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. .

1 802- 1803 .
VALERY SHISHANOV

THE RUSSIAN ASSIGNATS


of 1802- 1803

2002

. . = Shishanov Valery
1802-1803 . = The Russian
assignats of 1802-1803. = Vitebsk, 2002.

1802-03 .

, I I.
, , ,
.
Valery Shishanov has been studying the financial background of the
monetary affairs under Paul I and the period immediately following. The
present research, on the basis of archival documents, seeks to throw light
on the history of the origin and later fate of the Russian assignats of 18021803. It examines the measures and steps involved in seeking to
introduce a new assignat series that were taken by the Assignat Bank under
the reigns of Paul I and Alexander I.

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12

INTRODUCTION
Finances over the centuries have been one of the most complicated, entangled
and secretive elements of the conduct of a nation's government. Hence is not
surprising that of many financial experiments there survive only the coins or
paper obligations that they generated, and these alone are usually not enough to
provide a clue to the often clouded circumstances in which they were introduced.
This is the more irksome to specialists and collectors - people who by nature
always seek to lay bare the sources and origins of these enigmatic witnesses of past
events.
In spite of the considerable body of published works on Russian paper
money, the assignats of the 1802-1803 type remain one of the undeciphered
secrets of that period which N. Eidelman so accurately refers to as the hinge years
between the two centuries.
Students in the Nineteenth century who were familiar with the archival
documents relating to paper money have in the course of exploring the course of
events, tended to concentrate either on the period up to the beginning of Paul I's
reign,1 or to look into the official operations that took place in the first year of
Alexander I's reign and slide over the brief intervening phase.2 Later, in
F. G. Chuchin's 1924 catalogue, the whole question as to whether the assignats
of the 1802-1803 type ever saw circulation is barely touched on.3 A more recent
work by V.Vasyukov and others speaks without a shadow of doubt of the brief
period during which these notes supposedly circulated.4 However, most
investigators, stopping short of such categorical claims, attribute the cessation of
work on the 1802-1803 project to introduce a new series of assignats to the
force of circumstances.5
M. B. Marshak of the Numismatic Division of the Hermitage has penetrated
more deeply than earlier students in seeking to get behind the curtain of the
force of circumstances. But she, even after a thoughtful analysis of the
documents and published sources, has not been able to venture beyond the realm of
hypothesis.6
The present research, on the basis of archival documents, seeks to throw
light on the history of the origin and later fate of the Russian assignats of 18021803. It examines the measures and steps involved in seeking to introduce a new
assignat series that were taken by the Assignat Bank under the reigns of Paul I and
Alexander I.
The author hopes through this work to fill in some gaps of one stubborn
problem in the history of Russian finances, and he trusts that it will draw the
attention not only of specialists but of the many who are interested in a broader
way in numismatics and in the study of paper money.

Pecherin, Ya. I., Our State Assignats up to the time they were replaced by Credit Notes, in Courier of Europe, 1876, Vol.
IV, Book 8, p. 647.
2
Shtorkh, P. A., On the Government Debt / Grazhdanin 1873, No 38, p. 1027.
3
Paper Money issued on the territory of the former Russian Empire from 1769 to 1924, Moscow, 1924, pp. 16, 17.
4
Paper Money of Russia and the USSR/ A. I. Vasyukov & others, 2d edition, SPB, 1994, p. 18.
5
Paper Money of Russia and the USSR/ A. I. Malyshev & others, Moscow, 1991, p. 27.
6
Marshak, M. B. A Rare Russian Assignat, in Communications of the State Hermitage, 1987, Issue LII, pp. 49-51.

