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Up until the middle of the 18th century, Russia had predominantly copper coins in circulation. The government made frequent attempts to stop minting such coins, fairly large in size and heavy, but had to revert to this practice for a variety of causes, both objective and subjective ones. We know but little about minting and its history in Russia. Now and then coins are found which were never known before. It may be that an oversize copper coin that I hit upon during diggings in the Alexandria landscape park at Petershof, a historical site south of St. Petersburg, is one such unique find. "A Sestroretsk rouble, is it?" was my first thought. We know of two authentic coins like that in the world. True, its copies can be seen in museums here and there - coins struck much later with the aid of genuine odies for a small group of collectors from among the nobility.
by Viktor KORENTSVIT, leading archeology expert, State Control Committee for the Protection of Historical and Cultural Monuments (KGIOP), St. Petersburg City Counci
For quite some time Russian treasurers worked hard to find an adequate weight for coins in circulation. In 1757 one fixed what was termed a coin foot* of 16 roubles per pud, a weight standard that held over into the next, nineteenth century. That was pretty heavy coinage that caused transportation problems. Yet it was not possible to cut the weight - otherwise the inevitable difference between the market value of bullion and the face value of coins could have stimulated a minting of counterfeit coins. In the long run paper money, the bank notes, became necessary.
On the 25 of May, 1762, Emperor Peter III decreed it was imperative to strike light-weight copper coins and increase the stock of money capital.
Articles in this rubric express the opinion of the authors. - Ed .
* A coin foot, a standard weight unit for the mass of a coin relative to its denomination. That is a definite quantity of metal (bullion) was to be used for the striking of coins of different denominations. A special government decision was needed for a standard for every new coinage. For instance, 16 roubles per pud (the Russian pud being equal to 16 kilograms) means that the coin(s) worth 1 rouble should weigh 1 kg . - Ed.
He ordered the issue of bank notes of 10, 100, 500 and 1,000 rouble denomination to a total sum of five million roubles. Yet this order was not carried out because of the emperor's death shortly afterwards.* The new sovereign, Catherine II, revitalized the idea in her Manifesto of anno 1768 in which she pledged to "secure correct and orderly payments". Bank notes of full legal tender were to be accepted on a par with current silver and copper coins. To facilitate free exchange of this currency two paper-money banks were instituted, one in Moscow and the other in St. Petersburg.
The benefit of paper money - first disregarded as "worthless notes" - became obvious for trade, industry and agriculture. The bills gained credit and the demand for them soared. Because of the shortage of precious bullion Catherine II issued an ukase (on the 27th of January 1770) prescribing exchanges of bank notes for copper coins exclusively. The circulation of paper money resulted in a situation when copper coins came to be hoarded in the above two banks, thus causing a deficit of such token coins in the provinces. The situation had to be remedied somehow.
The President of the Minting Department, Count Apollon Moussin- Pushkin, who invented a coining press, suggested it for striking a copper rouble weighing 2.6 pounds, that is one kilogram (so, a Russian pud of copper was 16 roubles worth); such coins were to be of full legal tender. They could be deposited in banks as a security for paper bills, while minor standard coins could be circulated freely. It was far more convenient for the banks to keep such big rouble coins to save storage space and cut transportation costs. Russia, mind you, was a very large state even in those times.
Her Majesty endorsed this plan and, on the 16th of February 1770, promulgated an ukase providing for a free circulation of the new rouble coin on a par with the old coins of the same weight. The empress issued appropriate instructions to the Senate. At that time a five-copeck coin was the highest in denomination.
The new coining press was to be tested at the Sestroretsk-based works near St. Petersburg. Hectic preparations were underway throughout the spring and summer of 1770. The same year, on 22nd August, Count Moussin-Pushkin reported to the Senate that the job was all but completed, and presented speciments of four coins. Both on the obverse and reverse sides was an impress the size of a silver rouble. The head impress depicted a double- headed eagle wearing three imperial crowns and holding a scepter and a symbol of empire in the claws. The bird had on its breast a large fancy shield with the date, 1770 or 1771. Around the eagle was a large laurel wreath tied up with a ribbon above and below. The design on the tail of the coin, under an imperial crown, carried two Russian words, rouble coin. A laurel wreath was imaged around the imprint. The rim of the coin indicated the name of the Sestroretsk mint in ornamental ligatured script.
Yet Moussin-Pushkin's coining press proved faulty. Besides, the
* See: O. Ivanov, "Peter Ill's Death: Whodunit?", Science in Russia, No. 5, 2001. - Ed.
count failed in his computations. The flat copper sent for the purpose was not good either - it developed cracks in the coinage. Planchets, or blanks, were the hardest problem: the ingots fed into the cutting press made the saws red-hot and out of form, and so no even cuts were possible. Trimming the coin edges proved as difficult. Thus full-scale minting had to be held over for many months.
In the meantime Count Moussin-Pushkin died (on 29th June 1771), and Senator Mikhail Soymonov stepped into his shoes. To start with, he had to cope with the planchet problem - that is, make quality round blanks. He took a Sestroretsk-minted coin by way of specimen. Soymonov decided to melt furnace chargers in a regular flask*; still, the ingots thus produced were rough, with seams and burrs, and needed a good deal of trimming.
Beset by failures, Senator Soymonov sent a message to the Senate and asked, how he should proceed now; the man was obviously at a loss. On November 6, 1773, the Senate passed the buck to Her Majesty for final decision-should experiments on the minting of copper rouble coins continue or not. Catherine ordered to keep up the work and, should "the former minting presses prove no good", design new ones.
