"Operation Banknote," which is meant to confiscate excess rubles, and not "Operation Desert Storm," is what keeps Soviet citizens awake at night and away from work in the day in the world's biggest country.
The frenzy began Tuesday at 9 p.m., when Soviet televison announced that beginning at midnight, 50- and 100-ruble notes would no longer be legal tender in a drive against black marketeers, speculators and smugglers.The presidential decree gave citizens three days to turn the 50s and 100s into banks for new bills of the same denomination or smaller notes and limited all withdrawals to no more than 500 rubles - $800 at the official rate.
Although advertised as a strike against the criminals' ill-gotten gains, the reform really aimed at bringing out of the mattresses the billions of rubles squirreled away by honest workers in a society lacking checkbooks and credit cards - workers as distrustful of banks as they are of their government.
Knowing their savings were at stake, the workers and pensioners cared little about economists' reasoning that the excess purchasing power of the rubles was unbalancing the goods' market, fueling inflation and deflating the ruble's value by the hour.
Pensioners and workers stood all night at banks and raised such a howl that on Friday, the Soviet government gave pensioners two extra days to turn in their 50s and 100s. Pensioners receive 200 rubles or $320 a month.
Four republics did not even wait for the Soviet government to extend the deadline. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation prolonged it until Saturday, and Armenia has given everyone until Sunday.
One thing is certain. The country has not worked a lick since the decree, dubbed "Operation Banknote," by the government Izvestia newspaper.
Moments after it was announced Tuesday night, Muscovites streamed like lemmings from their homes convinced they would outwit the reform to start at midnight.
At train stations, many used the 1961-issue 50- and 100-ruble notes to buy dozens of train tickets to the farthest point on the Soviet rail system. The next day, they turned the tickets in for refunds in 5-, 10- and 25-ruble notes.
The reform caught the banks as unaware as the workers and pensioners.