13

WHOLLY DESERVING OF CONSIDERATION


The fabrication in the 18th century of forged assignats was causing
substantial and growing losses to the Russian treasury. In the first place, the
clandestine issuance without the Government's knowledge of these counterfeits
added measurably to the total of the Government's burden of internal
indebtedness. There were so many forgeries that the Assignat Bank, committed as
it was to sustaining public confidence in the assignats, found it expedient,
beginning in 1789, to redeem without publicity false notes so long as the fact
that they were forgeries was not too glaringly apparent.7
In 1800 alone, the application of this policy cost the Assignat Bank some
200,000 rubles.8 An annoying side-issue was that the assignats of the type then
in circulation, introduced in 1786, were too fragile and stood up to wear badly.
These circumstances led Procurer-General Peter Christianovich
Obolyaninov, in a secret letter of 12 June 1800, to ask the Head Director of the
Assignat Bank Peter Semenovich Svistunov if he would not to look into the
question of replacing the current issue of assignats since the counterfeiting of
paper money has become a critical drain which day by day encourages the
designs of ill-intentioned persons...9
This the struggle against counterfeiting as Marshak correctly observes,
was much the most compelling motive in undertaking the reforms of 1802-1803.
But it was not the only factor. Obolyaninov saw in the changing of the type of the
assignats the opportunity of establishing accurately the quantity of paper money in
circulation, which in turn would enable the Government to deduct from the
internal debt the value of such assignats as had been in one way or another
destroyed or lost, thus producing for the Treasury a not inconsiderable profit.10
It is interesting that Pieter Vought, the representative of the Dutch Firm of
Goppe & Co, had already suggested to his Russian colleagues late in 1797 the idea
of replacing the old assignats with new ones and thus finding out the number of
the notes in existence.11 In 1800 this thought came closer to realization: Svistunov
expressed the view that such an operation was wholly deserving of
consideration and he calculated that, it would produce up to 772,349 rubles
gain and still more important would inhibit counterfeiting, at least slowing it
down if not even cutting it off entirely.12
On 29 June, having heard the report on its expected advantages, Paul I
directed that action should proceed on the proposed operation. A Committee was
set up, with the Procurer-General Obolyaniniov, State Treasurer G. R. Derzhavin,
and Director of the Assignat Bank P. S. Svistunov to oversee the undertaking.13
Carrying out the operation would require much time and meticulous
preparation. At the time of the preceding assignat replacement of the 1769-type by
the new type of 1786 the public had held 46 million rubles in old assignats, by 1800
the existing volume of assignats, widely distributed throughout the Empire, had
7
8
9

Archive of the Government Council (hereafter AGC), 1869, vol. 1, column 571.
The Russian State Historical Archive (hereafter RGIA), folio 1374, item 3, sec 2494, sheet 7 (reverse).

Ibid, sheet 1.
Ibid.
11
Archive of Prince Vorontsov, 1869, vol. XIII, p. 384.
12
RGIA, folio 1374, item 3, sec 2949, sheets 2-9 (reverse).
13
Ibid, sheets 9 & 10 (reverse).
10

14

expanded to a face value of 210 million rubles. In view of this alone, the detailed
set of practical questions Svistunov brought up for resolution beforehand was
apposite. For example How long in advance should there be a public
announcement? How long should the period for the exchange of old against new
notes last? Where actually and on what basis should the projected operation be set
in motion? How many rubles worth, province by province, of the new assignats
should be on hand at the start? In provinces where there is no Bank Office, which
officials or which Treasury agency should be assigned to carry out carry out the
necessary exchange? Who in these provinces will be responsible for seeing to the
full execution of the exchange operation and checking accountability?14
As the enumerated points make clear, what had seemed at first glance like a
relatively simple and straightforward undertaking was found to be, on the
projected scale, a complex administrative and management task.
Moreover, as the reform progressed, it became clear that there would be the
convenient opportunity of not simply exchanging the old assignats for new ones
but also of increasing secretly the total value in circulation. In order to determine a
suitable total for the forthcoming issue, Obolyaninov in a secret letter of 13
September 1800, asked the President of the Petersburg Town Council to sound
out the merchants' assembled representatives on the matter of what would be a
desirable overall sum, against the background of the current volume in
circulation of 210 million rubles.15 The opinion the assembled merchants arrived
at on 15 September is of decided interest as reflecting the prevailing economic
views of the period. We may note only that they considered that the volume of
issued assignats did not necessarily have a substantial influence on the course of
monetary circulation. Replying to Obolyaninov's question they suggested a goal
of something like 300 million rubles worth as a desirable total volume of assignats
to be in circulation.16
The merchants' opinion had the effect of nudging the Regime, constantly
Wrestling under the pressure of a budgetary deficit, toward the dangerous course
of experimenting with the monetary circulation. And indeed on 16 September an
enabling Act which would add another one-third to the overall value of assignats
already in circulation was confirmed by the Emperor.17
On 22 December 1800 the Committee in charge of preparations for the
exchange of the assignats submitted its report to the Emperor. It made the
following main points, among others:
1. Print all the assignats on white paper. The existing watermarks to be
retained, but change the format of the several values and for each value
introduce its own distinctive type and ornamental borders (sketches inclosed).
2. Improve the quality of the paper (samples of paper provided, with greater
chalk content, as proposed by the manufacturer A. V. Olkhin.
3. So as to keep secret the total value of the assignats in circulation, start
each year with a new numbering system for each denomination.

