as-Sikka السكة
The Online Journal of The Islamic Coins Group 
as-Sikka is a peer reviewed publication
ISSN 1496-4414 

  Winter 1999/2000AD / 1420AH Vol. 1.2


The Influence of Islamic Coins on the Russian Monetary System:
An Introduction.
By Eric R. Schena


For centuries, Islamic coins formed the backbone of the Russian monetary system.  In the earliest days of the Slavic principate, imported Abbasid and Samanid dirhams were the main circulating coins in Kiev.  After the Mongol invasion of 1237-1240, Golden Horde coinage became firmly established within Russia and influenced later independent Russian coins. This is a brief survey of the role Islamic coins had to play in the development of the Russian monetary system.

The Dirham, the Kuna and the Beginnings of Russian Coinage

Beginning in the late 7th century-early 8th century CE, the Varangians, a Viking people, migrated from Scandinavia south to the Black Sea, establishing many trading towns and stations along the way. According to Russian chronicles, a Varangian warrior by the name of Rurik (Hrorekr) led an expedition to the site of modern-day Staraya Lagoda (near Novgorod) and occupied the city in c. 862 CE.  However, recent archaeological evidence indicates that Scandinavian tribes had occupied the region as early as 750 CE.  The Varangians moved southward and settled in present day Ukraine, establishing Kiev, and soon began trading with the local Slavic peoples, and, in particular, the neighboring Volga Bulghars and the Khazars had access via trade with the vast silver wealth of the Samanids in Central Asia.   Samanid dirhams consequently flowed westward, where the Varangians were eager to haul them back to Scandinavia through Kiev. Through this trade route, Samanid dirhams (fig. 1) have been found in substantial quantities in and around Kiev, all the way up to Scandinavia, where numerous large hoards have been found.   The earliest Islamic dirhams found in Kiev are Abbasid dirhams (fig. 2), though older, heavily worn Sassanian silver drachms of the 4th through the 7th centuries CE have also been found in hoards along with the more common Islamic coins. The dirhams that were brought into Kiev and its environs became the principal coin circulating in medieval Russia for several hundred years.

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Alongside Abbasid and Samanid dirhams, other dirhams are occasionally found, including locally produced coins.  Anonymous Abbasid style were produced by the Khazars c. 830-840 CE/220-230 AH, bearing the mint name of Ard al-Khazar (see Album J1481). The Volga Bulghars themselves struck dirhams based on contemporary Samanid dirhams.  All bear the mint name of either Suwer or Bulghar, and were produced in the names of the local rulers: Yaltavar (before 338 AH/949 CE), Talib bin Ahmad (338-347 AH/949-958 CE), and Mikhail bin Ja’far (after 347 AH/958 CE).  Anonymous dirhams imitating Samanid coins were also struck by the Volga Bulghars, many times bearing tamghas, as well as the keeping the original dates and mint names of their Samanid prototypes (see Album N1481-Q1481).  In addition, Abbasid and Samanid dirhams have also been found with graffiti of variations of Kievan princely tamghas and other symbols.

Islamic dirhams provided the weight standard by which the earliest Kievan coins, the silver srebreniks, were struck.  Srebreniks were first struck in the late 10th century CE by Vladimir, the Great Prince of Kiev and are the earliest purely Russian coins.  In 988 CE, Christianity was introduced to Kievan Russia by invitation of Vladimir.  Many aspects of Russian culture changed with Christianity’s introduction as well, including the coinage.  Around the same time, Byzantine coins make their first appearance in coin hoards in the form of silver miliaresia among hoards of dirhams, though not in substantial quantity.  The imported Byzantine coins provided a stylistic foundation upon which Kiev could build an independent coinage, while their weight was roughly consistent with dirhams.  However, many of the srebreniks were debased.  Although over a hundred different die pairs have been identified, currently very few of these coins are known (Spasskii and Sotnikova identify a total of 335 srebreniks of any type).  It is thought that the issue was probably quite large, but because the coins were made of debased silver, they were unpopular compared to the high fineness of Islamic dirhams and were soon removed from circulation.  In the eastern Crimea, heavily debased imitations of Byzantine miliaresia were produced for a brief time in Tmutarakan. 

