Vienna, January 14 – The opening of an exhibit in Sverdlovsk featuring the coupons – called “Urals francs” -- that officials there used in the early 1990s to replace the ruble in local transactions calls attention to a phenomenon often neglected then and later: the desire of many Russians in the regions to escape Moscow’s control through secession.
While the efforts of non-Russians, from the Tatars to the Chechens, to achieve greater autonomy or even independence in the 1990s attracted a great deal of attention and concern, the efforts of Russians in the regions to do the same did not, largely because most observers assumed that ethnic identity among Russians and their attachment to Moscow were both firm.
But neither was as overwhelmingly strong as many assumed. Not only have some nominally ethnic Russians experimented with other identities, including regional ones like “Sibiryak,” but many more have resented the way in which Moscow has assumed their loyalty and devoted more resources to non-Russian groups that stood up to the center.
Such feelings were certainly stronger during the early and mid-1990s, a period in which many parts of the Russian state were in a shambles and to which the exhibit in Sverdlovsk is devoted. But its opening now, when many Russian regions, which receive less from the center than they pay and may be more restive as a result, is an indication that such attitudes may persist.
In reporting the opening of the exhibit, Novyy Region says that “the unique facts of the contemporary history of the Sverdlovsk oblast were reanimated today at the opening of an exhibit” featuring the “Urals francs” which “could have become the monetary units of the separatist Urals Republic” (www.nr2.ru/ekb/215583.html).
These coupons are “now recalled only by older or middle aged people” in the region, journalist Aleksandr Rodionov said, but the region’s leader at that time Eduard Rossel hastened to say that the radical ruble inflation of the early 1990s meant that such regional coupons were needed because “there wasn’t enough cash to pay people their wages.”
Rossel said that he had gone ahead with printing these coupons after talking to Yegor Gaidar, who at that time was economics and finance minister of the Russian Federation. “I told him,” the governor said, “that there wasn’t enough money” to pay people and asked for his opinion about the coupons. After a brief reflection, Gaidar said to go ahead.
An exhibit guide interrupted and pointed out that 60 percent of the residents of the Middle Volga voted for secession from the Russian Federation. But Rossel responded by saying that “no, at that time 70 to 80 percent of the population voted for separation,” a level of support that caused Moscow to move against him.
Rossel’s comments on this point, Novyy Region continued, reflect the fact that “the present government has remained at the helm of Sverdlovsk oblast longer than any of his predecessors,” a longevity that Rossel himself explained as the result of the political skills he learned in Soviet times.
“To survive politically in Soviet times was more complicated than now,” he said. “Before us were put tasks that could not be fulfilled” but that came from places in that “power vertical” which could not be ignored. “That I survived says that I mastered sufficient flexibility already in Soviet times.”
It is thus entirely possible that his decision to be speak out about the local currency or script that he introduced more than 15 years ago now that once again his region and many others are suffering as a result of a combination of economic difficulties and demands from Moscow that they do more with less than they had.
But however that may be, the explanatory note that Novyy Region provides is worth noting at the very least as a window on the past if not a guide to the future. According to the news service, “the Urals francs were account checks of the Urals Market cooperative. They were printed in 1991 at the initiative of a group of young entrepreneurs and public activists.
“The causes for the issuance of the banknotes were the lack of rubles and the need to pay out family subsidies, wages and other local payments.” In addition, Novyy Region reports, they “tangentially” represented a form of “propaganda of the idea of a Urals Republic.” Some 1.93 million bills were printed in denominations ranging from 1 to 1000 “Urals francs.”