Kopek, denga, polushka: An English-language guide to Russian wire money

Wire money of Ivan IV from the Crypt of Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow
(cropped photo from Wikipedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Wire money of Ivan IV from the Crypt of Annunciation Cathedral in Moscow

Introduction

Russian wire money, hand-struck between the 1360s and 1710s, is a fascinating part of the rich history of pre-Imperial Russia. There are numerous varieties of these coins, some of which are available for only a dollar or two, and others of which have only one known specimen.

Unfortunately, English-language information on them is scarce, making learning about them a task within itself. Though numerous books exist, they can be hard to find in the libraries and bookstores of English-speaking countries. And though much material is available online, nearly all of it is in Russian. Searching online is complicated by the facts that the phrase "wire money" usually refers to something else, and that the denominations that originally referred to these coins eventually referred to their copper replacements.

English-language coin guides, such as the Krause catalogs and NGC Price Guide, list fewer than a dozen of the thousands of varieties in existence, most without photo or description. Just developing a basic understanding of the coins can be a chore.

That's where this page comes in. By assembling the most useful resources in one place, I hope to make it easy for English-speaking collectors to begin collecting coins minted during this 350-year portion of Russian history.

A brief history of Russian wire money

Reenactment of Mongol military movement
(cropped photo from Wikipedia licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)
Reenactment of Mongol military movement

By the time the Mongols invaded the lands that would eventually become Russia, the mid-13th century, those lands were fragmented and isolated. As related at the Bank of Russia Museum, this had brought about a coinless period lasting two centuries. Standard tools of barter, like beads and squirrel furs, took the place of coins. Large amounts were stored in precious metal bars, known as grivna. Silver grivna weights were eventually standardized within each principality. Kyivian ones were about 150 grams and Novgorod ones were 204 grams, about equal in value to 500 squirrel pelts. A modified version of the word "grivna" is, today, the unit of currency in Ukraine, the hryvnia.

The Tatar Mongol overlords of the Golden Horde minted coins by taking silver wire, cutting it, and hammering it flat. In the 1360s, people in Russian lands started to do the same, imitating the Mongol coins, then eventually designing coins of their own. The wire was measured out in fractions of grivna, so coin weights were standardized by principality too. Even when Ivan III threw off the Tatar yoke and gathered the Russian lands into a single country, different places continued using different designs and different weights.

Soon after the ascension of infant Ivan IV in 1533, his mother and regent, Elena Glinskaya, reformed Russian currency. Coins weighing 0.68 grams, close in weight to the 0.78-gram coins minted in Novgorod, were called "kopeks." Almost all of these had text on one side and a horse and rider with a spear pointed toward the lower right on the other. Since "spear" is similar to "kopek" in Russian, it's often assumed that's how the coin was named, but that etymology is disputed. Kopeks remained a unit of currency throughout Russian history, albeit revalued multiple times in the 20th century. 21st-century kopeks have an updated version of the rider with spear.

Kopek of Ivan IV
Kopek of Ivan IV
(photo from Wikipedia in public domain)

A half-kopek, closer to the weight of the standard coin of Moscow, was called a "denga," the plural of which, "dengi," remains to this day the Russian word for "money." It has a similar design but with the rider holding a saber. A quarter-kopek, tiny and far less common, was a polushka, with a bird in place of the horse and rider.

Denga of Ivan IV
Denga of Ivan IV
(photo from Wikipedia in public domain)

The denga was ubiquitous during the reign of Ivan IV, later known as Ivan the Terrible, but in later years the kopek was more common. Some of this had to do with devaluing; by the time Peter I (the Great) ended production in 1717, the kopek was only 0.28 grams and took up a tiny fraction of the surface area of the die used to make it. On some, all you can make out is, "Pyotr," even when the corresponding die reads "Tsar and Grand Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich of all Russia." The below kopek lacks the rider's crown, the horse's head, and the date. Devaluation continues to the present: The modern kopek finally ceased minting for circulation in 2009; even after Soviet and modern revaluations, its face value would now be only 1/60 of a cent. Modern devaluation is, in fact, much more rapid than that of the silver kopek, which averaged about 0.5% per year. That's extremely low by even international standards today, let alone Russian standards, but it's far more evident given the change in coin size.