Despite the early experiments with a purely Slavic coinage, Islamic dirhams remained the primary medium of exchange, and as a consequence, an entire system of accounting was developed around them.  The numerous terms of account that were in use in medieval Russia and are known through primary literary sources, principally the Povest’ vremennikh let (Tales of Bygone Years – frequently referred to as the Primary Russian Chronicle), as well as birch bark receipts and letters discovered in archaeological contexts.   The two basic units of account used were grivna and kuna.  The kuna was applied to any silver coin in current use, in particular, Abbasid and Samanid dirhams.  The grivna had two different uses, one as a unit of account and another as a unit of specie.  Initially, large quantities of kuna were reckoned in terms of grivnas. Besides the grivna and kuna, the rezana and the veksha (or veveritsa) were used to describe cut portions of a kuna.  The ratios to one another in the tenth to the twelfth centuries are as follows:

1 grivna of silver 20 nogatas 25 kunas
1 nogata 5 kunas
1 kuna 1 dirham  2 rezanas 6 vekshas
1 rezana 1/2 dirham 3 vekshas
1 veksha/veveritsa 1/6 dirham 1/6 kuna

By the middle to late 10th century CE, the influx of dirhams into Russia appears to have come to a halt. The exact cause or causes of the "silver famine" are not fully known, and there is even debate as to whether or not the silver famine actually occured. It is believed that Varangian trade with the Volga Bulghars, Khazars and the Samanid dynasty in Central Asia caused dramatic outflow of fine silver coin out of the silver rich Panjhir Valley. Although the mines were prolific, the quantity of silver being exported through trade was on a vast scale. Beginning around the early to mid 10th century CE/ early 4th century AH, the Samanids, their vassals the Banijurids, and their successors the Ghaznavids, started issuing huge debased silver multiple/oversize dirhams, rather than fine silver "normal" dirhams at some mints. As a result, comparatively few new coins of good fineness and weight entered Kievan Rus', eventually generating greater demand for better quality dirhams with high silver content. Contemporary chronicle entries and writings begin mentioning two different terms of account: the nogata equating to one high quality, full weight dirham, and the traditional kuna now equating to a low weight dirham, either by heavy circulation wear or clipping (fig. 3), possibly reflecting the increasing scarcity of good coin in Russia.

Fig. 3

In the 11th century CE, the grivna of silver (in the form of an ingot weighing approximately 160-200 grams) was introduced.  However, from the outset a grivna ingot had a different weight than a grivna of kuna.  By the 12th century CE, 1 grivna of silver was the equivalent of 4 grivnas of kuna and the ratios changed thus:

1 grivna of silver 4 grivnas of kuna 8 nogatas 20 kunas
1 grivna of kuna 2 nogatas  5 kunas
1 nogata 1 dirham (good quality/weight) 2.5 kunas
1 kuna 1 dirham (low quality/weight) 2 rezanas 6 vekshas
1 rezana 3 vekshas
1 veksha/veveritsa 1/6 kuna

These terms of account continued in wide use into the 15th century CE.  

Before his death in 1015, Vladimir divided his lands (known as Kievan Rus’) into ten separate principalities, one for each of his sons, with the head of Kiev retaining the title of Grand Prince.  Kievan Rus’ was then thrown into a period of internecine strife upon the death of Vladimir.  One son, Svyatopolk, seized Kiev for himself and killed three of his brothers in order to reduce the number of competitors, earning him the epithet of “the Damned”. Vladimir’s oldest son Yaroslav, with the assistance of Scandinavian mercenaries, took Kiev from Svyatopolk in 1019 and divided Kievan Rus’ between himself and his only remaining brother, Mstislav.  This marked the beginning of the decentralization of authority in the Kievan state and it soon entered a period of decline.  In 1169, the Prince of Suzdal, Andrei Bogoliubskii, sacked Kiev, then moved the seat of the Great Prince to Vladimir, the capital of Suzdal.  What little trade was conducted in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, long after the Varangians left, came to a violent end with the Mongol invasion of 1237-1240.

