Russian Wire Money Considered Rare
By Bob Reis
I must respond to
Robert Krill's letter to the editor in the
January issue of World Coin News. He asks, if
the symbol on the 10th century Kiev coins is now
the Ukrainian national emblem, should they not
be considered the first Ukrainian coins? I have
no problem with that point of view. He claimed
that the contention that they are first
"Russian" coins as inaccurate and
Propagandistic is also OK with me. People do
like to propagandize. But inaccurate? Kind of
fuzzy. Back then, I submit, there were no
"Russians" and "Ukrainians." They were all the
same people, divided and united by ephemeral and
local politics and military necessity, not the
mutually disdainful separate ethnic groups of
today. Russians consider those coins to be their
first and Kievan Rus to be their first political
state. Ukrainians do, too. When I get to Ukraine
I will describe those coins again. Perhaps
someone will yell at me then as well.
Like the "Holy Land." They will have to learn to
share their history. The past belongs to
everyone who lives today. The ancestors, I
submit, do not care. They would look at their
descendents - some become Russians, others
Ukrainians - and shrug their shoulders. Eh, they
tried. Kids think the strangest things. What can
I had expected some push-back on various
assertions I might make regarding Russian
history. Some people have very significant
emotional investments. Aside from Mr. Krill,
there has only been one other. Anonymous,
historically incorrect, raving, obscene,
slightly threatening - sent from a bogus address
in Ohio. I got two letters from that guy. Hey,
if you send me another, I'll turn them over to
the FBI. And I guess if you liked getting upset
about what I've written so far, you'll just love
it when I discuss the development of serfdom.
But whatever you do, keep your subscription to
World Coin News.
I might mention, purely as an aside, that no
Mongols have ever complained about my treatment
of their history.
This time I'm going to discuss "wire money."
What's the main thing about wire money?
Smallness. Accordingly, I'll start with a
general discussion of the manufacture and use of
tiny coins in Eurasia from about 600 B.C. to
about 1400, when the Russian wire money began to
The ratios between gold, silver and copper have
until the last few decades varied within a
certain range of, oh, say, 1 gold to 8-14
silvers. (Now, just to show how weird it is
today, it's about 1:75.) Copper coinage was
always based on the "who cares" principle. Base
metal coinage was usually a purely local matter.
Exceptions include the early coinage of Sicily
and in China, where they were doing things a bit
In most places there was this prejudice against
base metal by both merchants (too heavy) and
rulers (sheer hoity-toitiness). The urge to be
using something of "real value" in one's small
transactions tended to the production, early on,
of teeny weeny silver and occasionally gold
coins. They did that in Greece from at least the
5th century B.C. and in India (probably an
independent development) possibly as early as
the 3rd century B.C.
After a few hundred years the sheer
inconvenience of tiny coins started getting to
people. They got lost, they were expensive to
make and it began to make sense to use that
yucky token copper. Teensy coins died out in the
Greek world. But they continued, more or less
without a break, in parts of India. This was
specifically in the west: Saurashtra (think
Mumbai) to Karachi, perhaps. Many regional
governments over several centuries put out tiny
silver coins. Why? Because they worked; the
people who used them liked them.
This is all way before the popularity of tiny
coins in southern India. The last of the western
Indian tiny silvers were issued by Muslim
invaders in the 12th century.
Then came the Mongols. They, of course, messed
up everything over a very large area. In
southeastern Pakistan, for example, it seems
they largely de-populated a region comprising a
lot of the modern provinces of Sind and
Baluchistan. When people came back about 100
years later, they brought their central Indian
coins with them: the clunky "dump" stuff, not
Meanwhile, over west in the late 12th century,
inflation, the Crusades, disruption of trade,
exhaustion of silver mines and other factors had
caused the authorities to cut the weight of the
silver coins over and over again. Just before
the Mongols came to Iraq and Syria, the dirham,
which had started out essentially as a quarter,
was about the size of a dime and getting
smaller. The Mongols, including the Golden Horde
in Russia/Ukraine, kept issuing that small
module dirham, the coins getting cruder and a
little smaller through time. When? Fourteenth
As the Mongol governments declined, the locals
reasserted their interests. It happened in
Russia and it happened in Anatolia and
eventually it happened in Mesopotamia, etc.
