The Copper Riots (Medny bunt ) were a series of riots in Moscow in the summer of 1662 in protest against an economic crisis caused by the use of an inflationary copper currency.
The financial demands of the Thirteen Years' War against Poland-Lithuania forced the Russian government to abandon its silver currency in the first year of the war. In addition to debasing the silver ruble, the government introduced a new copper ruble at an artificial 1:1 exchange rate vis-àvis the old currency. The government assessed its levies in silver while using the copper currency to dispense its own obligations. Only silver currency could be used in foreign trade. Four mints produced small copper coins after 1655, and the total output of copper money clearly exceeded the initial emission of 4 million rubles severalfold.
The unpopular currency reform was followed by other calamities: a devastating cholera epidemic in 1654 and 1655 and disastrous harvests from 1656 to 1658. A two-year campaign against Sweden from 1656 to 1658 failed in its central objective of gaining access to the Baltic. The initially successful campaigns against the Commonwealth turned into a Russian retreat in the years 1659 to 1661. In order to finance the growing military demands, the government imposed extraordinary levies that further increased the pressures facing the population. In addition to several regional levies, a 10 percent tax on townsmen in 1654 was followed by a 20 percent levy in 1662.
By the early 1660s, inflation got out of control, leading to a breakdown of market-driven distribution. A system of parallel silver and copper prices came into existence, and severe shortages of many foodstuffs became commonplace. Counterfeiting was widespread, and rumors circulated about government involvement. Ultimately, there was a flight from money, and the government was forced increasingly to collect taxes in kind.
The growing discontent, which had generated a flood of petitions to the tsar, burst into the open on July 25, 1662. Following a meeting by discontented townsmen in response to the new 20 percent levy, some four to five thousand people assembled in Red Square to hear merchants and soldiers voice their grievances against speculators. Some degree of organization had preceded the event, although no key group of instigators was identified. During the days leading up to the event, various "proclamations" (vorovskie listy ) from various parts of the country circulated in the capital. The proclamations singled out various members of the political and economic elite as "traitors," with especially damning criticism directed at the Miloslavskys, Fyodor Rtishchev, Bogdan Khitrovo, Dementy Bashmakov, Vasily Shorin, and Semeon Zadorin. The "traitors" were accused of counterfeiting and pro-Polish sentiments.
Military detachments in the Kremlin failed to respond to the gathering, and some soldiers from their ranks even joined the demonstrators. After a three-hour gathering, the crowd marched on the tsar's residence in Kolomenskoye with a petition that the speculators and counterfeiters be handed over and punished. In addition, the crowds called for lower taxes. After leading boyars failed to appease the crowd, the tsar agreed to address them. Having received a petition, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich gave a conciliatory speech, in which he promised to reduce the tax burden and investigate the demonstrators' grievances.
In the meantime, a riot broke out in Moscow, and many demonstrators attacked the warehouses of prosperous merchants, especially those belonging to the family of the gost (privileged merchant) Vasily Shorin. Shorin's son was captured by the rioters and forced to "confess" his father's guilt. Another crowd of five thousand departed for Kolomenskoye, meeting with the members of the earlier crowd along the way. The gates of the tsar's residence were locked, and six to seven thousand troops massed around the royal residence. The demonstrators demanded that "guilty" boyars be handed over and, failing that, threatened to storm the palace. In response, the tsar ordered the troops to attack, an operation that led to some 900 deaths. At the same time, 225 alleged organizers of the events were arrested in Moscow. Eighteen of those arrested were hanged the following day, a measure that succeeded in restoring calm after a day of rioting. An official investigation was ordered into the events. In the course of a month, large numbers of people were arrested, with several tortured and executed or exiled.
The riots, in spite of their limited duration, appear to have strengthened the government in its resolve to reform the bankrupt monetary system. In order to make possible a return to a silver standard, in 1662 the government collected extraordinary taxes and monopolized for a year the exportation of six key export commodities: potash, hemp, yuft leather, tallow, sable furs, and white ash. A total of 1.4 million copper rubles was spent on requisitioning these goods, and while most of these sold quickly, some remained on the market until 1676. Russia returned to a silver standard in May 1663.
See also: alexei mikhailovich; economy, tsarist; taxes; thirteen years' war
Fuhrmann, Joseph T. (1981). Tsar Alexis, His Reign and His Russia. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.
Jarmo T. Kotilaine