Kopek (копейка) – a monetary unit of Russia and some other countries of the former USSR, equal to one hundredth of a ruble (as per Oxford English Dictionary).

As the kopek is mounting the monetary scaffold, likely to be beheaded by the Russia’s Central Bank for being a fiscal diva, I felt the urge to look into the history of the mighty coin that gave birth to such pithy sayings as:

  • Копейка рубль бережет
  • Копейка к копейке
  • Вставить свои пять копеек (favorite activity of all the Russian conversationalists)
  • Влететь в копеечку
  • В белый свет как в копеечку
  • Размах – на рубль, удар – на копейку

There are several versions as to the origin of the word kopek (kopeika).  The most reliable interpretation derives it from kop’ë (копьë), Russian word for “spear,” a reference to the image of a rider, Saint George the Victorious (Георгий Победоносец) defeating a Serpent with his spear, on the coins minted by Moscow after the capture of Novgorod in 1478.

Vladimir Dal, one of the greatest Russian lexicographers, traces the stem of the word to kopit’ (копить), Russian verb meaning “to save money.”  This goes along with the popular Russian proverb, Копейка рубль бережет – “penny saves a dollar.”

Russian kopek circa late 18th Century

Kopek was born on March 20th, 1535 out of the monetary reform initiated by Elena Glinskaya, mother of Ivan the Terrible (not a nice guy by the way).  It was made out of silver and weighed 0.68 grams.

At the end of the 17th Century, Russian Czar Peter the Great, the biggest proponent of all things Western, decided to give the old kopek a facelift.  After having visited Western European mints, the forward-thinking Czar could only squeamishly refer to the démodé Russian coins as fleas (вши).  As a result, the year 1704 saw the birth of a kopek made of copper and minted according to the cutting edge technologies of that time.  Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia became the first country in the world to implement a decimal coin system.  As we will explore in my future posts, Peter was one swell Czar.

Soviet kopek

Under the Communist regime, the kopek acquired all the inevitable Soviet attributes with the USSR coat of arms in lieu of Saint George the Victorious, bearing the proletarian hammer and sickle.  As copper was needed in the all-consuming take-over-the-world Soviet industrialization process, kopek was now minted of an alloy of copper and zinc and weighed 1 gram.

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, kopek was quite a relevant currency.  1 kopek could buy you a matchbox (I used to terrorize my mother with mock attempts to set a fire), two unstamped envelopes (I bought envelopes to write letters to my American pen pal Leslie), and a glass of carbonated soda at a local grocery store (a sinful anti-hygienic pleasure, since all the neighborhood drunks thirsty for hangover remedy shared the same cup at the grocery vending machine).

Sadly, the kopek era might soon be coming to an end.  The nostalgic coin is an endangered species these days and may soon become металлолом, Russian for “scrap metal.”  There is certainly nothing you can buy with one kopek today.  A recent Reuters article reported on the innovative application of the coin in some Russian villages, where people use kopeks to make the floors (!!! – Голь на выдумки хитра, goes the Russian saying – a testament to the Russian commoners’ creativity).  Deemed too expensive to produce – production cost is 45 times higher than the value of the coin itself – kopek is now a luxury item on the Central Bank’s minting menu.

I keep a few kopeks in the coin purse of my fat American wallet – they remind me of the good old times when the metro ride was 5 kopeks, a telephone booth swallowed 2, and my favorite Russian baguette went for 22…

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