Purchasing a Treasure

Dad’s family was one of the lucky families in Leningrad since they possessed “hard currency” (foreign currency), which allowed them to shop at some of the state-run stores, known as Torgsin, where they could buy food and luxuries in exchange for their US dollars. The foreign currency from these stories helped the government finance Stalin’s plan to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union.  My grandfather still had American dollars remaining from the sale of the house in New Jersey.

One item purchased there was my grandfather’s favorite treasure- his gramophone.  He loved to sit and listen to its beautiful music, and he would let Dad and his siblings take turns cranking it to make the records play.  His favorite music was jazz, but he enjoyed the classics as well.

That gramophone was the subject of one of my father’s favorite stories regarding  his alleged presence at a meeting attended by the assassin of Sergei Kirov.

Grandpa's Gramophone

Grandpa’s Gramophone


About kjw616

I am a genealogy detective. I have already written one book about my Irish family's journey from 19th century Ireland to the United States- a family history sprinkled with personal anecdotes. My second book was intended to be a similar story about my Russian ancestors. Instead, it turned into a tale of just my father's immediate family. It is the tale of what happens when 6 children from New Jersey are moved to the Soviet Union by their Russian-born parents during the Great Depression. It details who lives, who dies, and who is able to return to NJ during a time when leaving the USSR was not an easy endeavor, particularly during World War II and the Cold War. It is my hope that those interested in history during this time period will find this story fascinating as well as those fellow amateur family historians who will learn some of the tools such as ancestry.com, visits to the National Archives, and local libraries I used to uncover this story.
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7 Responses to Purchasing a Treasure

  1. Natascha says:

    Hi, so great finding a “fellow” reseacher of USSR ancestors 🙂
    Would you happen to know anything else about the presence of US dollars in USSR in the 1930’s?
    I am puzzled because my great grandparents had dollars in their possessions, but I have no idea how that fits with their Austrian/Bessarabian origin. They were wealthy and among the privileged (until around 1930 when the fortune was gone). My grandmother described how her mother managed to hide a large amount of their dollars in her underwear in 1937 when the NKVD entered their home and took all their valuables.
    I wonder how non-americans would get hold of Dollars. Were they traded on the black market?
    I am also puzzled by the very existence of these Torgsin stores, as it seems they only benefitted the privileged – a group which at the same time was being denounced and purged in the late 1930’s.
    Have you come across writings that offer any explanations or even elaborate on this matter?

    • kjw616 says:

      I am looking forward to reading your blog. I was excited when I peeked at it last night and saw that we have similar research interests. I will pass on your question to a professor at my local university who wrote a book about the Torgsin stores. My grandparents came to the USSR with their American dollars. They were leaving because of the lack of work during the Great Depression here in the early 30’s. They were not wealthy, but I believe they used the money from the sale of their house and apparently were able to shop at the Torgsin stores. I am not certain how much money they had and how often they shopped there, but I am certain they did at some time. In any case, I will see what I can find out for you.

  2. kjw616 says:

    Here is the reply to your question from Elena Osokina, a professor of Russian history at the University of South Carolina:

    Yes, I can answer these questions. As a matter of fact i wrote a book about Torgsin (600 pages – Gold for Industrialization: Torgsin. ) It came out in Russian in 2009. I am translating it into English for Yale. Torgsin stores were opened in the USSR in 1930 and first served only foreigners in exchange for hard currency. In 1931 Soviet people were allowed to shop in Torgsin in exchange for their valuables – gold, silver, foreign currency, precious stones. It turned to be that people in the USSR had dollars and brought a lot of them to Torgsin. Where did they get them from? Many ways. Some worked abroad before the revolution and in the 1920s when travel was still allowed. During the Civil war some peopple accumulated foreign currency on the market by selling food. Another way – in the 1920s during the new economic policy (NEP) – it was legal to buy and sell gold coins and foreign currency. In those years many people hoarded them. THere were also money transactions from abroad. In the 1930s one could buy dollars on the black market. Torgsin stores were popular. There were about 1500 of them all around the country. Only a few were luxurious. The majority of torgsins were small stores that sold basic necessities – bread, sugar, cereal, flour. Thanks to torgsins people survived the mass famine. Torgsin was closed February 1 1936. The official exchange rate in the first half of the 1930s was about 2 rubles per dollar (in the second half of the 1930s it changed). The real exchange at the black market was from 4 to 25 cents per ruble. An interesting fact – foreign embassies in Moscow who had to supply their people with rubles sold foreign currency for rubles at the black market in the USSR or abroad (Poland, Germany, France)

  3. Natascha says:

    Oh my, thank you!!
    This is very interesting, and certainly offers some explanation for me.
    It seems my family must have had plenty of opportunity to trade dollars then. I know that they had valuable jewelleries in their possession until KNVD seized most of their valuables in 1937. From that I gather they must have been gradually trading those for dollars.
    There is no mention of the famine period in my grandmother’s writings, and I have been wondering about how they coped. It seems they must have been able to survive due to their valuables and the torgsin stores.
    I am so grateful that you made this request on my behalf. I never thought I would be able to find an explanation. Thank you ever so much 🙂

  4. kjw616 says:

    I am glad I had a connection with some answers. This is why I am learning to love this avenue of communication . There are so many people with interesting stories and also some with common interests who are willing to help one another.

  5. Natascha says:

    Indeed so! Thanks to you I have been able to post about this subject on my blog now as certain things came together for me. I am very grateful for your help 🙂

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