14

RGIA, folio 1374, item 3, sec 2949, sheet 9.


Ibid, sheet 19.
16
Ibid, sheets 14-18, 20, 21.
17
Ibid, sheet 23.
15

15

4. To make counterfeiting more difficult, print a seal on the reverse of each


note, displaying the interwoven cipher letters G D A B, standing for Chief Director
of the Assignat Bank. 18
The report pointed out that, with the seasonal nature of the operation of the
mill that produced the paper, and taking into account unforeseen difficulties that
might arise with the machinery, the entire stock of new assignats needed for the
exchange could be ready within from three and a half to five years.19
Along with the above, on 26 December Svistunov and Derzhavin in a
separate memorandum spoke of the need to print, in addition to the reserve of six
million rubles already on hand in assignats of the old type, an additional 26
million rubles worth. These two amounts together should suffice to cover, during
the time the new-style assignats were being printed, the Assignat Bank's
requirement for old-style assignats to issue in redeeming worn out assignats
submitted for destruction; a turnover of notes that came to about one million
rubles worth each month.20
On the whole, the project to introduce the new assignats progressed
reasonably well during late 1800 and early 1801. On 16 January 1800, as the
Secret Journal of the Assignat Section shows, Inspector of Typography Parpur
presented a report, together with four specimen sheets on improved paper, which
had been printed to determine the new paper's suitability as well as to serve as
pattern-proofs of the new design.21 From this bit of evidence it appears that there is
no confirmation for the thought that there exists a fair quantity of at present
unknown proof assignats of the type approved on 22 December 1800.
At the same time, the archival documents, as we shall see later, disprove
Pecherin's assertion that 85 million rubles worth of the new assignats were
printed22 under Paul I. The documents show that this action did not occur until
after the accession of Alexander I.
MEANWHILE SECRETLY CONTINUE
The fate of Paul I at the hands of the conspirators interrupted for a time
progress on preparations for the exchange operation, but this cannot be ascribed
to any critical view Alexander I may have taken regarding the enterprise his
father had started. Some of the people directly involved in the operation on the
other hand fared poorly during the shakeup that came with the transition.
Obolyaninov, for example, after a long period of detention, was sent into
retirement for reasons of health. Derzhavin, at first relieved of his duties, in
September 1802 was appointed Minister of Justice and Procurer-General, but
within a little over a year he fell into disfavor again.
Russia's finances then came under Baron Alexei Ivanovich Vasiliev as
Treasurer, and in 1802 he became Russia's first Minister of Finance.
According to a report by Vasiliev, the 4 April session of the State Council
took the view that the projected exchange of assignats might indeed be useful. At
the same time, it emphasized the need for the time being to defer this affair but
18

RGIA, folio 1146-1147, item l, sec 202, sheets 6-10.