This work continued for yet another two years. In November 1776 Soymonov sent his conclusions to the Senate concerning the minting of rouble coins. He suggested the same method as one employed for the making of older copper coins-of the same weight but larger in diameter, and half an inch thick, not an inch as before; the rim should be ornamented but halfway. One such specimen is now in the custody of the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg. Such coins came to be known as "thin roubles" in contrast to the old, "thick" ones.
Yet no appropriate coining press was invented: since striking coins from half-an-inch-thick ingots encountered insurmountable difficulties, one had to give up further experiments. On September 28, 1778, Her Majesty issued an ukase in which she ordered to suspend the striking of new copper-coin roubles until further notice; the people involved in this work should be employed elsewhere.
All told, five copper rouble coins were manufactured in Russia in eight
* Flask-here, molding (casting) box. - Ed.
years from 1770 to 1778; two with the date 1770, and three, with the date 1771 on.
Decades later, in 1836, the Russian Finance Minister, Yegor Kankrin, had several copper roubles coined by means of the Moussin-Pushkin dies. These coins are fairly regular in form and have elegant letters on the rim. There are also other remakes of the "Sestroretsk rouble" of 1771 produced in the forties and fifties of the 19th century on thick round blanks, 77 mm in diameter and 26 mm thick. The diameter of the authentic Hermitage coin, the "thick" one, is 73 mm, while the "thin" one is 101 mm large (and 15 mm thick).
It so happened that I found an immense copper coin during excavation works in the Petershof landscape park Alexandria. Outwardly it looked very much like the "thick" Sestroretsk-stamped rouble - 73 mm in diameter, with two words, rouble coin, emblazoned with a bay wreath and a crown above; its reverse carried a Russian state emblem. Yet in thickness it resembled the Soymonovian "thin" rouble. This coin weighed 0.5 kg. As Hermitage artists cleared the copper disk from the green oxide, they could read the inscription on the rim: "Olonets mint"!
According to one of the Hermitage experts, it was a fake, for a mint like that had never been. But why did the false coiner, who counterfeited a Sestroretsk rouble, indicate a different mint? And why on earth did he bother to counterfeit a coin that never was?
...Toward the close of Catherine's rule Russia's finances were in a poor condition due to the excess of paper money - a classical case of inflation that sent the rouble rate down and the prices up. Urgent and decisive measures became necessary. At first the government thought to try the time-tested method by raising the prices and custom duties, and prescribing thrift and parsimony for private individuals. Such steps, however, could contribute but little to the state revenue. The government could not increase the amount of gold and silver roubles in circulation due to the shortage of bullion. Meanwhile, the cost of copper soared to become well-nigh worth the coin's face value.
On the 28th of April of 1796 Prince Platon Zubov, who held the rank of feldzeichmeister-general*, filed a long report to the empress on reminting the 16-rouble coin to a smaller 32-rouble one relative to a pud (16 kilos) of copper. The prince suggested a fiscal reform for a painless and rather quick recovery. Copper coins should be equated in value with bank notes, which meant raising the rate of paper money. And cutting the weight of coins by half would double their nominal value.
* A general in charge of artillery in some armies of the 18th-19th centuries. - Ed.
The Zubov plan provided for a package of immediate and secret measures. All the available mints were to be engaged and new ones opened, including provisional ones set up at armories. Particular attention was paid to the press-and-die equipment. Using models of wood, one had to forge two coining presses of iron and steel at the Sestroretsk works and make another two of cast iron at the Olonets (Petrine) mill.
Catherine II approved this plan and instituted an ad-hoc committee to supervise the work. It proceeded apace. In October of the same year six mints were engaged at full capacity, striking the new coins in two shifts. A money-exchange ukase was to be promulgated on the first of January 1797. But Catherine the Great died on the sixth of November 1796. Three days later her son, Emperor Pavel I told the Senate to revise the expediency of the monetary reform. On December 17 the new emperor closed the ad-hoc committee and ordered reminting the entire stock of light coins into those of the former denomination. As to the 12,000,000 roubles' worth of paper money issued to back up the reform, the czar ordered the bank director to burn this money" on the square in front of the palace".
As P. Von Winkler wrote in his fundamental work on the history of minting in Russia (1898), "the reminting of the copper coin in 1796- 1797 was an amazing episode in the history of coinage... Indeed, within a mere six months a special committee is set up... to superintend the plan of reminting the 16-rouble coin into a 32- rouble one; it expends dozens and hundreds of thousands of the badly needed roubles for the purpose." Von Winkler explains it by valid reasons in anticipation of future profits for the state. "Suddenly, as only two months remained before the final act of the 'coperation'- circulation of the light coin-it was deemed necessary to stop the operation and annihilate all the traces thereof - remint the coin into the old form!"
By November 6, 1796 (the day of Catherine's death) the total worth of the restruck heavy-weight coins topped 1,000,000 roubles. This amounted to 2,058,200 roubles' worth in the light-weight coins. Only a few coins of different denomination (five-copeck and ten- copeck bits; copeck, half-a-copeck and quarter copeck pieces) have survived to our days. Needless to say, they are precious items today. As to my find, it may well belong to the "Zubov" coins. In that case the "Olonets" rouble is thus far the only one and just as unique as its "Sestroretsk" counterpart. A verdict of expert examination should clinch the matter.
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