August 17th, 1998
Aleksey Titarenko took this photograph on 17th August 1998, the day on which, after a number of years of relative stability, the Russian ruble suddenly fell off a cliff edge against the dollar, following the government's announcement of a default on Russian national bonds. The reaction of citizens of the city was instantaneous. As the ruble lost half of its value in the space of two days, they scrambled to withdraw their savings from the banks and to change their rapidly devaluing rubles for dollars. The ruble fell even further. Food prices rocketed. With the national currency in freefall, the private banking system in ruins, and the city's entire food supply under threat, citizens rushed to invest whatever spare cash they had in comestibles, pouring out onto Haymarket Square to queue in long lines at the makeshift kiosks (which had stood there since the early 1990s) for essentials such as sunflower seed oil, porridge oats, salt, and matches.
The sea of kiosks has since been replaced with more permanent structures, and the ruble has regained its firmness. But, while seeming relaxed, people here are always ready for catastrophe. In St Petersburg apparent order overlies a strong undertug of chaos.