Ibid, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheets 29, 30.
20
Ibid, folio 557, item 1, sec. 693, sheet 5.
21
Pecherin Ya. I., op. cit., p. 647.
22
AGC, vol. 3, sec 2, cols. 699-701.
19

16

meanwhile secretly continue to take preparatory steps. In this connection it


was decided not to use the paper that Olkhin had submitted but a paper with a
higher silk content, even though it cost more. On the same day the Council took a
decision against increasing the quantity of assignats in circulation as an element
of the projected operation, but this had no bearing at the time on the planned
eventual issuance of the new style assignats.23 The Council's recommendations
became he basis of an ukaz of 10 April 1801.
On 16 May the most up to date version of the assignat designs were
approved, but on 4 January 1802 it was decided to apply the intertwined ciphers
G D onto the reverse before the assignats were signed, and not afterward, as
had been anticipated in 1800.24 And with this, in 1802 the process of deciding on
a final version of the assignats' design was completed. A description of the these
notes in their final version, photos of them, data on dimensions and watermarks
are to be found in Marshak's article and in the guidebook by Malyshev and
others.25
The assignats were printed in black ink on white paper. The five-ruble note is
115x115mm and dated 1802; the 10 ruble note measures 175x115, but dated
1803; the 25 ruble one is 185xl85mm, dated 1802; the 100 ruble note is
190xl85mm with the 1802 date. On the obverse is the text
/ /
/ [value] 1802 . Above the text is
the assignat's denomination in Arabic figures. A little higher appears the arms of
the Russian Empire, flanked by two serial numbers. Below the text is the legend
... for Bank Director, and a line below is for cashier. A place
is left for the signatures of these two officials. The note's serial number is
repeated below. The corners carry ornamental vignettes, different for each value,
and in white text on framed black rectangles appears the value in three positions
as part of the edge decoration. On some values the initial letters of a word in the
legend appear with flourishes. On the reverse are the intertwined cipher-letters
.... for Head Director of the Assignat Bank.
The paper is watermarked. Above and below in two lines are
/ . At the sides are
on one hand and on the other the note's value
spelled out in old Slavic letters. In the corners are displayed the arms of the four
Tsardoms Astrakhan, Moscow, Kazan and Siberia [ed note: not easily
discernible from the picture].
The new type of assisgnat does not have the oval blind embossed design of
the older issue, the paper is better and the form and execution of the design are
considerably more complicated.
Alexander I's 14 August Ukaz directs that now the operation to exchange
the assignats be begun in earnest. 26 On 3 December the State Treasurer reports
he has just been shown seven sheets of the five-ruble new type of assignat; he

23

AGC, vol. 3, sec 2, cols 706.


RGIA, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheets 37.
25
Marshak, op. cit, p. 49; Paper Money of Russia and the USSR/ A. I. Malyshev & others, pp. 266, 276, 289, 328, 389-390.
26
RGIA, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheet 37.
24

17

states that the Bank cannot begin the exchange until early the following year,
consequently the notes will be dated 1802.27
The first batch of the new five-ruble assignats 6000 sheets of them
reached the Assignat Bank on 5 April 1802. By the time of the final delivery the
number of assignats on hand amounted to:
100 rubles dated 1802 127,000 sheets
25 rubles dated 1802 1,580,700 sheets
10 rubles dated 1803 1,709,400 sheets
5 rubles dated 1802 3,334,800 sheets
The overall value mounted to 85,985,500 worth, each sheet containing but
one note.
Thereafter, only white sheets with numbers were received.28 One may
note that the presence in some collections of specimens signed by Bank officials
is explained by the fact that the routine of signing the notes was time-consuming
and was often done ahead of time.
After all this preparation, what stood in the way of carrying out the proposed
exchange operation?
The exchange rate for assignats against silver in 1802 and for several years
thereafter ran higher than it had in the last years of Paul's reign. This fact caused
some last-minute concern at the Assignat Bank that exchanging the notes for
unfamiliar new ones, which would require a change in the law, might to some
extent act against the public's faith in the new notes a possible reaction that
could be determined only after the new notes were already in circulation.29
But there were more substantial reasons standing in the way of reform. The
financial strain imposed by wartime expenses was forcing the Government time
and again to have recourse to additional printings of assignats. From September
1801 to November 1803 just in order to cover current expenses some 58 millions
in the old type of assignats had to be prepared.30
Clearly, in such conditions it would not have been possible at the same time
to set up the reserve previously mentioned of some 32 million rubles in old
assignats that would be needed to cover the routine replacement of worn out
assignats while the exchange was taking place. The limited capacity both in paper
making and in printing would not be enough at the same time for the production
of new style assignats while at the same time temporarily closing down
production in order to make needed improvements in the facilities' capacity.31
In his 3 November 1802 report Vasliev called attention to still other
difficulties. The old-style assignats were being printed at the Senate's
typographical facility. Many of its skilled workers would have to be called on to
take part in printing the new-style assignats at the Printing Works at the
Medical-Surgical Academy, which itself was having various difficulties; further,
he wrote, the mixing together of so many young persons in such an important
job would in various respects not be desirable.32
27

RGIA, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheet 45.


