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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 then.

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 anarchy returned.

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 norm.

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 motivator.

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 serfs.

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 mind.

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 kopeks.

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 disaster.

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 so.

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 reisbiz@earthlink.net.

 



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