- Visa and Mastercard ceased Russian operations, blocking Russian bank cards abroad.
- Russians in Singapore, the UK, and Turkey told Insider they are using foreign accounts to access money.
- They are all worried about the value of the ruble, one of the year’s worst-performing currencies.
Maria went to buy a green juice on campus one day in late February but her card was declined.
Next, she tried to buy some groceries. Again, her card was declined.
The 23-year old Russian student, who did not wish to share her last name, is doing an exchange semester in Singapore and had heard a day earlier that her Russian bank card would be blocked. She wanted to test it to see if it was true.
“We’re worth nothing, basically,” she told Insider, referring to the value of Russian currency.
Since it invaded Ukraine, Russia has been a pariah state, with many sectors of its economy sanctioned by the international community. Its network of wealthy oligarchs have had their assets frozen, their overseas properties raided, and their yachts seized.
But ordinary Russians are feeling the impact too, with the ruble plummeting in the early days of the invasion, one of the worst-performing currencies of the year so far. Major Russian lenders have been banned from SWIFT, the international system of payment used by thousands of banks worldwide. And for Russians abroad like Maria, the decision by Mastercard and Visa to suspend their Russian operations, has meant money troubles since their cards are now negligible abroad.
Maria received a text on March 11 from her Russian bank, Sberbank — the country’s largest — informing her of the ban, the message stating that it would not affect Sberbank cards within Russia.
Maria, pursuing a Master’s degree at an Italian university, feels lucky, however, that she’s on exchange in Singapore because she has a scholarship to cover all her expenses there. And the money is deposited into her Italian bank account, not her Russian one.
Still, she’s worried about what she will do when her semester ends in May.
“In Italy, I would really be struggling,” she said, explaining that there, she has a scholarship that only partially covers her living costs.
She makes ends meet by tutoring, her earnings deposited into her blocked Russian bank account. Her mom also sends her some money on occasion to that Russian account. But even if she were able to access funds through it, she said, the exchange rate would leave her with practically nothing.
The exchange rate is what has deterred Alena, 25, who asked not to share her last name, from freelancing for Russian clients.
The international Russian student lives in Leeds, UK, and does freelance translation and graphic design work when she’s not studying.
“It doesn’t make any sense for me anymore to work as a freelancer in Russia because of the currency exchange rates because it’s just insanely expensive,” Alena told Insider.
She also wouldn’t be able to transfer her rubles from her Russian Alfabank account to her UK Lloyds bank account even if she did choose to work with Russian clients.
Alena had acted early, however, anticipating financial repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the conflict’s second day, she decided to transfer the funds in her Russian account to her British one.
“I was thinking that it might lead to sanctions and it might lead to blocking accounts, and just in case I decided to transfer the money,” she said.
Taras Litvinenko is another Russian abroad relying on a foreign bank card.
Litvinenko, 49, who fled to Istanbul, Turkey in March, has an Estonian bank account that he got through Estonia’s “e-residency” program. The first of its kind, the Eastern European country’s scheme allows anyone worldwide to apply for a digital ID, open an Estonian bank account, and run a virtual business in the country.
A graphic designer with an IT background, Litvinenko has been using his Estonian business debit card, as well as a local prepaid card called Paycell.
His Russian bank cards are just “pieces of plastic,” he told Insider.
“Stay home, be strong, use MIR local card,” Litvinenko said was the advice the Russian government gave at the outset of its invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing economic sanctions leveled at the country, referring to Mir, Russia’s domestic payment system.
Ethnically Ukrainian, he feared a rise in hate speech against him if he stayed in Russia. He left for Turkey, the only option he said he had, with both the US and EU out of visas for Russians.
He hopes to bring his wife over in the coming months from Moscow to Istanbul. In the meantime, he wants to continue to grow his virtual business, and pursue Estonian citizenship as an option for the future.
All three Russians abroad have no plans — and few options — to return to their home country any time soon.