Ibid, sec 2774, sheets 1, 269, 297.
29
Ibid, sec 638, sheets 33, 34.
30
Ibid, folio 560, item 38, sec 2, sheets 386, 387.
31
Ibid, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheets 118, 136.
32
Ibid, folio 560, item 38, sec 2, sheets 384-386.
28

18

These various considerations were enough to influence the decision by the


Ministers Committee on 19 My 1803 to suspend the preparation of these
assignats.33 On 16 September followed the Imperial Ukaz setting aside the
operation until some convenient future time.34
After the batch of assignats in the press was finished and numbered, these
and all their associated materials were given over for storage at the Assignat
Bank, and work was closed down for good on the project to exchange the old
assignats for new ones.35
CONCLUSIONS
As the course of events demonstrates, the project at the turn of the century
to reform Russia's monetary circulation stood very little chance of success. The
would-be reformers lacked the insight to divine the historical cataclysms that
Russia faced. Their effort was limited to what, because of their limited view,
came down more to a cosmetic than a realistic handling of the developing crisis.
Nevertheless, the experience gained in the effort could not but be useful in
the development of economic knowledge, and it had its influence on Russia's
major financial reforms that the 19th century was to see in later years.
One large gain was in facing up to the need to modernize the technology of
producing bank notes. One should note that the preparations for the issuance of
the 1802-1803 type of assignats of necessity involved improvements in printing,
the development more suitable paper, and the recognition of the need for a
whole series of technological innovations. For example, Master Paper-maker
Bart proposed a means of salvaging rejected imperfect sheets of paper by recycling
them, after preparation, to the mix of the pulp being made ready for the next batch
of sheets. This helped relieve the Treasury of a chronic shortage of banknote paper.36
Recognition of the weaknesses in Russia's printing and paper-making
technology that the operation for the exchange of assignat types brought to light
was an important factor in the planning of the reform of 1818 and the decision to
adopt the proposal Vasiliev had made in his 3 November 1803 report that a
permanent facility exclusively for printing paper money be established.37
On 4 March 1816, the detailed proposal put forward by the prominent
engineer de Betankur along these lines was approved. And soon on the left bank
of the Fontanka in Petersburg on the site of Choglokov's old building there was
built the modern works that housed the new Expedition for the Preparation of
Government Papers [EZGB] at present Goznak. It took over the production of
bank-notes and a variety of other important Government documents.
The assignats of the 1802-1803 type, like those that had been introduced in
1786, did not measure up to the state of the art of their times. But on 18 April
181838 the new definitive issue of assignats, produced by the EZGB, closed the
door on obsolescence for good.

33

The Ministers Committee Journal, S, 1888, vol. 1, p . 42.


RGIA, folio 560, item 38, sec 2, sheet 334.
35
Ibid, folio 584, item 1, sec 259a, sheets 438, 439.
36
Ibid, folio 560, item 38, sec 2, sheet 415.
37
Ibid, sheet 385.
38
Perechin, Ya. I., op. cit, p. 647.
34

19

CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION 12
WHOLLY DESERVING OF CONSIDERATION 13
MEANWHILE SECRETLY CONTINUE 15
CONCLUSIONS 18

:
. . 1802-1803 . , 1997. 16 .
. . ... //
(). 1997. 2. .33-37.
. .

1802-1803
(). 1997. 3-4. .52-57.

//

. .
( XVIII .) //
. -. 2025 1998 .: . . . ., 1998. .170-171.
. .
// (). 1999. 1. .2-11.
. .
1802-1803 . //
. . 17-21 2000 .: . .
. ., 2000. .179-180.
Shishanov V. The Assignats of 1802-1803 // Journal of the Russian numismatic
society. 1999. 68. P.58-69.