By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Late on the night of July 16, 1918, the “Emperor of All the Russias”, his wife, his five children, and four servants were all forced to dress and marched down to the basement of The House of Special Purpose, where they were being held. The Romanov family would never emerge. When the Bolshevik guards opened fire, they killed the last of the 304-year-old dynasty. Yet technically, this was not an act of regicide; Nicholas II had signed an abdication statement just over a year prior on March 2, 1917.
Events had been building to this climax for over the three years since Nicholas II led his empire into the First World War. Russia was ill-prepared for such a large global conflict, both militarily and on the home front. When one disastrous military defeat followed another, public morale eroded quickly. At the nadir of war for Russia, Germany even began striking millions of occupation coins. These silver coins, in 1, 2, and 3 Kopek denominations, proudly displayed the German Iron Cross on the obverse with the denomination and year, and “Gebiet Des Oberbefehlshabers Ost”, which translates to “Territory of the Commander-in-Chief – East”, on the reverse.
However, this disastrous military situation became even worse as food quickly disappeared in towns and cities, and wounded soldiers with revolutionary ideas returned home. When tensions reached an all-time high in 1917, Nicholas was forced to abdicate.
With all the economic and social turmoil Russia experienced in the early 20th century, the Imperial Mint did not strike any gold coins after it produced the 10 and 5 Rouble coins in 1911. These coins are quite common and can be found in almost every grade without too much difficulty.
For silver coins, the Imperial Mint continued to strike examples throughout the entire war. These coins can be broken down into three separate sets of design types: the small silver design type, which was used on the 5, 10, 15, and 20 Kopek coins; the large silver design type, which was used for the 50 Kopek and 1 Rouble coins; and commemorative coins.
Interestingly, Nicholas II ordered the design and striking of only one commemorative coin during the entire war. Issued in 1914, this coin was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Gangut, where the Russian Imperial Fleet under Tsar Peter the Great won its first major victory over the Swedish Royal Fleet. Designed by Alexander Vasulinskil, these coins were struck between 1914 and 1917 at the central Saint Petersburg Mint. While the coin only has an official mintage of 317 pieces, it is estimated that up to 30,000 restrikes were commissioned by the Soviet government until the 1920s. There is no way to distinguish between the originals and restrikes since both types have the exact same design. On the obverse is depicted an armored bust of Peter the Great facing right with the two dates, 1714 and 1914 on either side and the name and date of the battle above and below the bust. On the reverse is the crowned double-headed Imperial Eagle of Russia.
Due to their rarity and desirability, examples in high grades regularly sell for $15,000 to $30,000.
The larger standard circulating silver type design, used on 50 Kopek and 1 Rouble coins, was struck in the first two years of the war, after which they were discontinued. The Imperial Mint only struck 1,200,015 50 Kopek pieces and 536,015 1 Rouble coins were struck in 1914, while only 5,000 examples of the 1 Rouble were struck in 1915. On the obverse of the coins are a portrait of Nicholas II and a legend that translates to “By God’s Grace Nikolai II Emperor and Autocrat of All Russia”. On the reverse is the Imperial two-headed Eagle with the denomination and date below.
The small silver type design is slightly different. On the obverse can be seen the familiar two-headed Imperial Eagle, and on the reverse is the Imperial Crown placed above the denomination and date, all of which is surrounded by a wreath. From 1914 to 1915, the Imperial Mint struck 5, 10, 15, and 20 Kopek coins, and again from 1916 to 1917, they continued to strike all but the 5 Kopek pieces. The mintages totaled 7,200,015 5 Kopek pieces; 272,830,015 10 Kopek pieces; 213,773,347 15 Kopek pieces; and 293,420,015 20 Kopek pieces.
Similar to the silver types, the bronze coins that Nicholas II struck towards the end of his reign can be grouped into two main design types: small and large. The small design was used only on the fractional Kopek coins (1/2 and 1/4 Kopeks). On the obverse of these coins is the Imperial Monogram of a large, stylized N with the Roman numeral II and two garlands below and the Imperial Crown above with two trailing ribbons. The reverse shows the denomination above the year and mintmark.
