, one of Moscow's senior citizens, has 15,000 old roubles (pounds 10), the little nest egg she has managed to saved from her monthly pension of 12,000 roubles. Anatoly Kozlov, one of the new generation of businessmen, had 10m old roubles (pounds 6,700) until Sunday when he managed to dump the cash, which yesterday became obsolete under Russia's new money reform. They are typical victims of the central bank's decision to withdraw pre-1993 roubles from circulation but they are most unequally placed to cope with the sudden crisis.

All Mrs Ilichevna can do is keep waiting patiently in one of the many huge queues that built up outside savings banks yesterday as Russians tried to exercise their right to change old notes bearing the head of Lenin into notes printed with the Russian tricolour.

The amount that could be changed on the spot rather than deposited at the bank for eventual refunding was originally set at 35,000 roubles, but late yesterday President Boris Yeltsin decreed that the ceiling was being raised to 100,000 roubles (dollars 100) and the deadline was being extended from 7 August to the end of next month.

Mrs Ilichevna did not know of that concession when at lunchtime yesterday she had already been waiting two hours with about 100, mainly elderly people, in a line outside the savings bank on Karetny Ryad Street and the cashiers still had not even opened the doors. 'The problem is that the new money has not yet arrived,' she said, raising her eyebrows. She was, however, managing to keep calm.

Pensioners know from bitter experience that maintaining one's equilibrium, whatever the provocation, is a matter of survival. Back in 1991, when the then Soviet Prime Minister and later coup plotter, Valentin Pavlov, withdrew 100-rouble notes from circulation, several pensioners died of heart attacks in queues of desperate people trying to change their money.

Some of Mrs Ilichevna's neighbours in the queue, who shielded themselves from the hot sun with umbrellas, looked as if their blood pressure was already rising. 'It's disgusting, it's terrible,' interjected the fat woman behind her. 'The mafia should be the ones suffering from this reform but they'll find ways of getting round it. We, the ordinary people, get hit yet again.'

By 'mafia' the fat woman meant businessmen like Mr Kozlov, who is making a good living by selling imported hi-fi equipment. Had he declared his profits for tax, he need not have worried about the reform, for he would have been entitled to change all his money under special conditions for law-abiding businesses. But like most other Russian entrepreneurs, he cheated the tax man on the grounds that the state demanded an unreasonable percentage. Thus he was left with a suitcase full of old roubles and was in a blind panic on Saturday after news of the reform had been announced.

'Luckily on Sunday I managed to find a guy who sold me a whole truck full of blank video cassettes and so I exchanged the old money for goods,' said Mr Kozlov. But what would the cassette salesman want with old roubles? Did he not know they were about to become worthless? 'Oh sure, but you see he will have his channels for getting rid of them.'

Vitaly Markov, an assistant in a private kiosk that had been doubling its prices to customers wanting to pay in old roubles, explained: 'State enterprises are getting full refunds for their old money so anyone who has a contact with someone in a state shop can offload their dead roubles through them. That's how we were able to take the old notes without making a loss.'

(Photograph omitted)