By Eric Brothers for CoinWeek …..
It is rare when a coin can be read like a book, when it actually tells you a story.
Most coins throughout history have presented monarchs, various images of Liberty, famous people, and other images. But a few coins minted in the heady early years of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or Soviet Union) present stories engraved in planchets of gold and silver. The coins in question are the 1923 gold Chervonetz (10 Roubles), the 1924-27 silver 50 Kopek, and the 1924 silver Rouble. There were political, economic, and cultural forces at play that helped bring these fascinating coins into existence: agit-prop, War Communism and the New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921. It is important to understand this back-story in order to fully appreciate those coins.
Agit-prop, from the Russian agitatasiya propaganda (“agitation propaganda”), is a political strategy that employs the tactics of agitation and propaganda to influence and shape public opinion. Communists in the early days of the Soviet Union were obsessed with it as a tool to reach their political and cultural goals. The term ‘agit-prop’ is a shortened form of the ‘Agitation and Propaganda Section of the Central Committee Secretariat of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.’ It was a department of the Central Committee that was formed in the early 1920s. It was responsible for spelling out the content of all official information, overseeing political education in the schools, monitoring all forms of mass communication, and mobilizing public support for Communist party programs.
This included the images that appeared upon the coinage of the Soviet Union.
Each and every unit of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU)–from the republics to the local-party level–had its own agit-prop section. At the local level, agitators, party trained spokesmen, were the primary points of contact between the CPSU and the public.
War Communism (1918-1921)
The Russian Civil War (1918-22) shattered the infrastructure and economy of the nascent Bolshevik state in the aftermath of the successful Russian Revolution of 1917. During the Civil War the economic and political system was called War Communism. This policy was adopted by the Bolsheviks in order to keep towns and the Red Army stocked with food and weapons.
The following policies were included in War Communism:
• nationalization of all industry and strict centralized management
• state control of foreign trade
• strict discipline for workers and strikes were forbidden
• obligatory work duty for the bourgeoisie and other non-working classes
• prodrazvyorstka – vigorous requisition of agricultural surpluses from peasants for centralized distribution among the population of cities and towns
• rationing of food and most commodities with centralized distribution in urban centers
• private enterprise was illegal
The Civil War destroyed communication lines, modes of transportation (mostly railroads), and disrupted basic public services. Shipments of food and fuel by rail and waterways decreased dramatically. The populace experienced a shortage of heating oil and then coal; then they resorted to chopping down trees for heating and cooking. Infectious diseases were rampant, especially typhus. The urban population dramatically decreased, especially in northern towns, where it shrunk by an average of 24 percent. This was due to the breakdown of transportation; food, which was produced in the south, did not reach the northern cities. Hungry people were fleeing the cities in droves, heading south to confiscate the peasants’ surpluses. Eighty percent of the population after the Civil War were peasants.
The exodus from the cities was a serious problem for the Bolsheviks because the bulk of their support came from urban workers. Factory production slowed to a crawl or stopped completely. The economy was crippled. Dire hunger inspired the citizenry to get 50-60 percent of their food through illegal trading. A shortage of cash forced the black market to employ an inefficient barter system.
Despite the herculean effort of people trying to feed themselves, a drought, frost, and then a famine in 1920-21 led to millions starving to death. One of the results of this tragedy was that urban support for the Bolsheviks eroded significantly. When no bread arrived in Moscow in 1921, the hungry workers became disillusioned. Demonstrators against the party filled the streets and sailors and soldiers in Kronstadt began a major rebellion. War Communism was a complete, utter failure.
The New Economic Policy (NEP)
The New Economic Policy (NEP), which replaced War Communism during 1921, was essentially a new, capitalist-inspired agricultural policy. The Bolshevik view of the traditional village life was that it was backwards and conservative. This old way of rural life reminded the Communists of the Tsarist Russia that was supposed to have been thrown out with the trash after the success of the October Revolution of 1917. The NEP was a compromise with the peasant class that controlled the production of food. Thus the state allowed private ownership of land because the idea of collectivized farming had been met with such tremendous opposition.
