Russia and Syria introduce a new monetary unit: a tonne

Yet again Russia teaches the West a valuable economic lesson, which one hopes will soon be heeded.

The first lesson was that when the state nationalises the economy, it had better murder everyone who disagrees, for otherwise this commendable effort will fail (François Hollande, ring your office).

The second lesson was that when the state denationalises the economy, its reins should be passed to a frankly criminalised elite. Otherwise the state will lose control first and face second, when trying to regain control by violent means.

And now a new, up-to-date lesson for our incoming Bank governor: the amount of quantitative easing (queasing for short) should be denominated not in monetary units but in metric tonnes. That way we won’t know what’s going on and will persist in the misapprehension that our rulers do.

The Russians have shown the way by printing 240 tonnes of Syrian banknotes and shipping the lot over to help Assad pay his bills. Some of the bills have been presented by the army, and it would be imprudent not to honour these at this particular time. How many piastres to a tonne? Until we calculate the answer, we’ll remain blissfully in the dark about the true scale of cooperation between the two fraternal regimes.

It has to be said that the Russians have form when it comes to printing currency other than their own. In fact, while Lenin (d. 1924) was still alive his secret police founded two laboratories, one of poisons, the other of counterfeiting.

The first has been in business ever since, producing for the needs of its idealistic state a broad range of educational tools, from bog-standard cyanide to sophisticated polonium. The latter compound was in 2006 used to highly publicised effect in the centre of London, reminding the world of the Russians’ continuing commitment to innovation.

The other laboratory is presumed dormant, but only because the evidence for its ongoing efforts is mostly circumstantial. For example, after the advent of simon-pure democracy in 1991, and especially after the collapse of the rouble in 1998, most business in Russia has been transacted in cash-and-carry dollars.

Now it ought to be remembered that before the advent of simon-pure democracy, possession of even a minute amount of foreign currency was an instantly imprisonable offence. Possession of cosmically high amounts, say $10,000, was grounds for a death sentence, usually carried out hours after being passed.

It therefore stands to reason that until 1991 only trivial amounts of foreign tender were in private hands. Suddenly a lot of green appeared out of the blue: overnight, billions of dollar banknotes began circulating through Russia’s anaemic economy. Where did they come from? Part of me, the cynical part, has to think that the second KGB lab had something to with it.

This time the Russians have used their time-honoured expertise to prop up Assad’s regime for which they feel an affection that’s only partly attributable to the billion-dollar defence contracts they get from Syria. It’s of course a law of human nature that most states feel kinship for governments that resemble them.

Thus Westerners, the less switched-on ones, have this warm feeling for any democracy, no matter how manifestly bogus or predictably short-lived. The Russians too have displayed this kind of emotion throughout their history.

For example, Russian tsars were inveterate supporters of monarchs anywhere in the world. Under Peter the Great, a derogatory remark not only about him but also about any foreign monarch was a capital offence. And his father, Tsar Alexei, expressed his unequivocal support for Charles I, then recently beheaded.

When the English Muscovy Company, which had enjoyed a near monopoly on Russian trade since Elizabethan times, applied for an extension of its licence, it was floored by the short uppercut of the tsar’s ukase: ‘Inasmuch as the said Anglic Germans have slaughtered their own King Carolus to death, we hereby decree that none of the said Anglic Germans shall henceforth be admitted to Russia’s land.

The Bolsheviks also felt more affinity for either Mussolini or Hitler than for any democratic statesmen. That’s partly why they entered the Second World War as Hitler’s allies by attacking Poland 17 days after the Germans. Ribbentrop summed up this friendship neatly when declaring at a Kremlin banquet that he felt as if he was among his own Parteigenossen. Stalin replied by saying, ‘I know how much the German people love their Führer. I’d like to drink to his health.’

Continuing this fine tradition, the Russians still support every tyrant in the world, your Hugo Chavez or Hamas types. That by itself is par for the course. But their recent money airlift to Assad introduces something new, yet another useful lesson Russia teaches the world.

Forget those puny wheelbarrows full of useless Weimar banknotes. As queasing shifts up through the gears, money should be measured out in plane loads. Admittedly, this would necessitate certain adjustments to our language, such as introducing the phrase ‘You look like a 100-weight of dollars.’ But it would be a small price to pay for a truly advanced economy.









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