Shishanov V. The Assignats of 1802-1803 // Journal of the Russian numismatic society. 1999. 68. P.58-69.


Valery Shishanov




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 1802-1803. 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.



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 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.

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 printed[22] under Paul I. The documents show that this action did not occur until after the accession of Alexander I.


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 «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 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]

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]


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 1818[38] the new definitive issue of assignats, produced by the EZGB, closed the door on obsolescence for good.


[1]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.

[7] Archive of the Government Council (hereafter AGC), 1869, vol. 1, column 571.

[8] The Russian State Historical Archive (hereafter RGIA), folio 1374, item 3, sec 2494, sheet 7 (reverse).

[9] Ibid, sheet 1.

[10] 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).

[14] RGIA, folio 1374, item 3, sec 2949, sheet 9.

[15] Ibid, sheet 19.

[16] Ibid, sheets 14-18, 20, 21.

[17] Ibid, sheet 23.

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

[19] 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.

[23] AGC, vol. 3, sec 2, cols 706.

[24] 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.

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

[28] 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.

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

[34] 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.

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