This post at XIX век asked about “a book written to help Soviet-era Russian readers figure out the nineteenth-century realia they found in classic literature – things like how many desiatinas are in a hectare, or what counted as a lot of money to a middling noble family.” That rang a bell with me; I was pretty sure I remembered the same book, and eventually I found I had mentioned it in this post back in 2004. It’s Что непонятно у классиков, или Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века [What we don’t understand in the classics, or An encyclopedia of Russian daily life in the nineteenth century], by Yuri Fedosyuk (online here). Here’s an excerpt from a 1959 letter by Fedosyuk proposing what eventually became the book: “Мне, знакомому лишь с метрической системой, неясно, богат или беден помещик, владеющий двумястами десятин земли, сильно ли пьян купец, выпивший „полштофа“ водки, щедр ли чиновник, дающий на чай „синенькую“, „красненькую“ или „семитку“.” [It is unclear to me, who am familiar only with the metric system, whether a landowner who has two hundred desyatinas of land is rich or poor, how drunk a merchant is after drinking a “half-shtof” of vodka, and whether or not an official who gives a tip of a sinenkaya, a krasnenkaya, or a semitka is generous.] It turns out that a desyatina is 2.7 acres, a shtof is about one and a quarter liters, a sinenkaya [‘little blue one’] is a five-ruble note, a krasnenkaya [‘little red one’] is a ten-ruble note, and a semitka is a two-kopeck coin (presumably a terrible tip). The interesting thing to me is the large number of variants of the latter word; Dahl has семичник, семишник, семёшник, семичка, семак, семиток, and семерка. The fact that he includes them in a “nest” of words starting with семи-, the prefix for семь ‘seven,’ suggests that he took them to be related to that number, but how is beyond my understanding.


  1. We still widely used гривенник 10 к, двугривенный 20к, полтинник 50к, but only theoretically knew пятиалтынный 15 к / семишник 2к. Wikpedia suggests that after the silver-standard reform of 1839, the new (silver-denominated) 2 kopeek coin has become equivalent to 7 old kopeek?

  2. … а антисемитка – это монета в -2 копейки?

  3. David Marjanović says


    …So 3 к once was a gold piece?

    … а антисемитка – это монета в -2 копейки?

    X-D 😀 😀

  4. More usefully to Russians, perhaps, a desyatina is just a hair over a hectare.

  5. So 3 к once was a gold piece?
    I was under the same impression once, but then discovered that altyn <= alty-tenge (6 денег = 3 kopeek)

  6. Wikpedia suggests that after the silver-standard reform of 1839, the new (silver-denominated) 2 kopeek coin has become equivalent to 7 old kopeek?
    Ah, that would make sense.
    … а антисемитка – это монета в -2 копейки?

  7. To digress a bit, the colour coding of bank notes, as well as the (rather peculiar and definitly non-metric) distribution of smaller-than-ruble coins were largely preserved in the Soviet era (but not beyond it). It went like this:
    1 ruble – yellow(ish)
    3 ” – green
    5 ” – blue
    10 ” – red
    25 ” – purple
    50 and 100-ruble notes were, respectively, green and yellow(ish) again, but they were far too rare to be seen or used too often and of a larger format anyway.
    Now the coin system was funny. It included:
    “the copper”: 1, 2, 3, & 5-kopeck coins, each weighing exactly its denomination in grams,
    and “the silver”: 10, 15, 20, 25, & 50-kop. and 1-ruble coins.
    At least for smaller-denomination coins, the size was kept unchanged since late 19th century at least: I used to have an old coin holder where respective Soviet coins (10, 15, and 20 kop.) fitted perfectly.

  8. Melisa: Actually, several concurrent monetary systems existed, if I remembre correctly, at least throughout the 19th century. For instance, a certain amount “серебром” (i.e. in silver coin) was worth more than the same quantity of rubles “ассигнациями” (i.e. in bank notes), and the exchange rate varied. In 1897, they finally introduced the Gold Standard, which unified the system for a while – just until the Revolution and the Civil War, where everything went crazy once again.

  9. Dmitry, I don’t think Melisa is actually participating in the conversation. There’s an invasion by spammers who copy earlier comments to try to blend in while spreading their links.

  10. Yes, it’s quite annoying. Dmitry’s response is actually to Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA).

  11. Oops, my bad – sorry for accidentally posting twice as well. We’re under a heat wave here in France.

  12. I have a 5-kopek coin from 1836. Clearly visible is one of the letters tossed from the Russian alphabet after the Bolshevik revolution.
    A planner of this orthography reform was Aleksey Shakhmatov. That’s a curious surname. Does anyone know how he came by it?

  13. He presumably came by it honestly, via his father, but I expect you’re asking where the surname comes from. Despite its superficial resemblance to шахматы ‘chess,’ it seems to be Turkic in origin, from Shah Ahmad.

  14. Dmitry – regarding concurrent monetary systems, I’ve seen items from the United States in the 1870s which were priced in dollars, with a note “or equivalent in gold at current exchange”, or something of that sort. In theory, the U.S. was on the gold standard at the time, but public confidence in the backing wasn’t complete, thus a floating exchange.

  15. Despite its superficial resemblance to шахматы ‘chess,’ it seems to be Turkic in origin, from Shah Ahmad.
    Whew. That’s a relief. I thought I’d have to pawn that 5-kopek coin to find out.

  16. Dmitry: Money of account vs. specie (literal hard currency made of precious metals) is something common to all cultures, or was until specie came to be mostly disused in the 20th century.

  17. Anthony & John: Of course! I believe more or less every nation went through a similar stage at one point or another. What might be peculiar to Russia though is the bright trace it left in its classical literature. I know there are papers on economics of Jane Austen’s novels (quite fascinating, actually); I wonder if anyone have ever thought of studying specifically the financial aspects of, say, Gogol’s Dead Souls or Dostoyevsky…

  18. David Marjanović says


    *whole series of lightbulb moments*

  19. David Marjanović says

    …Let’s try again.

    altyn <= alty-tenge (6 денег = 3 kopeek)

    That caused me a series of lightbulb moments.

  20. Dmitriy,
    I don’t think think there ever was a 25 kopeck coin. A 25 ruble note yes, called chetvertnaya (quarter, fem,) and later chetvertak (quarter, masc.). ‘Silver’ coins were  10, 15, 20 and then  50 kopeck (poltinnik) and 1 ruble coins. They circulated mostly as ‘jubilee’ issues (commemorative coins) but weren’t very common until late 80-90s.

Speak Your Mind