MOSCOW, JAN. 23 -- Anna Surgina, a 78-year-old retiree, spent last night crying her eyes out. Most of her lifetime savings had effectively been confiscated by the Soviet government.
Across town, Erburat Aliev's satisfaction at getting a good price for his car turned to despair when he realized that the thick wad of 100-ruble notes in his pocket had suddenly become worthless. This morning, he took 13,000 rubles -- the equivalent of four years' earnings for the average Soviet worker -- to a bank in the hope of getting at least something in exchange.
"They told me I could use the money in the toilet," said Aliev, an Azerbaijani collective-farm worker. "I now can't even buy an air ticket to go home."
Police were summoned to keep order at banks and savings institutions across the Soviet Union this morning following President Mikhail Gorbachev's announcement Tuesday of a draconian monetary reform. All 50- and 100-ruble bank notes ceased to be legal tender after midnight, and a presidential decree restricted the right of exchange in most cases to one month's salary.
In a television interview last night, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov insisted that the monetary reform was aimed at black marketeers and speculators who deal in high-denomination notes, but the panicky atmosphere on the streets of Moscow today suggested that ordinary Soviet citizens will bear the brunt of the suffering.
"The goverment says it is against the mafia. But the real black marketeers sensed that this was coming and changed their money into dollars or gold. The only people who will be hurt are idiots like me," said Yuri Belikov, an engineer who has 3,000 rubles stashed away in high-denomination notes.
Because the Soviet ruble is not convertible on international currency markets, dollar equivalents are virtually meaningless. Depending on widely varying official and black-market rates of exchange, a 100-ruble note can be worth anything from $5 to $160. The average Soviet citizen earns about 250 rubles a month.
The primary purpose of Gorbachev's decree was to restore balance to the consumer market and shore up the purchasing power of the ruble by soaking up the excess money now in circulation. Over the past three years, the state has been pumping out bank notes at a rate unmatched by growth in the supply of food or consumer goods. As a result, stores throughout the Soviet Union have been cleaned out.
The Soviet legislature last year rejected a plan by free-market advocates to absorb the excess money through a massive sale of state assets and strict controls over the money supply. As a result, some kind of confiscatory monetary reform had become practically inevitable despite repeated government promises that such a measure would never be undertaken.
Soviet officials said the withdrawal of high-denomination bank notes from circulation was the simplest and least costly of several plans under consideration, but they conceded that the impact of the decree could be arbitrary. A millionaire who managed to get rid of all his high-denomination bank notes by last night's deadline will scarcely be affected by the presidential decree, while a widow who hid 100-ruble notes under her mattress may lose most of her savings.
Under the new regulations, which were splashed across the front pages of Soviet newspapers today, retiree Surgina will be allowed to exchange 200 rubles -- the equivalent of her monthly pension -- with no questions asked. Her chances of recovering another 800 rubles that she had stashed away for her grandchildren's education seem dubious.
Gorbachev's decree sets a three-day deadline for the exchange of high-denomination bills and restricts withdrawals from savings accounts to 500 rubles a month. Today was effectively wasted, since banks were still awaiting detailed instructions from the government on the terms of exchange. Hundreds of nervous citizens besieged savings institutions, clutching 50- and 100-ruble bills that they were unable to get rid of.
"There's no point protesting any more," said Nina Klimenko, a 52-year-old invalid whose savings of 1,800 rubles have been wiped out. "We can go and demonstrate and lie down in front of tanks. But they'll probably roll over us."
Fierce arguments between critics and supporters of Gorbachev broke out in the lines outside banks. A vocal minority praised him for taking tough action against black marketeers and introducing "order."
"Most of the people in this line are economically illiterate," said Sofia Suryova, a retiree waiting to exchange 200 rubles. "Gorbachev had to do something against the speculators. Citizens who have earned their money honestly should have nothing to fear."
Citizens who want to exchange large sums will have to appear before commissions made up of workers' representatives and KGB security police agents who will decide whether money was earned "honestly." The KGB has also been authorized to seize banks if they fail to comply with the new regulations.
The complex exchange procedures already have resulted in a black market for 50- and 100-ruble notes. At Moscow's Ryzhski market, widely reputed to be controlled by the Soviet mafia, the high-denomination notes are already being traded for a fraction of their face value.
Leaders of the Soviet Union's 15 constituent republics reacted with a mixture of shock and caution to Gorbachev's decree, which also appears designed to strengthen central controls over the economy. The leadership of the Russian legislature said it would try to soften the blow for ordinary citizens by working out plans to compensate them.
Elmarr Matt, a director of the Central Bank of Estonia, which is considering plans to issue its own currency in place of the ruble, said the decree was part of a "war" between the Kremlin and the republics.