In a small village outside Moscow, a quiet revolution is underway.
Farmers and small businesses around Kolionovo, 80 miles from the capital, are ditching the ruble and switching to a cryptocurrency — the kolion — to pay for local trade.
Banker turned farmer Mikhail Shlyapnikov led the way. Diagnosed with cancer a decade ago, he moved out of the city with the aim of reviving a dying village.
Five years later, he needed funds to develop his plant nursery but ran into an obstacle many small Russian businesses face: banks wanted to charge 12% interest to lend him money.
“I didn’t want to suffocate and be a slave of the banks,” Shlyapnikov says, putting a hand on his throat. “So I had to invent my own money. And I did it. I’m my own bank, government, regulator.”
He started issuing paper kolions in 2014, but they were banned by a Russian court in 2015. So he started working on a cryptocurrency version, and in April 2017 raised $500,000 in an initial coin offering (ICO).
Unlike bitcoin, Shlyapnikov’s cryptocurrency can’t be mined using a computer. The digital tokens can be bought using a range of other cryptocurrencies, or earned through a process called “plowing” — helping the residents of Kolionovo with farming and construction work.
It’s changing the way people do business in the village.
Shlyapnikov, who calls himself an “agro-anarchist” and throws parties honoring Karl Marx, uses the currency to support what he calls the “Kolionovo Ecosystem.”
He has persuaded about a hundred farmers and suppliers in the neighboring villages to use kolions for local trade, making paper money a rarity in the community.
“We now have about $2 million in kolions because its value has jumped since the ICO,” Shlyapnikov says, adding that the currency is backed by a reserve of 500 bitcoins (worth roughly $3.7 million at current prices.)
“This way we can attract real money into the business,” and connect the cryptocurrency with the real economy, he added.
Russia’s economy has returned to growth after being hit by a one-two punch of Western sanctions and plummeting oil prices, shocks that saw the ruble lose half its value since 2014.
Now Shlyapnikov and other enthusiasts are touting cryptocurrency as a way to insulate themselves from Russia’s financial system.
Cryptocurrencies have boomed in the country thanks to good scientific and technical education and some of the cheapest electricity in Europe to power the servers needed to mine them.
Last year alone, Russia had several blockchain projects attracting major funds, the largest ICO being the MobileGo games platform, which raised $53 million.
But it’s still early days for cryptocurrencies in Russia, and the legal environment is shifting. Restaurants and shops were quick to spot the trend and allow customers to “pay” with bitcoin, although the owners must do mirror transactions in rubles to avoid falling foul of the law.
The emerging industry awaits regulations that President Vladimir Putin has ordered the Finance Ministry to introduce by July.
First drafts of the measures suggest that the ruble will remain the only legal form of payment but initial coin offerings and mining will be granted some legal protection.
Putin said earlier this year he wanted Russia to become more open to innovation, warning that “those who ride the technological wave will advance, others will drown.”
The Russian president, however, has also voiced concerns that cryptocurrencies can be used by criminals, so questions remain how tolerant the Russian government will be of such experiments.
“To move forward, we must expand the space for freedom, be a country open to the world, new ideas and initiatives … to cut everything that prevents our people from opening their full potential,” Putin said in March.
Shlyapnikov has more modest goals. He thinks cryptocurrencies could be a way for small and remote enterprises to survive independently from Moscow.
“I don’t want to expand because it will bring obligations I’m not ready for,” the farmer says. “I’m not ready to save the world or even Russia, I want to be comfortable and I want to share this comfort with the community.”