How A Group of American Teenagers Took The USSR To the Cleaners

A group of American teenagers holding an American flag, about to take down the USSR. Image courtesy of Dreamstime, not actually depicting any of us.

Long long ago (1988 I think?), my 16-year-old self and some friends / acquaintances visited the Soviet Union while it was still a thing. Our trip was organized by a group called “People to People,” and it was a feel-good reaction to Cold War tensions. The purported idea behind it all was to expose teenagers to Soviet kids (in Russia, but also all over the USSR) and demonstrate to us that we were all just people, trying to get along. Very easy-to-chew, but reality is a bit messier.

We were coached for weeks before our trip on what was acceptable and what was not, and at the top of “Unacceptable!” was The Black Market. We were forbidden to engage with The Black Market. We were told they would approach us. But they were scary! Bad! Stay away!

As a teenager, this had two main effects:

  1. Scare us a little, and
  2. Provoke intense curiosity about this topic.

While still on American soil, we understood that engaging with The Black Market could land us in a gulag. So of course we didn’t want to engage with The Black Market. More on that later.

Also, we were not made to understand that our itinerary was going to take us to multiple countries. We went to Moscow, Kyiv, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Sochi, and Alma Ata, with multiple stops in other smaller towns and villages, across a six week span. We were chaperoned (poor chaperones, I pity them in retrospect) and we were also traveling with kids from two other schools, simultaneously. Our group was roughly 45 kids. It was madness from so many perspectives! Hormonal horny teenagers from both co-ed and gender-segregated schools, traveling to a different country with strict norms and laws that we really weren’t being prepped for. It’s a wonder none of us wound up in jail, really.

(I really really liked Leningrad / St. Petersburg, but the place where we made the most friends was Kyiv. I think that’s important, 30-odd years later).

So upon landing in Moscow, we were quickly shuttled to the state bank, where we could exchange dollars for rubles…at the official rate.

The official rate was 0.8 rubles for 1 US dollar. This was odd / disheartening as a teenager, and one of our first glimpses into the workings of monetary policy in the real world. We all kind of knew this was bullshit. Nothing like taking $40 and getting 32 rubles back to spend on inflated Russian goods and services.

What really hammered the egregious point home was that as soon as we exited the bank — this was literally the first stop on our trip, before we’d even made it to our hotel! — we were accosted right outside on the street by Black Marketeers. “Change money? Change money?” They were pretty young themselves, and they were definitely cool; they wore leather jackets and they did not give many fucks.

We had been instructed to ignore them, so we tried. But they clearly knew what they were doing better than our coaches and chaperones. “10 to 1! 10 for 1! I give you 10 for 1! Come American! Listen to me!”

A few of us stopped. What did that mean? 10 for 1?

“10 rubles for 1 dollar!”

WHAT?!

Okay, so clearly we weren’t going to just jump up and start exchanging money with The Black Market right outside the bank, with our chaperones and whatnot all just watching us right there.

But over the next few days, we were each of us approached at different places, individually or in groups, with different rates of exchange. The best rates we were offered were around 20:1. That’s 20 rubles for one dollar.

You might be able to see where this was going. Literally all of us took advantage of this. Our buying power was magnificent. We could buy all kinds of souvenirs and just stuff, and barely make a dent in our teenage travel allowances.

Now that’s all well and good, but towards the end of the six week trip most of us still had several hundred (or even thousand!) rubles in our hands, and it was time to exit the country.

At which point we discovered the miracle of currency trading. You see, the official rate was still 0.8 rubles to 1 dollar…and that meant we were making BANK.

The only problem was that the USSR had clearly run into this before, so they’d put into place a policy saying that you couldn’t leave the country with more money than you entered with. Which, I mean, okay, fair.

So we each and every one of us left the Soviet Union with exactly as much money as we came in with, and with tons and tons of stuff. Fur coats and hats, cloisonné and enamel pins, vinyl records, posters of Lenin, flags, you name it. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out someone bought a Faberge egg or a MiG jet and shoved it into their roll-on suitcase.

And now, as an adult, I look back at this and wonder to myself…if a group of teenagers was able to take advantage of a situation like this, not even entirely consciously, just by going with the flow and indulging our tiny little capitalist instincts, what the hell else was going on at a fiscal policy level that contributed to the demise of the big scary Soviet Union?

As Russia invades Ukraine, I wonder how many of these lessons actually stuck with Russia? It sure doesn’t feel like many, because Ukraine might not be winning the tank and air battles, but it’s also not entirely losing them, and it definitely is winning the “hearts and minds” battle. Their PR and messaging game is on point, while Putin’s is generally stupid, self-contradictory, self-serving.

I won’t even get into truthfulness, since I don’t know if truth even matters anymore in this day and age, but Putin’s messages feel like lies, while Ukraine’s lies feel like truth (see “The Ghost of Kyiv” fighter pilot mythos that everyone loves but that clearly is bullshit if you want an example of what I mean).

If a group of teenagers could go up against the scary monolithic behemoth of the USSR and make out like we did, maybe there’s a lesson in here for everyone else who has to go up against the Russians…or other big bad scary monolithic entities. Maybe they’re not as monolithic as they seem. Maybe they’re vulnerable in surprising ways. Maybe those walls and tanks and all the messaging around their might is just that: messaging.

And you can always make better messaging, and sometimes even make money in the process.

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