The love of money is no longer the root of all evil in the Soviet Union. But the ruble is money not even a disillusioned Communist could love. It is disdained by Soviet citizens, who have turned the ruble collapse into a general economic collapse that now threatens perestroika.
Karl Marx promised to create a society of values without money. His heirs have done the opposite, creating a money without value. This has brought a society ravaged by crime and the hoarding of scarce goods. The workers' paradise in its final days has become a monetary hell.
"We will solve the problem by running out of the paper we print rubles on," an economic adviser to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev joked grimly in conversation in Moscow last week. Pumping Western economic aid into the Soviet Union while the ruble problem persists "would be like giving medicine to a dead man," adds Stanislav Shatalin, another senior Soviet economist who has also advised Gorbachev.
The ruble breakdown provides an extraordinarily clear look into the manner in which work, money and human nature interact. Gorbachev's tottering Soviet Union is a giant laboratory for economic theory, political change and human behavior. Unfortunately, the Kremlin still acts as if these three factors are not intimately interrelated, pursuing each in isolation if at all.
Money is printed without any reference to the value of work that it is supposed to reward or the cost of goods that it is supposed to buy, and without material resource to back it. The Kremlin simply prints rubles as bills come due, running up a national deficit Shatalin and others estimate at 100 billion rubles, or about 14 percent of the the Soviet Union's gross domestic product. A deficit of 3 to 5 percent of GDP is cause for concern in the West.
A nation cannot respect itself if it does not respect its money. The rise of Hitler out of the inflationary ruins of Germany's Weimar Republic is a dramatic case in point. It works the other way, too. Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer consciously turned postwar France and Germany into modern, stable societies by providing them with modern, stable currencies.
Lenin understood the relationship between national pride, national survival and national money. He predicted that the capitalist countries would bring about their own downfall by debauching their currencies for commercial advantage. But he got the address wrong. It turns out to be the Communist system that is choking to death on worthless banknotes.
"Everybody got used to taking without earning. We haven't worked in years, but we got paid, however miserably," a Moscow resident trained in science but working as a translator and part-time printer told me. "Work lost its value first. Now money has. So people just take what they want or need, through theft or hoarding."
At a high-level economic conference I attended in Moscow in April 1989, Soviet and Western economists agreed that the "ruble overhang" -- the amount of national currency Soviet citizens are holding in their pockets and mattresses because they lack goods and services to spend these excess rubles on -- amounted to 200 to 250 billion rubles. The economists sounded alarm and said something had to be done.
This month, at a similar conference, an authoritative Soviet official used the figure of 350 billion rubles for the current overhang. Intourist exchange offices trade six rubles to the dollar, while the black market rate is 15 to 1. The absence of a commercial banking system to pay interest on deposits closes the monetary dead end.
This is Weimar stuff. Scenes of Soviet citizens trundling wheelbarrows full of rubles in the street will no longer be unthinkable if Gorbachev and his next government fail to rein in the national currency. Inflation joins the inflamed nationalisms of the rebellious republics, the continuing grip of totalitarian institutions and upheaval in the military to become the fourth horseman of perestroika's apocalypse.
Gorbachev has run through a series of economic advisers, abandoning each as soon as he presented the Soviet president with a serious reform program. Shatalin was the latest, returning to academic life now that Gorbachev has turned down his radical 500-day plan. "The president says he cannot agree with private property. I cannot agree with the president," Shatalin told our conference.
Gorbachev shrinks from cutting the budget deficit, which funds the few benefits left to the population at large. Because he refuses to break cleanly with the Communist economic system, he lacks political support. Because he lacks political support, Gorbachev cannot take the risk of breaking with the system.
It is called a vicious circle. More and more it looks like a vicious noose -- fashioned out of rubles -- for Gorbachev and the whole notion of reform communism.