Lenin understood that people were hungry and therefore opened up the markets to a greater degree of free trade in order to motivate the peasants to increase production. The biggest change was the end of grain requisitions, which he replaced with a tax on the peasants; this allowed them to keep and trade part of their produce. NEP increased the peasants willingness to produce, which resulted in agricultural production jumping by 40 percent after the drought and famine of 1921-22.
The economic reforms of NEP took a step back from central planning in order to allow the economy to become more independent. In labor, NEP created incentives for increased productivity and for successfully cutting costs in production. Labor unions became independent civic organizations, not part and parcel of the CPSU. Because of NEP reforms, government positions were open to the most qualified workers. NEP reforms allowed the government to hire engineers, specialists, and members of the intelligentsia for cost accounting, equipment purchasing, railway construction and industrial administration. This led to the development of the “NEPmen” class; they were private entrepreneurs who hired up to twenty employees. NEPmen also included rural artisans who sold their goods on the open market.
Agricultural production flourished during NEP. The incentives given to the peasantry resulted in production equaling and even surpassing pre-Revolution levels. While the farming sector was dependent upon small family farms, the heavy industries, banks and financial institutions were still owned and operated by the Soviet state. This resulted in an imbalance in the economy since the agricultural sector was growing much faster than heavy industry.
In order to maintain a high income, factories began to sell their products at higher prices. This rise in the prices of consumer goods forced the peasants to produce more wheat and other foodstuffs so they could pay for them. By doing that, however, the increase in the supply of wheat caused a fall in prices of farm products. Then peasants began to withhold their surpluses and wait for prices to rise, or else sold them to NEP men (traders and middle-men) who sold them on at high prices; this was opposed by many members of the CPSU who considered it to be exploiting urban consumers. The state took steps to decrease inflation of the price of consumer goods and enacted reforms on the internal practices of factories. The government also fixed prices on all goods to stop inflation in its tracks.
The Chervonetz (1922-1925)
It was during 1922, while the Russian Civil War was still raging on, that the Russian government attempted to install Communist economic ideals and eliminate its debt. They did this through a systematic devaluation of the Imperial rouble and its associated currencies. Concurrently, the Russians introduced the chervonetz (10 roubles), which was fully convertible and backed by the gold standard. Paper chervonetz were employed for domestic circulation while gold coins were used for international commerce. These coins had 8.6 grams of a .900 alloy, and sold at a high rate on international stock exchanges, which helped finance the NEP. The Russians minted 2,751,200 coins dated 1923; 1,113,200 were struck in 1923 and 1,638,000 in 1924. The dies were produced before the formation of the Soviet Union in 1924, so the coin was issued by the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic).
Heritage Auctions Gallery sold a chervonetz proof coin dated 1923 in 2009 for US$8,050.00. It was graded PF 63 by NGC. Heritage writes:
“Proofs of this issue are extremely rare, with only a very few pieces know. This is the first piece that we have offered, and we have seen only two others.”
Heritage has also sold several dozen mint state raw and certified 1923 chervonetz coins.
The year 1925 saw the Soviet Union revise the die for the reverse of the chervonetz: the initials USSR replaced RSFSR, and the Soviet coat of arms replaced the Russian Soviet one of 1923. The coat of arms featured the first seven Soviet republics.
A few test coins were struck but not mass-produced due to a perceived lack of demand from the international trading partners. Only one coin has survived from 1925. It was struck in copper, not gold, leading one to believe that it was a pattern coin. This copper example was sold at auction in April 2008 in Moscow and fetched a $200,000 hammer price.