Anatolia is important for a discussion of tiny
coins because as the locals (Turks at that time)
took over, that's what they made.
In the world of Islam, when a dirham got too
small they started feeling strange calling it
that. Another name should be found. They called
them "qirat," originally 1/6 of a dirham. The
Turks called them akje. In the aftermath of the
Mongols, akjes is what they struck. Akjes became
a major presence in the general circulation of
the Black Sea region, which included
They were conveniently mimicked by the Golden
Horde they weighed more or less the same at
first. And then later during the mid-15th
century, when the Russian princes started making
their wire coins and the Ottoman akjes were
about 0.5 gram, what do you suppose was the
average weight of those Russian coins?
Ivan Spassky, without clarifying anything, I
think, rejected the thought that the coins of
the Russian princes had anything to do with
those of the Golden Horde, but elsewhere
mentioned that there was a wide range of weights
to the dengi (we're talking multiple tenths of a
gram here!). Pure murk.
OK, somebody argue with me. Tell me the Russian
wire coins were a purely de novo local
development, nothing to do with the Turks.
So let's talk about those local Russian coins.
The Mongol governing style was to let the locals
do what they wanted as long as they did exactly
as they were told whenever the Mongols told them
to do or not do something. To be fair, though,
that was how almost all rulers behaved back
then, but the Mongols were relatively more
efficient about it. And the Mongols did not
start out being possessive of the mint right,
but when they became Muslim (in the west) and
Chinesoid (in the east) they became quite
control freaky about their coinage. So when the
Russian cities started putting out coins, it was
like a pie in the face to the Golden Horde. It
was like telling them, "We're going to do what
we want and you can't stop us.
At least in part. Actually, the city of Novgorod
was at least sort of independent throughout the
Mongol period. It had not been conquered, but
rather had come to terms, and maintained a
favored status: gateway to trade with the west.
Spassky described a major silver import business
from the 12th to the 14th centuries. It was
largely of Bohemian pragergroschens, most of
which were melted down and made into ingots.
By the way, the ingots were originally called "grivna,"
but in the late 12th century the term "rouble"
started to come into use. The ingots were mostly
for hoarding and major transactions.
Occasionally they were cut in half in the course
of transactions. None (?) are known cut smaller
than that. Toward the end of their run, a
practice developed of putting a validation stamp
on or near the cut edge.
I will make a perhaps controversial proposal
now, so get ready. It seems to me, looking at it
from the outside, that perhaps the relationship
between the Russians and the Mongols was a bit
better than entirely one of miserable
repression. Nevsky, after all, sought and
received aid from his Mongol overlords in his
struggle against the Teutonic knights. The
Mongols saw the Russians doing business with the
west, liked it, taxed it and let them do, within
limits, their thing. When their thing became
coinage, well, maybe they were too weak to do
anything about it anyway.
The first of the Russian dengi, according to
Spassky, were made in Moscow for Dmitri
Ivanovich Donskoi, 1359-89, who won independence
from the overlords, whom we will, following
Russian usage, henceforth refer to as Tatars
rather than Mongols. There is a historical joke
in that phraseology. Want me to tell it? OK, I
The original Tatars were an independent tribe
who allied with Chingis Khan and then turned
against him. Chingis defeated them and proceeded
to kill all of their males above a certain age.
What was left of the Tatars was reconstituted as
a military slave people, sent to do military
dirty work like local policing/repression.
Westerners took to the appellation because it
reminded them of Tartarus, the Hell of the
ancient Greeks, from which the fiendish Tatars
could be imagined to have come. Ha ha.
Anyway, Dmitry Donskoi's dengi have western
style figural types on one side while the other
have Arabic legends and look extremely Golden
Hordish. They are rare and very expensive these
days. I've never had one.
Dmitry's son Vasily, 1389-1425, issued
relatively prolifically with numerous types.
Late in the reign he reduced the weight of the
coinage by about 50 percent. I got a few while
the Russians were exporting their coins in the
late '90s, so according to my personal
definition (if I have it ... ) they are not
rare. I paid about $100 for them, and they are
probably worth at least $300 today.
