Gold Coins of 1600s Really Military Awards
By Bob Reis
In the 17th
century the normal attitude of governing elites
was that the people who made up the countries
that they ruled were resources for the promotion
of their policies.
The foundational concept on which they built
their governing rationales was "legitimacy," the
assertion that because they had been in the
saddle holding the whip since the time of their
distant ancestors, or that their religious
authorities had announced divine blessing on
their rule, they were "entitled" and all of
their subjects must submit unconditionally and
obey all commands. One of our founding concepts
in the U.S., that what is not forbidden is
permitted, was not in the thought process back
In the absence of a powerful national
government, warlordism developed. This was
noticed over and over for at least 2,500 years.
The end result of warlordism, it was further
noticed, was that a conqueror eventually
emerged. It was either one of the local warlords
or a foreign invader. Typically that person
warred and then ruled with great ferocity and a
peace of fear was imposed until that person
died, at which point either a dynasty was
founded or the generals began a civil war and
Republics of various kinds were tried from time
to time. When they endured for any length of
time, elites emerged to take advantage of the
situation. Eventually civil war broke out over
something, warlordism developed or the
participants found themselves arguing in the
face of oncoming disaster, splitting hairs and
espousing principles until they were
overwhelmed. Personal rule, with all of the wild
cards of personality and fate, remained the
Laws were developed as attempts to get out of
the box of personal rule, something to refer to
besides the momentary personal whims of the
boss. The normal method of enforcement of the
laws was force. This was found over the course
of time to have drawbacks: population reduction
in extreme instances, slackery as a norm and the
subject peoples thinking thoughts like, "Oh
yeah? I'll show you." Much better to get them to
go along with it, convince them that they
should, for instance, work their entire lives
for inadequate pay or die in the ruler's wars
rather than force them at spear point with a
pile of corpses in the background to prove the
point. The reasons, it was found, did not have
to be too complex or logical for the most part.
In the majority of cases a simple "God says so"
or "because we've always done it this way" would
suffice. Tradition granted legitimacy. "Because
your great grandfather obeyed my great
grandfather" was found to be a pretty good
It was also found that laws had some restraining
effect on the whims of the boss, conferring some
degree of countervailing power on the subjects.
Nobody wants to be completely powerless, tends
toward depression, work efficiency declines.
In Russia it was the Mongols who started Russia
on the road to bureaucratic legalism. The
Mongols actually had a fairly efficient
administration at the start: laws that were
enforced, treaties and contracts that were
honored and so forth. The Russians inherited
some aspects of this organization and brought
them forward into their independent governments.
The normal tendency toward the development of
warlordism was thus checked to some degree.
Considering then the career of the Russian tsar
of the second half of the 17th century, we want
to note first that Alexei Mikhailovich Romanov
was considered to be, most importantly,
legitimate. He was son of the previous tsar and
legitimately elected by a legitimate popular
assembly. The terms of his status commanded
absolute obedience from all of his subjects,
that having been put in writing by his father
when he consented to be crowned.
Alexei came to the throne in 1645, a teenager as
had been his father. A regency governed for
several years. The consensus of historians is
that the regency was fairly good. It produced
peace with Poland and Turkey, the biggest
external threats, and made some significant
reforms. But he was disliked at the time.
"Public opinion," such as it was, considered the
regent to be a money grubbing noble. There was
mismanagement when is there not? Among other
irritations, a number of taxes were eliminated
and replaced with a tax on salt. No one wanted
to pay it, the accounting was terrible, taxes
were not collected and government employees,
including soldiers, were not getting paid. In
1648 riots broke out in Moscow. Soldiers joined
in and disorders spread to other cities. It took
years for the government to get things under
control. Some reforms were enacted, but also
some screws were tightened, especially on the
Meanwhile, in Poland, a Cossack rebellion had
developed following the death of the Polish
king. The Cossack leader was Bogdan Khmelnitsky,
based in Ukraine. The rebellion succeeded after
a fashion. Ukraine was removed from Polish rule,
but part of the Cossack success was the
involvement of Russia. And as is often the case
where a foreign country is brought into a
rebellion, there was a price to pay. In that
case it ended up being the occupation of Ukraine
by Russia not exactly what the Cossacks had in
The war dragged on until 1667. In the end Russia
got most of Ukraine, and the Cossacks became
subjects of the tsar.
No rest for tsar Alexei. A Cossack named Stenka
Razin launched a rebellion. He was a real threat
for several years but was finally defeated and
killed in 1671. A few quiet years, then Alexei
died in 1676.
That wasn't enough, but it will have to do.
Alexei attempted a coinage reform. It didn't
work. In fact it made things worse, but it left
coins to collect in three metals and in various
sizes up to crown.
For decades it had been obvious to all that the
wire kopeks were a hindrance to commerce rather
than an aid. Too small. But nothing happened.
