ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA Hyperinflation is a new word to the average Russian. He encounters it daily in newspapers, on television and in conversations in the tedious lines that still plague Russian shoppers. For him, hyperinflation is not an abstract economics term but a frightening monster that stalks him relentlessly, devouring his meager supply of rubles with alarming speed. What is it like to live in a country where the annual rate of inflation exceeds 1,000 percent?
Because wages and pensions do not begin to keep up with inflation, people of average means can afford to buy little more than food. They tend to shop mainly in government-run stores and kiosks, where the selection is poor but the prices lower than those at the farmers' market, the countless stalls that have sprung up around subway stations, or the unmarked trucks parked at street corners dispensing potatoes, eggs or beer.
RUSSIANS WITH access to a dacha or simply a plot of land in the country supplement their diet by growing vegetables. Members of the intellectual elite, who formerly spent their vacations at resorts on the Black or Baltic seas, now spend them working in their gardens. A writer of international fame viewed winter with less trepidation than usual after harvesting 50 gunnysacks of potatoes and 20 of carrots. Russians now pursue the popular national pastime of gathering mushrooms and picking berries with a touch of desperation.
Many Russians, especially those with several mouths to feed, try to augment their incomes. A father turns his car into a taxi at night to earn money to buy his son a New Year's present. A young mother buys silverware wholesale at a factory in Moscow and sells it to shops in St. Petersburg. An old man stands by a subway entrance holding up his personal collection of Chekhov's works. An elderly woman stands near him selling hand-knit mittens.
A COMMON response to hyperinflation is hording: buy a lot now because tommorrow the price will double or triple. When sugar disappeared for three months last fall, our friend Maksim didn't worry; he had three 100-pound sacks stashed away. Others simply learned to drink their tea black and do without. When sugar finally reappeared, first on the street and then in stores, the price had risen from about 50 rubles per kilogram to 165-200 rubles. This confirmed the popular view that the shortage had been artificial, merely a conspiracy to drive the price up.
Some Russians do indeed take advantage of the chaotic economic climate by buying quantities of goods in one place, holding onto them for a while and then reselling them somewhere else for a profit. This practice, labeled "speculation" and formerly considered a crime, is still widely disparaged by the masses. Some speculators operate on a large scale, making buying trips to China, Turkey or Poland and charging high prices for the much-craved foreign goods. Young people with college degrees often find it more lucrative to sit behind a table of matryoshki (nesting dolls) near a tourist attraction than to work as doctors, teachers or engineers.
RUSSIANS reserve even more scorn for the able-bodied young men who simply stand on corners wearing signs that read, "I buy dollars and marks." Speculation in foreign currency brings easy profit as the exchange rate rises almost daily. Before Gorbachev's era, the ruble was officially worth $1.67; now $1 can be exchanged for about 500 rubles. Counterfeiting is also rampant.
As an American with dollars, I feel like a secret millionaire. While I wait in line in one of the newer grocery stores, a supermarket of sorts, the old woman behind me asks how much the bottle of milk in her shopping basket costs.
"Twenty rubles," I reply, reading the distant sign.
"Twenty rubles?" she exclaims. "I remember when milk cost 20 kopecks."
Old people on fixed incomes have been hit the hardest by hyperinflation. Most pensions are paltry, and some old folks, worn out and often in ill health, continue to work past retirement age. Others sell their possessions; still others resort to begging or even rummaging through dumpsters, something unheard of, or at least not readily visible in Soviet Russia. They lack the stamina to run from place to place on crowded public transportation in search of lower prices. The new mentality buying and selling for profit is utterly foreign to them.
"TWENTY RUBLES? Should I buy this milk or not?" the old woman in line debates aloud. With a trembling hand, she removes a wad of one-ruble bills from an ancient coin purse and begins to count them.
"I lived through the siege of Leningrad during World War II. I remember the post-war years, when we survived on bread and potatoes. It's not that different now."
And, surrounded by shelves of vegetables, canned goods and pasta, in a store with plenty of meat, bread and dairy products, the old woman leaves the line, puts back the bottle of milk, returns her empty basket and shuffles out empty-handed.