Technological Expertise of Russian Empire Assignat Issues of 1769-1818

By Dmitriy Litvak (IBNS LM-204) and
Mikolajchuk E.A. (Миколайчук E. А.) Expert of the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

The first paper money of Russian Empire, assignats, were issued in 1769 by the decree of Catherine II on December 29, 1768.

Technically, in the 1860s, the basis of Russia's Empire cash flow was the silver ruble, but it could no longer provide all means of payments and usually was used only for foreign trade operations and military expenses. The portion of the gold coin in monetary circulation was relatively small. Gold, mainly, went to cover expenses of Imperial needs [Royal family]. The copper coin, whose functional purpose was to serve as an auxiliary, bargaining chip, has in fact become the main means of payment of the country. Recounting of large sums of these coins required an enormous period of time, besides the copper coins were heavy. The total weight of 5 Cents coins equivalent to 100 Rubles was about 100 kg. Transporting of this kind of money turned into a huge problem. These factors created inconveniency in the vast territory of the Russian Empire, especially for the large trade deals.

It was an essential need to replace heavy weight coins with its much lighter equivalent, paper money assignats [3].

The first assignats were issued with the denominations of 25, 50, 75 and 100 Rubles (see pictures #1 and 2).

Picture #1. Assignat of 25 Rubles, 1777
 Issued by St Petersburg’s Assignat Bank   HM

Picture #2. Assignat of50 Rubles 1775
Issued by Moscow’s Assignat Bank

At that time, because of their high denomination’s assignats were not intended for the common circulation. They were used for the large trading operations. Actually, they were receipts for receiving by bank of certain amount of copper, silver or gold coins, for which the assignats could be exchanged.

Assignats were printed on white paper with watermarks, located by perimeter, and looks like a frame.

This "frame" consists of the following parts: On a top "Love to the Homeland", At the bottom: "Acts in favor of it". Both, the left and right side - "State Treasury."

In all corners, under the crowns are located the coats of arms of Astrakhan’s, Moscow’s, Kazan’s and Siberian’s kingdoms.

At the top of the assignation, above the printed text, there were two ovals with emblems and allegorical images. The left oval depicts military attributes - cannons, kernels, banners and emblems of trade - barrel, bale and caduce of Mercury [god of trade]. Behind them located a ship.

In the center of the oval is a two-headed eagle with a chain of the Order of Andrew the First around his neck, framing a heraldic shield with the image of George the Victorious.

At the top of the left oval positioned inscription: "Calm [Safe] and Defend", and at the top of the right oval - "Unharmed." The center of the right oval depicted a rock, and under it - a raging sea and the heads of sea monsters. [10] (see picture #8).

These ovals are printed in congreve technique (after the English inventor W. Congreve). (See Picture #9)

The printed image on the assignations is very unpretentious. It is located on the front of the banknote and consists mainly of the frame, printing text and serial number. All printing was made with black paint. The signatures of the officials on the front side are handmade. All denominations having the same format. The difference was only in denomination of the banknote and in the name of the issuing bank (Moscow or Saint-Petersburg). The simplicity of this issue was the main reason for the quick appearance of forgeries. It was especially easy to "convert" bills from "25" to "75" Rubles denomination. In 1771, due to the widespread of this phenomenon, assignations of 75 Rubles were withdrawn from circulation.

In addition to mass production of forgeries, it was discovered another problem related to paper money circulation.

The circulation of the first assignations had some limitations. According to the Decree, assignations were issued only by two banks - in St. Petersburg Assignation Bank and Moscow Assignation Bank. Exchanging assignations for coins and vice versa was possible only in these two locations. Moreover, the assignations issued by Moscow Bank could be exchanged only in Moscow, and St. Petersburg, respectively, only in the St. Petersburg bank. This caused big difficulties for the rest of Russian Empire. In addition, it became clear that the money circulation vastly needs paper money of a lower denominations.

The first step to solve these problems was allowing the exchange in almost all banks of Russian Empire.

The Decree of March 16, 1786 concluded the first period of issuing Russian Empire assignations.

Since 1786 assignations were printed in denomination of 25, 50 and 100 Rubles (Pictures #3, 4).

Picture #3. Assignat of 25 Rubles 1797   HM

Picture #4. Assignat of50 Rubles 1803

Assignations were produced on paper of improved quality, with complicated watermarks and with a more complex printing image. The printing still made in black ink. The seven-digit serial number was repeated three times. On the front and back side were handmade signatures of officials.

By decree of March 23, 1787, concluded the second step. For the first time were printed 5 and 10 Rubles. The 5-Rubles assignation was printed on blue color paper, and 10 Rubles - on red color paper (Pictures# 5, 6).

Picture #5. Assignat of 5 Rubles, 1797   HM

Picture #6. Assignat of 10 Rubles, 1816   HM

This, second issue, was produced at the Tsarskossel paper mill [Царскосельская бумажная мануфактура] near St. Petersburg. This paper mill was specially built to produce the "state" papers. [2, 8].

