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600 Essayists in Search of a Respectable Ruble

May 31, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ It has come to this with the Russian currency. So great is its trouble - so low its value - that an essay contest was held on ways to rescue the ruble. Six hundred ideas came from 23 countries.

Frank Furth, a wealthy Californian who put up $42,000 in prize money, said the idea came to him when a Soviet guest visiting his ranch asked if he had any suggestions on how to make the ruble convertible - worth something outside of the U.S.S.R.

His suggestion was to have the contest.

If the ruble isn’t convertible, no one wants it. It can’t be cashed in for other currencies. When Pepsi-Cola set up shop in the Soviet Union, it worked out a deal to sell Pepsi for rubles, buy vodka with the rubles, export the vodka, then sell the vodka and make its profit that way.

It works, but it’s clumsy. Economists talk about liquidity, but that’s not what they have in mind.

The judges - three American academics, three Russian experts - went over the finalists and awarded $10,000 prizes Wednesday to two Russians, Giuzel Anulova and K. Panov, and an economics professor from Tufts University, Franklyn Holzman.

They gave $4,000 prizes to the runners-up, a Russian, a West German and a Hungarian.

The top winners called, one way or another, for creation of a market economy in the Soviet Union as the only effective path to ruble respectability. The others called, one way or another, for a dual economy, which might, or might not, lead to a convertible ruble, the judges said.

The judges issued a statement: ″After two days of intense discussion, the jury came away impressed with the difficulties involved in devising a workable strategy for achieving a convertible ruble, and also with the immense importance of making headway on this issue.″

Furth, antitrust lawyer and owner of a California winery, said essays came in from ″the cognoscente of convertibility,″ showing ″that the world was responding to a chance to help.″

Economist Ed Hewitt of the Brookings Institution said he would have been ″chagrined″ if one of the entries had won. It came from a sixth grader, not otherwise identified.

Ivan Ivanov, deputy chairman of the U.S.S.R. State Commission on Foreign Economic Relations, promised to call a conference in Moscow in October toweigh the ideas further.

All this happened at the Brookings Institution. Over at the National Press Club, five Soviet officials in grey suits lined up behind microphones and took turns for an hour taking aim at the Soviet economy, no punches pulled.

″There is absolutely no logic to our pricing system,″ said Vladlen Arkadyevich Martynov, director of the Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economics and International Relations.

″We have ludicrously low prices on bread, which results in that bread being fed to animals or even being used as fertilizer. ... We must re-educate 100 percent of our managers.″

For all that, Andrei Grachev, an official of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, said it would be appropriate for capitalism to lend a hand to a communist economy trying to reform itself.

Said he: ″I would hope that the West would take some responsibilities in perestroika.″

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