The question that is often overlooked by those who study the topic. People from the Western countries seem to think that since the Soviet Union was a self-called communist country, money did not matter there. Which, of course, could not be further from the truth. Soviet people, as any others, were into good things, and good things required cash. Soldiers and officers serving in Afghanistan were no exception.
But to make big buck in Afghanistan, you had to be very high up in the Soviet military hierarchy. Just like during the Second World War, only senior officers managed to obtain large quantities of valuable items. From Afghanistan, they took out a large number of imported audio-video equipment, historical firearms and other valuables.
Checks - the special currency
During the Soviet-Afghan war, Soviet soldiers and officers were paid double salary. One part was paid in Soviet rubles and went to their bank accounts, while the other part was paid in "checks".
These "checks" were essentially surrogates of Soviet rubles, as they had exchange rate of 1 to 1, at least in theory. However, checks opened huge possibilities in front of those who owned them.
The reason to introduce this "currency" was because the owner of these checks could purchase items in special shops, which did not accept regular Soviet rubles. This is a topic for the whole separate article, which would not exactly fit this blog, so in short, there were "Berezka" shops, which sold goods of the higher quality and even foreign imports. To purchase from them, you needed checks. And to get checks you had to be either a foreigner or Soviet citizen who works abroad.
"Chekists" who took risks and sat out
According to the recollections of those who served in Afghanistan, privates and sergeants received the salary between 9 to 20 rubles, depending on their rank and position. This was double of the standard conscripts salary back in the Soviet Union. With these banknotes, for soldiers it was possible to purchase only some trifle necessary in a soldier's life - like toothpaste, brushes or thread-needles. Story was very different for the officers.
Officers were paid a much higher salary. It depended on their rank, position, years of service etc. Overall, the officer salary was somewhat between 150 and 500 rubles, depending on the rank, position and stage of the war. Salaries were increased by the end of 1980s. These were pretty good money back in the day. And this opened some opportunities in front of Soviet officers.
Checks were forged and changed
A significant part of the salary of officers and ensigns who served in Afghanistan was paid by checks. In terms of the dollar exchange rate (0.6 rubles per dollar), the check cost several times more. In the mainland USSR, there was a black market, where the cost of an Afghan check reached 3.5 rubles. By the end of the Afghan campaign, senior officers of the Soviet Army could earn up to 500 checks, and this was only part of their allowance.
Checks were marked with stamps with numbers. Their bearers had to be shown military tickets, passports and other identification documents in order to confirm the authenticity of payment documents. Despite these precautions, Afghan checks were constantly counterfeited and bought up by speculators and smugglers.
Afghan checks were in denominations ranging from 100 rubles (big money by Soviet standards) to a penny. A box of matches or an unmarked envelope cost a penny. In Afghanistan, checks were accepted only in Voentorg shops. In reality, they could also be exchanged for the local currency at the rate of one check to 10–16 afghani.
Soldiers and sergeants had little understanding of this system of payments, and officers and ensigns made good money on checks - they speculated with them and they transported them to the Union. In the latter case, customs officers were often involved in the case, who, of course, received their profits. Nevertheless, by the time the Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the check had devalued and was equivalent to the ruble.
Whoever could, brought imported audio-video equipment, carpets and other valuables from Afghanistan. It was also possible to make money on this in the USSR in the era of total shortages.