Kopek of Peter the Great, obverse (photo and whole design)
Kopek of Peter the Great (photo) Kopek of Peter the Great (whole design)

However, this devaluation rate was not steady. During the Time of Troubles, kopek weights varied greatly due to fiscal and political concerns, starting the 15-year period at 0.64 grams and ending it at a mere 0.49. Half a century later, Tsar Alexis replaced the silver coins, by then down to 0.46 grams, with copper ones. This led to price inflation, counterfeiting, and, after eight years of copper, the Copper Riot, a violently crushed uprising. As a result, silver again replaced copper until Alexis' son, Peter the Great, further shrunk silver kopeks from 0.39 grams to 0.28, then gradually phased them out all together. The phrase-out period of almost two decades saved Peter from having to face another coin-related uprising.

Copper Riot (Ernest Lissner, 1938)
Copper Riot (Ernest Lissner, 1938, image from Wikipedia in public domain)

Identification

Identification diagram for some Ivan IV kopeks, via http://www.learn-your-history.in.ua
The leftmost kopek is the exception to the rule that kopeks have a rider with a spear rather than a saber.
Identification diagram for some Ivan IV kopeks

Identification resources by years covered; see below for details.
Rulers with long reigns are shown in blue.
. 1400s. 1500s. 1600s. 1700s.
Ivan III Ivan IV Peter I
1 1533 → Identification charts (Russian) ← 1704
2 1420 → Russian coin
(Russian)
← 1717
3 1533 → Russian Wire Coins (English) ← 1645
1533 → Catalog of Medieval Coins of Russia (bilingual) ← 1717

Identifying a coin, especially from just part of its design, is part of the challenge of collecting these coins. Since most literature is unavailable in the Anglophone world and most websites are in Russian, it's hard to figure out how to do so if you don't know where to look. In addition, non-Russian speakers will need a translator like Google Translate and a guide to the Russian alphabet like Wikipedia. I advise the use of these Russian-language resources:

  1. The website http://www.learn-your-history.in.ua is that of a Ukrainian coin dealer who, unfortunately, does not ship internationally. However, collectors outside of Ukraine can take advantage of the site's identification charts in order to identify ruler, obverse, and reverse. These charts cover the years 1533 to 1704. A portion of one is shown above. If you have a coin outside this period, you'll have to use a different resource.
  2. Either way, the next stop is Russian coin, which has mirror sites in Virginia and Japan. This site covers 1420 to 1717. It is essential for determining the catalog number of your coin. Its illustrations of the die design will also help you to see what's on your coin more clearly.
  3. Dzmitry Hulecki's 48-page English-language Russian Wire Coins 1533-1645 is the most common book on the subject on eBay. This guide gives information on dates, pricing, and historical background. Hulecki has other (longer) English language books for earlier periods, as well (eBay, Amazon). Though interesting and useful, none are must-haves, as the websites are better for identification.

While some wire coins have dates, not all do. Those that don't will correspond to either a specific year or range of years. Those that do will have their dates written using Cyrillic numerals, which represent the Byzantine year for coins prior to 1700 and the Julian year for coins after.

Purchase

The market for these coins, as you can imagine, is the largest in the lands through which they once circulated. For example, the Cossack Hetmanate based in the heart of modern-day Ukraine pledged allegiance to Moscow at the start of the eight-year period leading up to the Copper Riot, ergo Ukrainian interest. I've never seen one in an American coin show or coin shop, so your best bet is looking online, generally on eBay.

Other resources

The standard guide for wire coins from Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great is Kleshchinov and Grishin's four-volume Catalog of Medieval Coins of Russia ("Medieval" is a relative term here, often used to refer to Russia well into what Western Europe would consider the Modern Era.) Its "KG" catalog numbers are most the widely used system for denoting coin varieties. Its books have some readable English text along with their native Russian, but each book can be expensive and hard to find. The dealer at http://www.learn-your-history.in.ua sells inexpensive copies if you have a Ukrainian address to ship to; pirated electronic versions exist as well. But the above online resources should be sufficient.

🇬🇧 English-language websites:

🇷🇺 Russian-language websites: