“Signs of Dignity” or “Signs of Confidence”? Paper Money and Political Discourse in Russia in the Late 18th — First Half of the 19th Century

“Money does not have a different price but that relative to the people's work,” wrote famous liberal Nikolay Mordvinov in 1801. If the quantity of money in circulation corresponds to the amount of works of people's labor, than money has a constant “price”, and if it is out of balance, “the gold and every coin is humiliated in their dignity.” Mordvinov's notes is one of several projects aimed at addressing the fundamental principles of Russia's financial system. They conveyed an idea of a contract obliging the government to maintain balance between the amount of media of exchange and the national product. In political and ideological sense, this meant that the emperor had to leave practice and rhetoric of assigning the paper money with “honor” and sanctity of the Royal word introduced by Catherine II, and let national representation to create a “people's bank.”

Mordvinov used a rhetoric of “humiliation of dignity” to describe the fall of paper money for a reason. In this context, “dignity” is used in the sense of “values.” However, the importance of “value” was not purely material: the participants of discussions on paper money were thinking about the money in anthropomorphic categories, emphasizing the moral aspect of financial problems. Paper money filled with real value was opposed to the “signs of confidence” (billets de confiance), which, despite the lofty title, was the lowest form of money.

In the report, we trace the development of the categories of dignity and confidence in the financial discourse of Russia in the late 18th — first half of the 19th century, and namely the emergence of notions of monarch's honor as a pledge of the value of money and corresponding concept of money as a sign of confidence, and alternative ideas about ensuring “dignity” of paper money by institutional guarantees. Liberal discourse was based on the idea that money is not representing the person of the monarch producing them, but wealth produced by people. Establishment of categories of money as “representative” of the value implied corresponding political changes — namely, introduction of political representation, that is, the Constitution. Monarchical conception of money as a sign of confidence secured by the Royal word was reflected in design of paper money. For example, standard for all banknotes formula requiring the Bank to exchange paper money for gold or silver in Russian version turned into a solemn promise printed in four different fonts on the back of bank notes issued instead of paper money in 1843.

Saturation of the financial discourse with moral categories — monarchist or liberal — started to draw attention since the beginning of the 1860s, when, after another unsuccessful attempt to restore the rate of paper money, economists tried to analyze the reasons of failure. Economists pointed to the fact that the categories of honor and dignity, inappropriate in the field of public finance, played too big a role in decision-making, eclipsing the importance of economic principles. They criticized ridiculous anthropomorphism of these financial ideas and transfer of ideas about personal honor into state institutions. However, could it be otherwise? To what extent was the dominance of the categories of honor and dignity determined by the form of government and dominant political practices?