The Ruble: A Political History by Ekaterina Pravilova - review by Simon Dixon

Simon Dixon

Inside the Tsars’ Counting House

The Ruble: A Political History


Oxford University Press 576pp £30.99

Conceived as ‘a history of the Russian state, written in the language of money’, The Ruble is a big book driven by a big idea. Arguing that money creates rather than reflects the social and political order, the Princeton professor Ekaterina Pravilova explores the tension between the rival visions of two groups in imperial Russia. Liberals, dreaming of a convertible currency guaranteed by an independent bank, saw the ruble ‘as a proxy for citizenship and as a mandate for rights’. Nationalists, suspicious of foreign financiers and Western governments, portrayed it as a projection of autocratic authority, trusted by the people and guaranteed by the monarch’s sovereign word. Each side comprised a spectrum of views, revealed here in all their complexity. Pravilova has carried out prodigious archival research. The result is an analysis rich in paradox, sensitive to the challenges of imperial monetary integration and properly insistent on the interplay between politics and economics.

Although the ruble has a longer history, dating back to the 14th century, Pravilova’s story begins in 1769, when Catherine the Great issued Russia’s first paper money to support her war against the Ottomans. It ends in 1924, when the Bolsheviks, having found it harder than they expected to dispense with money altogether, promulgated a currency reform that would eventually outlive Lenin’s New Economic Policy. Between these two pivotal moments came a catalogue of attempts to stabilise the ruble, in which recurrent liberal initiatives, some of them plainly utopian, were repeatedly frustrated by ministers determined to use money as a tool of government and imperial expansion.

Under Catherine’s eldest grandson, Alexander I (reigned 1801–25), the emperor’s adviser Mikhail Speransky planned to establish both an independent bank and a silver-based currency to act as financial parallels to his projected representative legislative assembly. The liberal idea of the ruble as ‘the property of everyone’ was revived

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RLF - March