In December of 1800 a special board was set up to prepare recommendation for another monetary reform to take a place in 1802-1803.

In a beginning of 1801 they submitted a report to Emperor Paul I, which contained proposals how to improve the quality of paper and the whole printing process, as well as watermarks. Within one month the board presented four trial sheets for the denominations of 5, 10, 25 and 100 Rubles. The death of Paul I postponed the course of the reform and the first batch of newly printed assignations was received by the Assignation Bank in April of 1802.

It was printed about 7 million sheets of assignations dated to 1802 in denominations of 5, 10, 25 and 100 Rubles. The uncertainty of the Russian economy prevented the implementation of the reform and this issue was never put into circulation and was stored in the Assignation Bank. [11].

In 1818, these assignations, as obsolete, were destroyed, but a few of them are survived and they are considered very rare. The Hermitage collection has some of them. (See Picture #7)

Picture #7. Assignat of 100 Rubles, 1802   HM

The collection of Russian Empire currency is one of the most significant collections of the Hermitage Museum. [6]. The number of storage units subjected to technological analysis was sufficient to provide precise statistics on each of the technology parameters under consideration. work. In general, the research was carried out on the most dilapidated specimens, which later were transferred to the Department of Restoration and Conservation of the Hermitage Museum.

This study was conducted on electronic microscope HITACHI.

Technological examination of the first issue: 1769-1785.

As of today, the paper has a yellowish-gray color, while the archival records showing that the original paper was produced in white color. The paper is dense, somewhat plump, but rather sluggish, especially of those assignations that have traces of use. The surface of the paper is bumpy.

All denominations having the same format.

Traces of drying cloth are visible on the surface of the paper, as well as traces of wool fibers that have been transferred to the paper from the cloth. These fibers located are directly on the surface of paper under the layer of vehicle [gluing agent].

Each sheet of paper was cast manually, as evidenced by the uneven and uncut edges of the sheets. A cast form with a mesh was used.

The parameters of the grid are: 11-12 lines of 1 cm, the distance between the lines of the pontuso 21-24 mm.

Watermarks of quite complex configuration, embroidered on a cast net wire. The congreve [Конгревное тиснение] embossment was made without the use of paint; it is built on the illusion created by light and shadow. It was made by "squeezing" the image with the press using the plate and counter plate (see pictures #8 and 9).

Picture #8. Овалы конгревного тиснения на бумаге ассигнаций HM

Picture #9. Фрагмент овала конгревного тиснения   HM

The paper consists of rag hemp raw materials which glued superficially by animal glue. The printing on the front was made with black paint. The basis of the paint is soot. The binding agent is gummiarabic [гуммиарабик]. Signatures on the front side are handmade and made by using iron-gall ink. As of today the color of the ink is mostly brown or reddish-brown.

Technological examination of the second issue: 1786-1818

There are many similarities in the technology of production of first and second issues, so it is advisable to focus only on differences.

Assignations of second issue were produced on improved quality paper, with intricate watermarks and with a more complex printing image. The signatures of officials are made by hand using a pen and ink and located on both sides.

Each denomination has an individual size. The paper is thinner than paper used in first issue, and not so sluggish. The color of the paper is grayish. The surface of the paper has a slight bumpiness, unlike the paper of the first assignations. The main component of pulp is ragged hemp raw materials. There are no wool fibers on the paper surface. Instead, silk fibers are added in quantity up to 10% of pulp. (see picture #10).

Picture #10. Hemp and silk fibers in the pulp of second issue   HM

A study of numerous samples revealed that in this issue was used silk fibers made from cultivated silk moth laundered from sericin, and in some cases a mixture of cultivated silk moth and wild silk moth silk fibers were found.

Analysis of blue dye in two earlier examples of 5 Rubles of this issue revealed the presence of azurite. In the remaining examples of 5 Rubles the paper was colored by indigo. The red dye for 10 Rubles examples is extract made from pernambuco wood.

Technological examination of issue of 1802.

The examples of this issue differ from the second issue by more complex printing image and more sophisticated watermarks. Also, it was increased the percentage of silk fibers. Another difference is that the paper is cast on the fabric mesh ("Watmanian"), as opposed to the grids of paper on the first and second issues.

Another difference is that the paper was cast on the fabric mesh (vatman), regardless of paper of the first and second issues caste on the grids.

In components of the paper was discovered changes in physical-chemical, mechanical, coloristic and other properties. These changes have developed over the time, depending on the conditions of circulations and storage.

Analysis of the changes in production technology.

The main technological criteria for banknotes are their low cost, durability and protection against counterfeiting. High-tech equipment, high-quality materials and chemical ingredients are the elements of success.