The 1/4 Kopek was struck in 1915 and 1916. Over both years, the Mint produced a total mintage of 1,700,00 pieces: 500,000 in 1915 and 1,200,000 in 1916. On the other hand, the Mint produced 14 million 1/2 Kopeks in 1914, 12 million in 1915, and 9.4 million in 1916.
The larger bronze design type was used on the 1, 2, and 3 Kopek coins. From 1914 until 1916, the Mint struck these denominations for a total of 137,000,014 1 Kopek pieces; 85,250,014 2 Kopek coins; and 45,500,000 3 Kopek pieces. The 5 Kopek denomination was struck only in 1915, and with a mintage of just eight million pieces, it is by far the rarest of this design produced during World War I.
Provincial Coins of Occupied Finland
Lastly, the Imperial Mint of Tsar Nicholas II struck a series of coins for Finland. While the Russian Empire claimed Finland as a territory in 1809, it wasn’t until 1863 under Alexander II (reigned 1854-1881) that the Tsars began to strike provincial coins for Finland.
As with circulating domestic Russian coinage, no gold coins were struck for Finland in World War I. However, it was in 1913 that the last Russian-Finnish gold coin was struck. This issuance included 214,000 20 Markkaa and 396,000 10 Markkaa coins.
The silver coins struck for Finland by Russia–the 1 Markka, as well as the 50 and 25 Pennia denominations–all had the same design. These coins are quite similar to the small silver type design on domestic Russian coins.
The obverse is the standard crowned Imperial Eagle holding a scepter and orb. The legend inside the denticled border on the 1 Markka is in Finnish and translates to “94.48 pieces from one pound of fine silver”. The 50 Pennia coin does not have the obverse legend.
The reverse displays a similar wreath as the domestic type, but these denominations only show the denomination and date on the reverse.
While the 1 Markka was only struck in 1915, the 50 Pennia was struck from 1914 until the end of the war when Finland gained its independence from Russia. The 50 Pennia from 1917 does have two varieties: one where the Imperial Eagle has the normal three crowns, and one where there are no crowns on the reverse. This difference can be seen on the two coins below. The 25 Pennia was struck from 1915 until 1917.
While the 10, 5, and 1 Pennia coins were all struck from 1914 until 1917, the 1917 1 Penni coin was slightly different. On the reverse of all these coins is a simple design, with only the denomination and year surrounded by a denticled border. The 10 Pennia also has a wreath on the reverse.
On the obverse is the Imperial Monogram, a large, stylized N with the Roman numeral II, as well as the Imperial Crown above it with two trailing ribbons, surrounded by a similar denticled border. The 1917 1 Penni coin, however, has the non-crowned Imperial Eagle on the obverse instead of the Imperial Monogram.
Despite Bolshevik efforts to recall and melt the various coins of Emperor Nicholas II, they are still quite common due to the high mintages and short periods of circulation. These coins, produced towards the end of the Romanov dynasty, are among the most popular coins of Imperial Russia.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).
How do l purchase a ZAR Nicohlas coin?
You could check with some local dealers or attend a local coin show and ask around. Steer clear of auction sites unless you know how to judge values and conditions.
When searching, to avoid confusion be sure to use standard English spellings for the Russian names. The title is usually transliterated as “Tsar” or “Czar” while his name is interpreted from its Russian form as “Nicholas”
Thanks for a fascinating article. Part of my family lived in Russia before WWI and left me several imperial coins (nothing valuable, unfortunately). This piece gave me a lot information more about the coinage of the times.
To explain the “H”-like appearance of the stylized letter on the 1/4-kopek coin, the Russian alphabet uses what looks like a Roman H to represent the N sound. The name Nicholas is anglicized from Nikolay which is spelled Никола́й using the Cyrillic alphabet.
Typo: coins have borders rather than “boarders”.
Thanks for the heads up, fixed.
You know what it is? My eye double-checks “denticled” and skips right over “boarders”. Every time…
HAH! Plus there’s always the vandalism wrought by Autocorrupt … I mean Autocorrect …