During Vasily's reign, mint right began to be
licensed to subordinates. According to Spassky,
those guys would say, essentially, "We need some
coins over here. Commerce, you know." And Vasily
would say, "OK, buy a license and give me a
cut." Towns were Galich, Serpukhov, Uglich,
Mozhaisk. Spassky described the issues as
"extremely varied." To me that points to the
probability of frequent recoinages as a means of
taxation. You had to bring the old coins in and
pay to get new ones, a very common practice in
Europe at the time.
Varied they may be, but also rare. All of them.
Vasily's son, Vasily II, 1423-62 with
interruptions, continued in a similar vein, but
a counter trend emerged as he annexed territory
in various ways. Where this happened the local
independent coinage disappeared, replaced by
Vasily coinage issued by what had become one of
his branch mints.
The reign of Vasily II was twice interrupted by
insurgencies conducted by princes of Galich.
While briefly resident in Moscow the Galiches
made coins, wrote Spassky, using Vasily's dies
in combination with their own, thus producing
coins with two names on them. One more
The next prince of Moscow was Ivan III, who laid
the foundation for the Russian empire to come
and during whose reign the independence of the
remaining great cities, and therefore their
coinage, came to an end. We'll come back to him
next time. For now let us discuss those
The towns in question were Novgorod, Yaroslavl,
Ryazan (subcoinage for Pereyeslavl), Tver (subcoinage
for Kashin), Pskov and Rostov. Distinguish
these, and their coins, from above-mentioned
Serpukhov, etc. The coinage of the latter began
as Moscow dependencies and ended as they became
political suburbs. The former were independent,
though, in the larger scheme of things, not for
It used to be, for about a year in 1993 or so,
that you could get wholesale wire money and
sometimes find a few of these mixed in with the
Ivan the Terribles and Mikhail Romanovs. That
stopped pretty quick and all the good stuff got
pulled out of the wholesale. Now the good stuff
mostly goes to auction. And at this point the
wholesale has pretty much disappeared, though
who knows what the future might bring.
Anyway, similarly to the Moscow dependencies
coins, there were many varieties. All rare
today. They began often with Arabic or
pseudo-Arabic legends on one side. Rostov, in
fact, started its series with a sort of
Miroesque ram's head tamgha countermarked on
Golden Horde coins. And the coins ended smaller
than they began, either more or less imitating
Moscow coins or actually being Moscow coins
after the Moscow takeover.
Late in the city coins series, copper coins
appeared, called pul, just like the Golden Horde
coppers (pul = fals by some linguistic evolution
through Arabs, Turks, Mongols and finally
Russians). The coppers typically did not have
some ruler's name on them, this fact being taken
as an indication that they were made by town
councils or merchant guilds. And keep in mind
please that typically some smith would be
allowed to buy a license to make coins. There
were no full-time "official mints," so to speak.
Let's talk about the "wire" part of "wire
money." There are many ways to make planchets by
hand. Islamic silver at that time tended to be,
as far as I can tell, usually cast blanks.
European silver was cut or punched out of sheets
(this was the groschen period they hadn't gotten
to shillings yet, let alone thalers).
So the coins of, say, the Golden Horde were made
by taking a proper weight blob of silver,
beating it flat, then striking it with the dies.
And that's how the Russian coinage began as
well. The early planchets of all of these
princely city coins were, I think, made one at a
But at some point someone figured out that you
could save time by cutting the blanks out of
pieces of wire and it was off to the races.
I'm wondering, though. In Spassky, page 96,
figure 70, there is a conceptual
"reconstruction" of the manufacture of wire
planchets that shows the wire bits hammered out
"to shape" and ready for the dies. I'm thinking
that I'd rather take the hot wire and the
assistant runs it through the dies one coin
after another, THEN cut them apart. It makes
more sense to me than picking up a tiny planchet
and placing it just so on the lower die. Am I
You know what is the strangest thing about this
pre-Tsar series? No catalog. Not even a trial
listing. Spassky, out of print catalogs of
auctions and old collections. It is actually
kind of ridiculous. It is not a major world
coinage like, say, the Kushans (for whom there
is also no catalog), but it is of major interest
to many collectors, even though the coins are
all rare. There is not much useful information
on the Web either. What do you say, Russian
Ministry of Culture?