The Golden Horde and the Denga

With the rise of Chingiz Khan to the east, a Mongol tide began to sweep over the steppes and into Kievan Rus’.  This new threat made its first incursion into Kievan territory around 1223 when a Mongol raiding party defeated an army of both Russians and Polovtsians.  It was not until after Genghis Khan’s death that the Golden Horde made its presence known.  A large horde led by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan, struck first at Ryazan in 1237, eventually sacking and destroying Kiev in 1240, ending Kiev’s power and influence once and for all, spelling the end of Slavic independence in the region.

After the conquest of Kiev in 1240, Russia became a series of vassal states answerable to the Great Khan. Novgorod was spared Mongol wrath only by submitting to the power of the Great Khan without fighting. In 1253, a capital was built at Sarai (in present-day Kazan) from which the Great Khan could administer his empire.  The principality of Vladimir-Suzdal was selected as the focal point of Russia.  Every other prince was required to answer to the Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal, who in turn responded to the Great Khan’s emissaries.  Although fearsome, autocratic and destructive, the Golden Horde, as a general rule, left local affairs to each respective prince, so long as the tribute payments were adequate and on time.  The period of Mongol rule, usually referred to as the Mongol or Tatar Yoke, insulated Russia from the rest of Europe, with the notable exception of Novgorod.  Because of its advantageous location near the Baltic Sea, Novgorod secured commercial treaties with many western European states, including the Hanseatic League.  

For over two hundred years, the Golden Horde ruled over Russia.  However, internal feuds and factional disputes within the Horde diluted their power over time.  As this occurred, local princes strove to gain control over their neighbors.  One principality succeeded in this better than the others, Moscow.  Founded in 1147 by Iurii Dolgorukii, Moscow gradually became favored by the Mongols, attaining the powerful role as tax/tribute collectors for the Khan.

Numismatically, the period of the Mongol occupation is known as the “coinless period”.  No native coins were struck.  Once the Golden Horde established themselves over Russia, some Mongol dirhams and copper puls were struck at mints throughout Russia, including Bulghar (fig. 4) and Sarai al-Jadida (fig. 5), near the Caspian Sea.  Grivna ingots, however, continued to be cast for large transactions.  Because of the mandatory tribute to the khan, a substantial quantity of wealth was shipped east to Sarai, draining the region of money.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Gradually, the power of the Mongol khan diminished in Russia throughout the 14th century CE. Emboldened, Dimitrii Ivanovich “Donskoi” (1359-1389) led an attack against the Golden Horde and won a dramatic, albeit symbolic, victory at Kulikovo Polye in 1380.  In 1382, Ghiyath al-Din Toqtamish Khan (778-797 AH/1376-1395 CE) exacted his revenge by sacking Moscow.   Despite the sacking, the striking of small silver coins, called dengas, commenced (fig. 6), thus ending the “coinless period”.  While not completely certain, the word denga appears to be derived from tanka/tenga, an Iranian and Central Asian silver coin denomination in common use in the 15th and 16th centuries CE.  Initially, 200 dengas equaled 1 ruble in weight, however, over time, the weight of the denga gradually fell, causing the standard to change to as much as 260 dengas to the ruble.  Later, fractions of the denga were also introduced, the silver polushka and chetveretsa, as well as the copper pul (or pulo).  A later multiple of the denga was the altyn, originally valued at 3 dengas.  With the introduction of the denga came a new system of reckoning:

