During the Soviet Era private transactions with foreign currency were forbidden and were punishable under Soviet Criminal Code. Penalties ranged from few years of jail time to death penalty. However, government monitored transactions with foreign currency were possible in some cases. My wife at that time was employed as a flight attendant with Aeroflot and was frequently scheduled on international flights. Therefore she had access to foreign currency. Foreign currency spending was closely monitored in so called “currency book” (valuyatnaya knijka) and amounts were recorded by customs on departure and arrival.
Exchange or spending of foreign currency was not possible in the Soviet Union. Only way to make use of US dollars or other currency was to exchange them for cheques (monetary coupons) redeemable at stores “Beryozka” (“Little Birch Tree”) operated by Vneshposyltorg (“Foreign Mail Order Trade Service”). These stores sold some imported merchandise and items that usually was not available in regular Soviet stores.
Times were somewhat strange as a I was employed as a mechanical engineer (working with nuclear technology projects etc) profession requiring years of education and apprenticeship, I was earning Soviet roubles. Strangely enough this professional role did not qualify me to access any access to foreign currency and exchange cheques, while flight attendants, sailors and military could.
During the 90’s after collapse of the Soviet Union things drastically changed. Currency operations that were forbidden and punishable became possible as currency exchange locations were present at every corner. Due to unstable economic condition (high inflation) US dollars and other foreign currency was welcomed as more stable transaction means.
Also around 1992 two English language newspapers opened and published in Moscow : “The Moscow Times” and “The Moscow Tribune”. The Moscow Times published in print till 2017 still exists today and is still being published in an online format even today. Both newspapers had “Help Wanted” sections. Ads in those were posted by both respectable well known companies as well as “fly by night” shady enterprises.
At the time I was working as an engineer at VNIIEM ( All Russian Scientific Research Institute of Electromechanics) originally stayed owned, but now privatized subsidiary of Roscosmos. I was simply looking for a possibility of part time employment with secondary cash income. I did not want to loose my full time employment and tenure.
I attended a meet and greet meeting with a manger of a company “Colve”. It portrayed itself as Austrian, but all of it’s staff was comprised of spanish speaking latinos, who arrived as international students settling in Moscow and not eager to return back to Ecuador and Cuba. Person in charge of the firm was Juan Pedro, who did not speak Russian and spoke broken English. From our conversation I learnt that the firm was importing in bulk variety of junk: ladies pantyhose, bubble gum to instant coffee. He was looking for a person who would approach retail vendors and recommend this products for retail sale in smaller quantities. These jobs were quite popular as few foreign adventurers were looking to sell their junk due to high consumer demand, but their inability to communicate in Russian. Juan Pedro offered to give me few bubble gums as samples, but wanted a cash deposit for samples of other products. I simply decided that investing my own hard earned money into this adventure was not for me and decided to keep on looking.
In the mid of 1993 I responded to the ad in “The Moscow Times” posted by a firm called AVD (Audio & Video Design). Gentleman who picked up the phone did not speak Russian and could only communicate in English. I explained that I was responded to the ad in the newspaper and was interested in part-time employment. He asked me if I would be able to calculate office energy consumption levels based on Russian specifications and standards. Soviet school program did teach all students mandatory physics course including electrical consumptions, Ohm’s Law etc. I have never completed calculations like this before, but felt confident that I could. I responded: ” Of course I can!”
Next day I arrived to the company’s office located on a side street behind KGB Headquarters on Lubyanka. There I met with company’s owner Alan Stewart. He provided me with specifics on electric equipment in the building, which he was looking to convert into the office space. Alan’s firm was specializing in building recording studios. He was invited to establish his company office in Moscow by Alexandre Shulgin, who was husband and producer of Russian singer Valeria.
I learnt later that Alan was supposed to receive contract for upgrade of acoustic equipment in the Kremlin’s Palace of Conferences, but he was not awarded the contract. He later completed conversion of a number of small older downtown buildings into professional office spaces.
I took materials given and went to GPNTB (Government’s National Public Library for Science & Technology). I made my calculations according to Soviet/Russian specifications and standards. I prepared my report typing it in English and printed for Alan’s review.
Next day I delivered report to Alan and was compensated $50 for my work. Ironically, this accounted to about half of my monthly pay at my full time job as a mechanical engineer. These were my first earned dollars. Alan was pleased with results and I completed several other projects for him. I ended up working there until the end of 1993. I ended up meeting a few interesting people there from all corners of the world, but this is another story for another time