The most impressive banknote I have ever seen is the 500 ruble note produced by the Imperial Bank of Russia between 1905 and 1912. About four times the size of a modern £50 note, it is magnificently emblazoned with a portrait of Peter the Great and a profusion of cupids and classical pillars. It looks as high-denomination money should look – luxuriant, confidence-inspiring and valuable.
Appearances can, of course, be deceptive. My Russian wife’s great-great-grand-father, the owner of the Volga Bread Bank of Saratov, unwisely chose to keep his considerable savings in the form of trunkloads of such 500 ruble notes. Sadly for the banker (and for his descendants), after the revolution those bills ceased to be worth the paper on which they were printed. By the time those ancestral stacks of rubles finally went up in flames in a dacha fire in 1993, no fewer than five subsequent versions of Soviet and post-Soviet rubles had come and gone, every old issue abruptly consigned to instant worthlessness by the stroke of a central banker’s pen.
An image of that handsomest of banknotes adorns the cover of Ekaterina Pravilova’s history of Russia’s currency. Money may seem passive, she writes, but in truth it is ‘a silent witness to the deeds and misdeeds of its holders… Through its history intimate dramas and grand historical processes can be told.’ Sadly, Pravilova’s history of the ruble skips over its earliest days as a chopped-off piece of a Viking silver ingot (rubit, to chop, being the origin of the currency’s name). Also absent is the numismatic history of early Russia, where silver Arabic dirhams and their local copies and equivalents testified to the origins of Kyivan Rus as a major Viking entrepôt for Slavic slaves traded across the eastern Mediterranean.