Features

Russian ruble roulette

International | As Clinton traveled to Moscow, it was plain that a "free" market cannot outrun corrupt officials

Issue: "Postmodern politics," Sept. 12, 1998

Nightmare scenarios flow as easily out of Russia as the talk from the currency hustlers peddling pipe dreams along the shopping arcades near the Kremlin.

With the country perched at the razor's edge of bankruptcy, one scenario has street brawls erupting between cash-strapped Muscovites, bringing on martial law and a return to Soviet-era control over daily life.

In another, a military attaché-his paycheck two weeks overdue and the wife desperate for a cut of beef to go with the perennial fried potatoes-makes a deal with a mob go-between who has ties to Afghani terrorists for a long-range, nuclear-armed missile charged to the soldier's safekeeping. In 30 minutes the payload could reach Pittsburgh.

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At times last week, each scenario seemed all too real. Russian President Boris Yeltsin vowed to stay in office despite the angry demands outside Moscow's banks. Paychecks looked like a thing of the past. Outside Moscow, basic conditions moved from persistently Third World to downright desperate. When a superpower is going bankrupt, economists wondered in the West, who knows what can happen next?

Christian workers and their Western partners in this climate are finding their message tested as never before. When Billy Graham Association evangelist Victor Hamm was the recent guest on a popular Christian radio program in Ukraine, one local caller complained, "Don't you know some of us are starving here? Why doesn't Jesus feed the children?" Mr. Hamm told WORLD he does not remember being asked the question.

Most Americans don't know Russia's peril. The economic crisis caught the Clinton administration prepping for a summit with a government it discovered might not be there when Mr. Clinton arrived.

The policies of Mr. Yeltsin's team, filled more with kleptocrats than democrats, have strangled average workers. More than half of Russia's food and medicine supplies is imported. With foreign credit in jeopardy, Russians on the street face real hardship. Their rubles are worth nearly half what they were just a few weeks ago, and, while the shelves are full now, they aren't likely to remain that way. Goodwill with overseas lenders has gone the way of a six-ruble dollar. After the Aug. 17 currency devaluation, banks sold American dollars for eight rubles each, then 10, then 12. Many banks closed in order to hold onto the precious hard currency. On the street, dollars were disappearing even faster.

Wil Triggs of Russian Ministries in Wheaton, Ill., said, "As things get worse, the importance of the church to be a force for stability increases."

Still, many Russians profess more indifference to their plight than outsiders watching events unfold in the Kremlin. According to Peter and Anita Deyneka, the husband-and-wife missionary team that heads Russian Ministries, most Russians learned under communism not to depend on the government. They were also trained to expect it to be unresponsive to their needs. Today, said Mr. Deyneka, "They are dubious and dissatisfied with politics, even after the short life in democracy."

What they are accustomed to, according to Mrs. Deyneka, is honing a long litany of troubles. They are also used to living by their wits, depending on the barter system instead of unpaid wages, and growing what they can to cut food costs (many wage earners spend 75 percent of their income on food).

"It's surprising and touching," said Mrs. Deyneka, "to see how Christians are building new churches in the midst of these circumstances."

The Deynekas and Russian Ministries are involved now in over 25 cities and villages with churches under construction-"I don't mean new buildings, I mean churches that used to meet in the forest or somewhere growing to where they can have a building," says Mr. Deyneka.

These kinds of Christians seldom find themselves among the so-called "New Russians," the entrepreneurial class that has profited under Mr. Yeltsin through black-marketeering and the use of cronyism to acquire old Soviet structures.

Christians are generally blue-collar wage earners or professionals, categories in which earnings are still most often paid by the government. For them, the ruble's devaluation robbed them of more than a third of their income, if they're paid at all.

Lacking cash, the congregation constructing a Baptist church near Krasnodar divided its adult members into four groups. Each group assigned itself one week per month to do after-hours construction. Western donations provided the materials and the labor was all volunteer. At the same time, some of those church members were making regular deliveries of flour to a nearby orphanage that had run out of its own food resources. When the Deynekas visited the church site this summer, it lacked only a roof.

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