Fig. 6


1 ruble 200 dengas (later 260 dengas) 2 poltinas
1 poltina 1/2 ruble 100 dengas (later 130 dengas)
1 altyn 3 dengas
1 denga 2 polushkas 4 chetveretsas approx. 60-72 puls
1 polushka 2 chetveretsas
1 chetveretsa approx. 15-18 puls
1 pul/pulo approx. 1/60-1/72 denga

The pul/pulo supplanted the Mongol bronze coin of the same name.  The value of the pul also appears to have been different depending on the city of issue, hence the wide variation in its value in regards to the denga. Where there is overlap of the new reckoning system with the old, 1 denga equaled 1 nogata.  The polushka is occasionally referred to as a poludenga in some contemporary sources.

Some Mongol design influence can also be seen on many Russian dengas from the period. On many dengas of Dimitrii Donskoi and Vasilii I Dimitrievich (1389-1425), there are some design elements that bear close similarity to some designs found on contemporary dirhams from neighboring khanates (fig. 7).

Fig. 7

Beginning in the mid to late 14th century CE, Ryazan began to countermark Golden Horde dirhams with its tamgha (fig. 8).  The majority of the dirhams countermarked were those of Toqtamish, though this countermark has also been seen on coins of other khans.  Later, Mongol dirhams served as flans for a transitional type of denga, this time bearing both the tamgha countermark, and a raised inscription on the reverse naming the Great Prince Ivan Fyodorovich (1427-1456), with a square surrounding the negative impression of the obverse countermark (fig. 9).  On these coins, there are no traces of the undertype.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

In some instances, the Islamic legends become garbled and even become mere crude representations of an Islamic inscription.  One issue of Vasilii II Vasilievich “the Blind” has only a pseudo-Arabic inscription on the reverse and no Russian inscription (fig. 10).  

Fig. 10

Most bilingual dengas, including those with blundered or pseudo-Arabic legends, were struck in the principalities in the east.  In Serpukhov, dengas citing Toqtamish were struck under Vladimir Andreevich (1358-1410) and Semyon Vladimirovich (1410-1426).  In the principality of Dmitrov, dengas with blundered/crude Arabic legends were struck under Peter Dmitrievich (1389-1428).  In the principality of Suzdal/Nizhnii Novgorod,  Vasilii Dmitrievich Kirdyapa (1387-1391) as prince of Nizhnii Novgorod struck dengas citing Toqtamish.

Because of Moscow’s privileged position towards the Golden Horde, the Great Princes were able to begin to slowly unify the Russian principalities and consolidate their power without drawing much notice.  In 1456, Novgorod and Ryazan became dependencies of Moscow.  By the time Ivan III Vasilievich “the Great” assumed the throne as Great Prince of Moscow in 1462, the rule of the Great Khan over Russia was symbolic, at best.   Ivan set out to complete the unification of the various principalities (often referred to as “the Gathering of the Russian Lands”) and once and for all throw off Mongol dominion. Ivan soon grew bold enough to stop sending the customary tribute to the Khan in Sarai, precipitating two failed punitive expeditions in 1465 and 1472 by the Golden Horde.  In 1480, Sayyid Ahmad Khan attempted to re-establish his dominion, but while facing a Russian army on the Ugra River, a Russian attack on Sarai forced the khan’s army to retreat.   Ahmad died soon thereafter during a period of internal strife, hastening the dissolution of the Golden Horde and its incorporation into the Khanate of Krim. 

The last bilingual Arab-Russian coins were struck in the 1470s-1480s and are of two types, one was struck in Novgorod and bears the word “Ivan” on the reverse (fig. 11), the other bears the legend “This is a denga of Moscow” on the reverse (fig. 12).   Thereafter, all Russian coins bear purely Russian legends.

Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Although much of the medieval Russian monetary system was eliminated by the reforms of Peter I Alexievich “the Great” beginning in 1700, there are still vestiges of the Mongol inspired coins.  Even now, the plural form of denga, dengi, is still the Russian word for money.

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