The overall low level of technological advance in Russian Empire, at that time, affected the production of assignations. Deficient technique and paper production technology, poor printing process, mainly hand making at entire process led to the fact that 15 years after the first issue it was necessary to prepare a second issue. It was largely taken into account the errors and shortcomings of the first issue. In addition, during this time, some processes and equipment of paper manufacturing in Russian Empire have been improved. [7].

The construction of the paper mill in the Tsarskoe Selo was a necessary step taken by the government to solve the problem. The new equipment allowed higher productivity. The technological parameters of the pulp have been changed. The addition of silk fibers gave to the paper more strength. At the same time, the paper became more elastic. This made paper thinner, which resulted in greater savings in raw materials. Also, the addition of silk fibers to the pulp added more security protection from counterfeits.

Has been improved the process of glue bonding and sticking. The pressing equipment have been upgraded. The paper become less rough and bouncy. The watermark become more complicated. The issue of colored 5 and 10 Rubles was conditioned by the needs of the majority of the Russian population, which was poor and, for the most part, illiterate. The blue and red colors helped to distinguish between small bills.

For that time, it was a significant breakthrough in the production of assignations in Russian Empire. Time has shown the viability of the second issue. They existed unchanged until 1818.

Forgeries of assignations of 1769-1818

As you know, counterfeits of banknotes were always carried out, and it is not surprising that with the advent of Russian Empire paper money in 1769, soon began to appear and their falsifications.

During the study of the Hermitage collection was established two types of forgeries attributed to a specified period (1769-1818): so-called household forgeries and Napoleonic forgeries.

The first Russian assignations were issued with denominations of 25, 50, 75 and 100 Rubles. All having the same size. Also, the watermarks and unpretentious printing were the same. The denomination was printed at the top by digits, and it was repeated by text. The text has a lot of words and apparently was paid less attention than to the printed numbers [digits], and not all people in those days fluently read. Soon there were a lot of "craftsmen" who easily can make a 75 Rubles bill from a 25-Rubles bill. The second issue had a more complex protection against counterfeits. In addition to different sizes and sophisticated watermarks another "invisible" protection was introduced. Beside the textile fibers of hemp, silk fibers were introduced. Soon, the colored 5 and 10 Rubles were introduced. Never the less, the "craftsmen" find their way to produce counterfeits. The amount of "everyday falsifications" was not catastrophic, and the state coped with the problem, periodically taking them from circulation.

The real misfortune started when the country started to be flooded with forgeries made on the orders of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was thoroughly prepared for war with Russian Empire. In 1805, seven years before the attack on Russian Empire, Napoleon began to produce fake Russian assignations. Basically, these were banknotes of 25 and 50 Rubles.

At first glance, Napoleonic fakes are no different from the originals. How do you tell them apart? There is a well-known fact, noted by collectors, that in the printed text part of assignations, in some fakes, a grammatical error was made. In words "ГОСУДАРСТВЕННОЙ" и "ХОДЯЧЕЮ" instead of the letter Д (D) printed the letter Л (L) (see pictures #11 and 12).

Picture #11. Detail of Napoleonic forgery #1   HM

Picture #12. Detail of Napoleonic forgery #2   HM

This negligence was not an obstacle to their circulation. The difference is small, and it is not immediately possible to notice, as there is a lot of printed text. The first step of the study was the selection of the Hermitage collection of such assignations with grammatical error, i.e. the actual selection of the standards of Napoleonic forgery. Technological examination of such assignations was carried out on the same parameters as for real issue (see above), with the aim of comparing them and identifying inconsistencies.

Let us focus on some of them. The key difference is the composition of the fiber. The pulp of Napoleonic forgeries was made of fibers of rag hemp greasier grinding than the pulp of real issue. Silk fibers are not present in any examples from the Hermitage collection.

During the study it was discovered that some of them contain a similar grammatical error in the watermark in the word «Государственная». The letter Д (D) is also replaced with letter Л (L).

The paper was caste on the verge mesh with grid parameters: 13 lines in 1 cm and 22-23 mm between the lines of pontuso. These parameters are different from the original. (see above).

Watermark and congreve embossment are made very fine. Signatures were stamped [facsimile], unlike on real assignations they are made by hand with iron-gall ink.

Facsimile signature does not reproduce random splashes of ink produced by a handwriting and does not reproduce the pressure and hair lines of the letter, in which different amounts of ink are absorbed (se picture #13).

Picture #13. Signature made by iron-gall ink   HM

Two centuries ago, it must have been difficult to tell the difference between handwriting and facsimile. In our time this difference is visible even to the naked eye. In addition, the destructive effect of iron-gall ink on paper has long been known. Today we are witnessing the consequences of these destructions on many real banknotes (see picture #14).

Picture #14. Destruction of paper from iron-gall ink   HM

Also, we identified few Napoleonic counterfeits which did not contain grammatical errors.

HM All images Courtesy of Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia


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© 2021 Dmitriy Litvak, Mikolajchuk E.A.