Russians move into bitcoin as ruble tanks


Transaction volumes between the ruble and digital currency bitcoin enjoyed their biggest day of the year on Tuesday as the Russian central bank failed to halt the ruble's tumble.

The ruble plunged more than 11 percent against the greenback Tuesday — its steepest intraday fall since 1998 — as traders dumped a currency that has crumbled on the back of weaker oil prices and sanctions against Russia by the West.

Volatile trading continued on Wednesday, with the currency gaining over 10 percent against the dollar, although it remains down 13 percent on the week.

Other than the dollar, the beneficiaries of this flight from Russia appeared to be the euro, , sterling -- and bitcoin. Data from, which tracks financial and technical statistics for bitcoin, shows that transaction volumes with the ruble spiked on Tuesday spiked to 819 from an average of 230 trades for the last 30-day period. This was close to a 250 percent increase in transactions and was the highest volume seen since December 2013, according to the website.

"The news coming out of Russia is indeed unparalleled," Bobby Lee, the co-founder and CEO of prominent Chinese bitcoin exchange BTC China, told CNBC via email.

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"The high trading volumes with the ruble is to be expected, given the flight away from this struggling currency. Bitcoin is therefore a natural destination, as well as other strong central bank currencies."

Start of a Russian shift to cryptocurrency?

Karen Bleier | AFP | Getty Images

A cryptocurrency exchange based in Bulgaria, called BTC-e, is known in the industry as being the most Russian-friendly despite bitcoin being made illegal in Russia. The exchange allows users to trade in rubles and its website can be displayed in the Russian language alongside Chinese and English. Data from shows that the exchange has seen a modest spike in ruble transactions in recent weeks.

The flow into bitcoin echoes a similar move seen in Cyprus in April 2013 when capital controls were placed on citizens who tried to take large sums of money out of the embattled euro zone nation. The restrictions were seen as one of the key factors behind a rally in the price of bitcoin as Cypriot investors tried to shift money beyond its borders.

Read MoreRussia's ruble rout: Why it shouldn't surprise you

Looking at Tuesday's data points, Akif Khan, the vice-president of solutions strategy at bitcoin payments company Bitnet, said that the rise could be correlated with the broader news about trouble in Russia's economy and impending tighter controls, but conceded that there was no way of confirming the trend.

"I'd be surprised if Russians were turning to bitcoin in any meaningful way given the uncertainty over whether they could use it or store it without penalties in the future," he told CNBC via email.

Analysts have told CNBC that capital controls could be used by the Russian government to try to stem the fall in the ruble but the Russia has refrained on such policy. In the meantime, the Russian finance ministry has announced that it has started selling its foreign exchange reserves in an effort to bring back some sort of equilibrium.

Read MoreEurope's banking bosses dismiss Russia contagion

Flocking to London housing market

Bitcoin: Expect chaos and drama

Aside from currencies, it appears that Russians have shown an interest in the London property market, which is increasingly being seen as a haven for foreign investors. Ultra-rich Russians now buy one in five of London's £10 million-plus properties, according to research by estate agent Knight Frank. The company told CNBC that its web traffic shows the number of Russians looking at London property was 13 percent higher in November 2014 than the same month last year. That figure was also up 9.5 percent from October, which it said was a monthly rise that bucked the trend of previous years.

"Rising super prime sales in the second half of 2014 suggests Russian buyers have been proactive against the background of economic and political instability by investing in the safety of U.K. real estate while the ruble has steadily declined," said Katya Zenkovich, who works at Knight Frank's Russian desk.