Foreign silver was brought in and melted to make
kopeks, which was a profitable activity for
those in charge, but there was no
convertibility. Any Russian doing business
abroad took a hit when buying thalers with
The problem could be ignored until the
occupation of Ukraine in the 1650s. Ukraine
having been Polish, Polish coins were in
circulation there. Polish money was standard
western European: silver thalers and fractions,
gold ducats with fractions and multiples. The
two monetary systems did not mix. Something had
to be done.
The Russians were newbies at monetary reform.
They knew how to change weights, but they didn't
have any real experience with any metal other
than silver. In 4654 they decided to introduce
thalers and copper at the same time, ratios to
be set by decree.
The plan was to buy up foreign thalers, plane
off their designs (making them lighter by the
way, more than a bit of profit there) and
restrike them as roubles. However, they had
technical problems and only a few were made.
It's probably best to call them patterns. The
same dies were used on cut quarters. Those
things are very rare and expensive. There are "novodels,"
coins restruck using old or new dies, to sell to
collectors from the mid 19th to the early 20th
century. When you see these types (tsar on horse
obverse, double eagle reverse) in auctions, that
is what you're usually looking at.
In light of the reform failure, they contented
themselves with countermarking the foreign money
with kopek dies and the date 1655. Any foreign
coin of proper weight and fineness would do.
They circulated without restriction in Europe,
why not Russia? Those were the yefimoks. Cut
quarters were countermarked, too, and a few
halves are known. They worked in Ukraine, where
people were used to big coins, but in Russia,
where people had never seen such things, a
problem immediately developed. Counterfeiters
put fake stamps on Dutch lion daalders, which
were baser than normal thalers, and the fake
yefimoks swamped the real ones. Real or fake,
yefimoks are available on the market, priced at
about $1,000 or more these days.
So the experiment in big silver did not fly. The
other sector of the reform, copper, was a
The manufacture of traditional silver wire
kopeks continued as before. There was a large
output from the Moscow mint, dribs and drabs
from Novgorod and Pskov, and a few dengas and
polushkas, wholly inadequate to the needs of the
market. There was the rub. No small change. It
had been a problem for centuries. People had to
use tokens, scraps of fur, buy more than they
needed, cut those tiny kopeks in halves or
quarters, keep an account at the store and so
forth. For collecting purposes, the Moscow
kopeks are easy to find and relatively cheap.
All the others are rare.
The copper reform was rather curiously naive.
They made copper kopeks to the same module as
the silver ones and decreed that they should
circulate at par with the silver! Because the
tsar desired that it be so! Copper kopeks were
struck at all three mints and also at the
fortress of Kukenoy in Latvia, recently taken
from the Swedes, and were pushed out into
circulation all over the country as far as
Siberia. The government backed the copper to the
extent of accepting them as payment for a few
years until everyone started realizing that they
were losing money on the deal and stopped taking
them. In the end the government stopped taking
them on par and the experiment immediately
collapsed. A quick retreat to the old silver
coins was made. Everyone lost money.
At the end of the copper experiment a major riot
occurred in Moscow. There was lots of damage and
many people were killed by the mob and by the
soldiers sent to suppress it. After that copper
coinage was abandoned.
Copper kopeks of the Moscow mint tend to be hard
to find. Other coins of the copper experiment
were altyns of three kopeks, very rare, and a
crown-sized poltinnik of 50 kopeks, extremely
A brief note on gold: Gold "coins" were
occasionally issued from the 15th century, but
mostly they were meant to be awards for military
valor. Only a very few were made.
Vasily Shuisky was induced by the Swedes to use
up the treasury's gold stock by making "kopeks"
in 1610-12, but those didn't circulate either.
The Swedes took almost all of them. (The gold
kopek KM 22, attributed incorrectly to Feodor
II, is actually a Vasily coin). Alexei struck a
few gold "coins" on various "denominations," all
based on the international ducat. One hardly
ever runs into originals. Those would more
likely than not be holed for wearing. There are
"novodels" of some of these, aren't there?
Let's move on to the next tsar, Feodor
Alexeevich, 1676-82. He is yet another teenage
tsar, acceded at age 15. He was well educated,
highly intelligent and sick of his life. He
continued the incremental reforms of his father,
most importantly establishing merit as the basis
of government office in place of tradition and
family connection. After the disaster of the
1654 coinage reform, Feodor's treasury contented
itself with plain vanilla silver kopeks struck
only at the Moscow mint. Having a short reign,
his coins are scarcer than those of his father,
but they are not rare.
Russian history is so dramatic - thousand years
of soap opera. Immediately upon the death of
Feodor, without issue a succession struggle was
begun by the families of the two wives of
Alexei, each of whom had an eligible son.
Violence ensued and in the end the two boys were
declared co-tsars. That was four child tsars in
a row. No, make that five. One was Ivan V, the
other became Peter the Great. That story will be
engaged next time.
Contact Reis by mail at P.O. Box 26303, Raleigh,
NC 27611, or by e-mail at email@example.com.