Russia, May 19, 1999
I love to get Cash Transfers in Russia!
How many times a month do you write a check? I used to write a least two a month, to satisfy those gracious gentlemen holding my student loan and those quick-to-late-fee credit card sharks. Now that I paid off my student loans (Look Ma, I did it, finally!), and the banking crisis killed off most of the Russian banks, I don't write a single one. This doesn't stop me from worshiping the amazing checking system we have in the West though, especially when I live in a check-free place like Russia.
Using checks is an amazing process, requiring both the writer and receiver to trust each other and the banks involved with the rest of the transaction to be honest and efficient. In Russia, all three, trust, honesty, and efficiency, are missing, and actually by design.
Those who once trusted Bank Menatep will never do that again!
In the Soviet days, while we were pioneering the checking system, and all the ways to corrupt it, The Soviet Union didn't need checks. Of course not, a workers' paradise, where everyone was giving what they needed, did not require people to transfer funds between each other. Everyone was equal to begin with!
Since, in reality, no one was equal; several methods were devised to transfer money around. The most honest, and therefore least used method was the postal transfer. Working just like it does in America, a Russian in Moscow would give 100 rubles to the post office, who would then give 100 rubles to the receiver in Vladivostok. All this would be written down, and probably both the sender and receiver would be questioned by the KGB (Why do you have extra money, comrade, and what does your brother intend to do with it?!).
To avoid that hassle, and the opportunity for a gulag vacation, the envelope method came about. Lets say you had a son studying shipping in Volgagrad, and he needed to buy a "gift" so he could get into a certain class, or make a better grade. You could make the 48 hour round-trip train ride from Moscow and give it to him, or he could come from there. If both of you were lacking the time (or stamina!) for such a journey, you could wait till you knew someone who was going anyway. But why wait?
Twenty-four hours on a train to see this?!
Every day there is a trustworthy woman going to Volgagrad who will be more than happy to deliver your funds for a small fee: the train dezhorniya. In each train wagon is a lady that takes care of all the passengers in that wagon and she will definitely be on the train when it pulls into Volgagrad. You simply give her the envelope with the cash, your son's name, and a gift for her. Then, once the train is on its way, send a telegram to your son, telling her that Ms. Valentinova in wagon 14 has an envelope for you. Your son meets the train, shows his passport to Ms. Valentinova, and all is well.
As I travel around Russia, I see this envelope cash transfer method employed on every train, bus, and hydrofoil I take. Amazing in its simplicity and, I assume, trustworthiness, I am almost envious of the system. Well, that is until I write a check to a friend and drop it in the mail for the USA. For the only failing of the system is that it only operates in Russia.
When I stayed with Laura in 1996, I asked her what she would want me to send from America when I returned. Her only request was a magazine subscription. Why? Because she couldn't subscribe to a foreign magazine without a check or credit card, both that don't exist here.
So for that, I thank you Federal Reserve!