Long lines of angry and confused Soviets formed at banks Wednesday in hopes of exchanging suddenly worthless 100 and 50 ruble notes under a monetary reform program.
But the reform announced Tuesday night also caught the banks by surprise and they were not ready to exchange money. Many of the banks opened late, if at all - and then announced they had neither the instructions nor the money to carry out the exchange.Still, the Soviets waited.
"I am sure that somehow we will be able to get our money," said an optimistic elderly woman who had been in line for four hours in the freezing cold outside a state savings bank on Kutuzovsky Prospekt, about a mile from the Kremlin.
She said those in line were told the bank had no cash and they had seen no indication any money was being changed, but they remained in line "because they might start at any time."
Others were not so positive, and the official Tass news agency acknowledged that "bank officials, deeply bewildered by events, were unable to say when people could change their money."
A presidential decree read on the official "Vremya" evening news show at 9 p.m. Tuesday said that as of midnight the 100 and 50 ruble bills would no longer be valid.
Old bills would be exchanged for new ones at banks and workplaces, the decree said, but only for three days and limited to the amount of one month's salary.
The panic and anger over monetary reform quickly displaced the bloody military crackdown in the Baltics and the Persian Gulf war as the No. 1 topic in Soviet subways and businesses.
"Instead of saying `good morning' to one another, people asked `How much have you got?' " a Tass correspondent said.