The Imperial Russian 5 Kopek certainly has a heft befitting such an imposing country. But why strike such large copper coins?
By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
As a consequence of his extensive wars with Sweden in the late 17th century, Russian Emperor Peter the Great implemented one of the first comprehensive overhauls of the Russian economy and industry. One of the most important changes Peter forced upon his empire was a dramatic increase in metal mining in the Ural Mountains. Incorporated into the Russian Empire at the end of the 16th century, the Ural Mountains proved to be an economic boon with their enormous mineral wealth. In the Urals alone, between 1690 and 1762, the number of metalworking facilities (for both iron and copper) nearly doubled. The two largest metal production centers, in Nev’yansk and Ekaterinburg, were built in 1699 and 1723, respectively.
In a demonstration of its economic importance, the Ekaterinburg mint was producing 100% of the Russian Imperial copper coinage within a decade of striking its first coins in 1725. Eventually, the mint would settle into a production schedule equaling roughly 80% of the Imperial copper coinage and then would continue striking coins until the facility closed in 1876.
As a result, Russia had the copper necessary to strike such large coins within its borders. Russia’s neighbor Sweden also controlled large copper deposits and, starting in 1624, struck large plåtmyntor or plate money. This should have served as a cautionary tale for Russia, as the Swedish government began striking ever-larger riksdalers (the largest weighed almost 20 kilos or 44 pounds), which necessitated the printing of paper money and precipitated an eventual debasement of the existing silver currency.
Practically the same thing happened in Russia a few years later. Called “plateau”, these “heavy square plates” were marked with a denomination equal to the market value of the copper weight. However, this was deemed to be unsustainable for international trade and domestic commerce. Consequently, Peter the Great instituted a new Ruble and Kopek system in a set of sweeping monetary reforms that would last for over a hundred years.
This new Ruble-Kopek system was the first decimal currency in the 18th century where the 28g silver rubles were equal to 100 copper kopeks. The silver ruble preceded the US and French decimal systems by almost 90 years and to facilitate trade it was “identical in weight and silver content to the taler.”
The standard 5 kopek coin from the reign of Catherine the Great measured 42mm and weighed a whopping 51.2g. The obverse displayed the imperial cypher under a crown dividing the date, all surrounded by a wreath. On the reverse was engraved the crowned double-headed eagle of the Romanov family with the mint mark in the lower field and a banner below that reads ПЯТЬ ∙ КОПѢЕКЪ or “Five ∙ Kopeks”. Depending on the year, mint, and grade, these coins can be as little as $25 USD and as much as $250-500.
Before the 5 ruble coins grew in size during the reign of Catherine II, this type, at an average 20g, was almost half the weight of its later counterpart. The simple design featured a crossed legend on the obverse and a small inset Imperial eagle on the reverse. The example below sold at auction in March 2021 for 32 euros.
It is difficult to estimate the purchasing power of the copper kopek coins through the centuries, due to fluctuations in the quality of goods, the varying types of paying wages (in-kind, inland, or cash), and the evolving weight of the Imperial Russian chetvert (an obsolete unit of measuring grain). However, proving the value of these large copper coins, by the 1790s it was estimated that one kopek could purchase 50 apples.
As with the new “imperial assignat” paper bills printed by Catherine the Great, the relatively large 5 kopek coins of the 1770s were used to help cover the “sheer volume of new military and civilian expenditure[s]” brought on by Imperial reforms and the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774.
By the end of the 1600s, the silver kopek had undergone a series of “weight reductions” and was at that point a “minuscule” coin; the large copper coin allowed the government to recall most of the small fractional silver currency. The older coins were subsequently melted and re-struck into larger full ruble coins. These new high-grade silver rubles and large copper 5 kopek coins significantly “restored confidence” in the monetary system, if only for a short period.
While the Ekaterinburg mint was by far the most prolific, a series of other mints operated across the empire striking these large 5 kopek coins. Mint marks appear on the coin’s reverse separated by the Imperial Eagle’s tail. The first letter tells which city the mint was in and the second letter, an “M”, stood for “монета” or “mint”. The main facilities were Ekaterinburg (EM), Annensk (AM), Kolyvan (KM), Moscow (MM), Sestroretsk in Finland (CM), St. Petersburg (СПМ), and Feodesia in the Crimea (TM).
Under Catherine the Great, Ekaterinburg struck a yearly average of nearly 38 million 5 kopek coins from 1763 to 1796. The other mints, all operating for shorter periods, struck many fewer coins – some averaging fewer than three million per year. Also, when combined with the distance between the far-flung mints, the need to strike large quantities of coins resulted in a “lowering of the quality” of these coins. As a result, many examples are weakly struck or off-centered.
While a standard Ekaterinburg 5 Kopek is relatively inexpensive, there are many different types that command a much higher premium. One of the more famous varieties is the Siberian Catherine II ‘Velikaya‘ type. The obverse of this type is similar to the standard type with a crowned Catherine II cipher. The reverse, however, is recognizable with two ermines supporting a crowned oval with the denomination and year within. Described as “one of the [rarest] Russian copper coins of [the] 18th century,” examples of this type command a large premium, reaching as high as 2,500 euros.
While never struck for general circulation, the mint at Peter the Great’s Gartenberg estate in Sadagura produced a very interesting 5 kopek pattern type for the Imperial territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. The obverse depicts a tall standing stone (comparable to a gravestone), crossed by two strings of beads at the top. Altogether, the obverse design is reminiscent of an ancient Roman military trophy. The royal cypher is placed in a shield above while the stone is flanked by the flags from both principalities above the date (1771). Due to a lack of bronze in the years directly succeeding the Russo-Turkish war, this pattern was struck from captured Turkish guns.
The copper 5 kopek piece, which was first struck in 1723 and steadily grew in weight, became a central feature of the Imperial Russian monetary system. This “system of five-copeck pieces” which was fueled by immense wartime spending, soon became one of the “inflationary influence[s]” that proved to be a drag on the Russian economy through the 18th and into the 19th centuries.
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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).