Stories in Sunday's Travel section gave incomplete information on exchange rates in the Soviet Union. The official exchange rate is 58 kopecks to the dollar, but there also is an exchange rate for tourists of 6 rubles (600 kopecks) to the dollar. (Published 8/9/90)
It is strictly illegal for travelers to the Soviet Union to change money outside of the official banks or exchange bureaus, and it also is illegal to pay dollars for merchandise and food purchased outside the official stores for foreigners. Nevertheless, travelers to the Soviet Union should be aware that the black market is more pervasive than ever before.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Soviet taxi drivers, street artists, market vendors and others are exerting increasing pressure on unsuspecting foreigners to pay in dollars or to purchase rubles at the black-market rate. The widespread nature of this practice gives the illusion of legitimacy when, in fact, those who engage in it are violating Soviet law and run the risk of being arrested.
I saw black-market money-changers everywhere I went, much more in evidence and much more aggressive than during my pre-Gorbachev visit. They even infiltrated the foreigners-only hotels where I stayed, despite strict security at every door and patrols throughout. I found it was not unusual to get on an elevator and be greeted by a fellow rider offering to change money or buy the clothes literally off my back. It became apparent that with a little dickering, dollars could easily be exchanged for 10 or even 15 rubles apiece. (At the official exchange rate, a dollar buys 64 kopecks, or about two-thirds of a ruble.)
The black marketeers seek out dollars because they are hard currency -- money that can buy things in the rest of the world -- in a soft-currency society where the ruble can't buy anything except the poorly made Soviet goods that are scorned even by the people who make them. Once they get the dollars, the money-changers then pass them on at an even higher exchange rate, and eventually the dollars are used by the leaders of the black-market rings to buy Western goods -- clothes, liquor, perfume, electronics -- that are available in the Soviet Union only in certain government shops that accept dollars.
Despite the constant temptation, travelers should avoid dealing in the black market. Those who decide to do so and get caught may spend several hours in a local police station being questioned and then be released with a reprimand -- or they may be arrested.