Even though the Soviet Union had a successful agricultural economy, the leaders of the Communist state wanted to develop industry so they could compete with the United States and other highly industrialized nations. To that end they developed agit-prop to attempt changing the culture of people to be more willing to engage in industrial work. Such propaganda is found on the gold chervonetz. The reverse features a barefooted peasant sowing his field. Behind him sit the tools of the farm. However, as he works the land, he looks off to his left to see a giant, modern factory with its smokestacks billowing smoke. This is the first example of coins being used to push industrialization to bring agrarian Russia into the 20th century. The obverse presents the Soviet Russian coat of arms with the hammer and sickle being warmed by the rising sun and its rays. There is also a wheat wreath that surrounds the coat of arms. The famous Marxist slogan, “Workers of the world, unite!” is found encircling the coat of arms and wreath. The initials ‘RSFSR’ are located directly below the sun.
50 Kopek (1924-1927)
The 50 kopek (aka poltinnik or half-rouble) coin was struck in a .900 silver alloy from 1924 to 1927. It is 9.998 grams and has a diameter of 26.67 mm. The edge lettering says “Pure silver 2 zolotniks 10.5 dolyas”), followed by mint master initials “ПЛ” (Пётр Латышев [Piotr Latyshev], Leningrad Mint) or “ТР” (Томас Росс [Thomas Ross], Birmingham Mint, Great Britain). The mintages for 1924 are 1924 ПЛ: 26,559,000 and 1924 TP: 40,000,000; 1925 ПЛ: 43,558,000; 1926 ПЛ: 24,374,000; 1927 ПЛ: unknown. Each year had proof coins issued but the mintage of those is unknown.
There is a pattern dated 1924 that was struck at the London Mint with a plain edge. It was graded PF-63 by NGC and sold for $34,500.00 at a Heritage auction in Janaury of 2012. Heritage tells us that the “only other example [they] have seen was sold in January of 2007 by Dmitry Markov, Lot 1379, Ex: Goodman and Ex: Hesselgesser. It was certified Proof 62 by NGC and sold for $17,000.”
There is agit-prop on the 50 kopek coin with the same theme as the chervonetz. A heroic and inspiring image graces the reverse of this coin. A muscular young worker, shirtless and clad in an apron, work pants and boots, is pounding metal on an anvil with a large mallet. He has a determined look upon his face as he pounds away. Sparks are flying from the anvil as the worker looks down at the metal he is shaping with his power and strength. Behind the worker, in clear view, sits an idle plow and other farm implements, which imply strongly that he recently left the farm in order to help turn the Soviet state into an industrial powerhouse. The reverse is different from the chervonetz because USSR replaces RSFSR, and the Soviet Union’s coat of arms replaces that of Soviet Russia of 1923.
The Rouble (1924)
A severe shortage of silver coins had hounded the Soviet economy during the 1920s and silver was becoming too expensive to use, with much of it needing to be imported. That is why 1924 was the first and only year the agit-prop Rouble type coin was produced. The mintage for the 1924 ПЛ was 12,998,000. It weighs 19.99960 grams and is .900 silver with a diameter of 33.7 mm. Proof coins are available but are quite rare. The most recent one sold was auctioned off by Heritage in May 2008. It was graded PF 66 by NGC and realized $8.050.00. Heritage has sold a total of four proof 1924 ПЛ roubles during 2007 and 2008. Heritage also sold an aluminum pattern 1924 ПЛ graded PF-62 CAMEO by NGC; it realized $9,200.00.
The coin tells a great story of an old peasant and a young proletarian. In true Soviet style, the older peasant has long hair and a beard and hunches over slightly. He leans on a farm tool with his right hand and grasps a sickle in his left. Behind him is a farm. The young worker is clean shaven and has his arm on the older man’s shoulder. He points to the future. We see the sun rising over mountains with its rays beaming upwards. As the sun rises, it lights up a modern factory that sits at the foot of the mountains. The young proletarian is telling the old, broken peasant that the future greatness of the Soviet Union will come through industrialization.
The three coins discussed represent a burst of creative propaganda and artistry that was never again seen on the coinage of the Soviet Union. These were the days before Stalin consolidated his power and took absolute control over the Soviet state. The creativity that brought these coins to light would never be seen again under Stalin’s watch.
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