In Moscow, several months ago, I telephoned an American friend to confirm an office appointment. Since I was going by taxi, I asked him how much I ought to pay for the ride. Moscow cabdrivers outside tourist hotels are no better or worse than those in other metropolises, but it always pays to know from a local what a ride ought to cost. My American friend said the trip from my hotel to his office was “a one-pack ride.”

What was that supposed to mean? Answer: one pack of Marlboros. Although I was a nonsmoker, I had loaded up for just such emergencies with two cartons of Marlboros at the Kennedy Airport duty-free shop. If you are a foreigner, Soviet cabdrivers tell you in advance: we don’t accept rubles, only hard currency and Marlboros or Kents. (Taxi-meters don’t mean very much if the driver picks you up at a hotel entrance or sizes you up as a foreigner.) A few days later I went to see my American friend at his home. Before departing, he advised me that the trip to his apartment, a bit further out than his office, was “a two-pack ride.”

In fact during the rush hour in Moscow or Leningrad, when cabs are otherwise unavailable, you are advised to stand at the edge of the roadway and wave a pack of Marlboros. Not only will cabs appear out of nowhere but private cars will stop and the driver will ask where you’re going. Even cabdrivers with passengers already inside will stop to ask your destination.

These recollections surfaced as I read a news report that the Soviet government has asked the Philip Morris Co. and RJR Nabisco Inc. to supply 34 billion cigarettes (that’s 1.7 billion packs) to Soviet smokers. Suddenly, it struck me that President Gorbachev had come up with an ingenious way of providing an acceptable currency without wholly de-legitimizing the already de-legitimized ruble while at the same time meeting the sudden cigarette shortage.

(At the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel in Moscow where I was staying, there is a sign in one of the bars that says that patrons are forbidden to bring along their own liquor on pain of being fined thirty rubles. In parentheses there is the phrase “payment only in hard currency.”)

The reason why U.S. cigarettes like Marlboros, Kents, or Winstons are in such demand are several. One, they taste much better than Soviet cigarettes, although not being a smoker I can’t vouch for that. Second, American cigarettes are “kulturny,” classy because they’re American. Third, as a currency, their value is stable because demand never drops. Fourth, the package can be sold profitably if one sells one cigarette at a time. The black market price of a pack of Marlboros was reported by the Wall Street Journal to be 20 rubles or $32, quite a markup from the $1.60 duty-free per pack price, but still a cheap taxi-ride.

The cigarette-potato-bread-and-everything shortage reminded me of an old riddle they still tell in Moscow: what would happen if the Soviet Union seized the Sahara Desert? Answer: for the first twenty-five years, nothing, and then there would be a shortage of sand.