How to Send Money to the Wrong Side of the War

A Russian emigre is teaching friends and family how to use crypto amid economic sanction. This piece is part of CoinDesk's Payments week.

AccessTimeIconApr 25, 2022 at 2:25 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconApr 25, 2022 at 2:25 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconApr 25, 2022 at 2:25 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTCLayer 2

I’m probably one of the very few people in the world who uses bitcoin as a currency. I’m paid in bitcoin, use bitcoin to buy things whenever vendors let me, and sell my BTC for fiat only to pay big things like rent and credit card bills.

Over the past several years, I’ve convinced my tennis coach to accept bitcoin, failed to convince a series of landlords to open crypto wallets and paid for drinks using crypto in bars across Europe at a huge loss to myself along the way. For me, cryptocurrency is the narrative of my daily financial life and nothing more.

Masha Sakharova is a Russian emigre writing from Europe. This article is part of CoinDesk’s Payments Week series.

But now, ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, cryptocurrency has become a narrative of war. The conversation has become – what does it mean that the Ukrainian government is using bitcoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs)? Are people donating their crypto with the right intentions? If crypto is the easiest, fastest way to get money to Ukrainian refugees, is it also a tool for sanctions evasion?

And ever since the war started, I’ve had to answer those same questions in a very real way, but from the completely opposite point of view – how can I now use cryptocurrency to send money to my friends and family back in Russia? For the past eight weeks or so, I have been an exile in Europe, maintaining communicative and financial ties to my native country, in part, with crypto.

And while I’ve already mentioned that I’m fairly familiar with most ways to use bitcoin as a currency, I’ve never had to use it to send money to people whose banks have been sanctioned and completely cut off from the outside world.

Right side?

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a story about using crypto to support the Russian invasion. Rather, this is a story about how crypto has proved to be one of the only ways to send money in and out of a rapidly closing country on the wrong side of the war.

The Russians left behind do not uniformly support Putin’s war (as many of them call it), but their inability to leave a country assailed from all sides by both Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions has cost them their financial independence, leaving them unable to withdraw or use their savings due to preventative bank run measures.

The Russians who were able to leave – those with the right visas, right vaccines and enough money – have also now been financially stranded in unfamiliar countries, as they found their bank cards cut off and no way to access any savings online.

You could have left, you could have stayed – either way, it was as if your money was in a locked safe without a key.

Russians, by and large, were never that wealthy to begin with. That is, besides the very small number of Russian oligarchs with their closely guarded billions. The majority of Russian people draw salaries below the poverty line in America. The average yearly salary in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, is roughly $20,000 – and that’s only if you are a highly skilled specialist.

Cryptocurrency fills the financial vacuum created by these strange and horrible combinations of economic factors. It’s crypto I’ve turned to, since the war began, to send money into and out of Russia, to and from Russians leaving their home country.

I am not going to address the suffering of the Ukrainian people in this short essay, but that does not mean that I’m elevating the importance of Russians’ economic suffering over theirs — this is a case of writing what I know.

Besides sending remittances to my family members, I’ve received a number of requests from friends, and friends of friends, for crypto advice. As a crypto-savvy foreigner with an American bank account, I’m a financial guru to them (and to them alone).

When a large crypto exchange in Turkey had an outage for a day and none of the crypto ATMs worked, friends turned to me for advice. When a friend’s Russian company was unable to pay their freelancers through PayPal, I paid in fiat and accepted DAI in return. When a friend needed help with rent, I used LocalBitcoins to turn my BTC into rubles for them. When a friend needed to send me her dollars out of a Russian bank before they were seized, I planned to give her USDC in exchange. Unfortunately in this case, the bank canceled her wire transfer and closed her account for even attempting to send money to an American bank.

In the two months since the war began, I’ve spoken about the benefits of crypto more than I ever have before. I’ve had to look up Russian words to increase my financial vocabulary and explain how crypto transfers work. If you’re bilingual, do you know how to say “stablecoin” in your second language? What about “peer-to-peer”? What about “gas fees”?

Crypto payments: incredibly useful in a very specific way

All this – and I’m a crypto skeptic! I’ve been able to work in the crypto industry without necessarily believing crypto to be the true future of money, without necessarily believing that blockchain is a world-changing technology. And as I said before, even now when crypto is “working” it still comes loaded with problems. I’ve been talking this whole time about sending money to the wrong side of the war. If helping stranded Russian refugees is crypto’s best use case to date, then crypto might have a PR problem.

Does crypto work for the greater good? Even before the war, I had seen crypto work in weird ways for my underpaid Russian friends: One made a small fortune in NBA Top Shot NFTs (without knowing what basketball is) and was able to buy an apartment. Another used his design degree to make some pretty high-selling NFTs, which is quite important now that he is geo-blocked from every design program he used to work on. Is Russia the case of cryptocurrency truly banking the unbanked?

At the very least, I can say that in the right time, in the right place, cryptocurrency has helped my Russian friends and family enormously. In the future, we can’t know what crypto will do. The war’s course is unpredictable – we don’t know what new economics realities will face the Russian population next month or even tomorrow. And so might crypto’s course be.

All that I can keep doing is helping out my Russian circle in any little way that I can, staying away from proselytizing about the “future of crypto” and sticking to real uses for getting money in and out of foreign countries. This is not a case of HODLing or orange pilling or going to the moon – it’s a case of crypto being incredibly useful in a very specific way. Maybe we need a new acronym – CBIUVSW? Does that roll off the tongue?

More from Payments Week:

Blockchains offer unique advantages, but these must be combined with a user experience that feels similar to the one consumers know today, writes Senior Vice President Jose Fernandez da Ponte.

Financial censorship has gone from an abstract idea to a harsh reality for Russians who suddenly found themselves unbanked by the West and their own government.

Down The Silk Road: Where Crypto Has Always Been Used for Payments

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Masha Sakharova

Masha Sakharova is a writer living in Europe.