Twenty years ago, Belarus became independent, obtaining a new national flag, emblem and anthem, alongside the need to introduce its own money. The national currency appeared, surprising many people. Its smallest denomination — 50 Kopeks — was made of paper rather than metal and Belarusians were soon used to the idea. The National Bank made its decision based on the impracticality of coins. Some commemorative coins are issued by the National Bank but they are rarely seen in common usage — and are better known abroad than in Belarus.
King’s offer. The first Belarusian coins were minted in London, with the British offering to produce coins for Belarus to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations Organisation. After the Second World War, the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic was recognised as having helped defeat fascism and was entrusted to take part in establishing the UN. Recollecting the role of the Republic, the UK offered its minting services to the National Bank of Belarus and Minsk accepted.
“We were bound by prestige,” notes Vladimir Sokol, the head of the main office of cash-issuing transactions at the National Bank. “Our country began minting commemorative coins in 1996 and decided to make them abroad in order to avoid the huge expense of buying equipment.”
Few states have their own mints but the Lithuanians founded theirs after they recovered independence. They have since ‘supplied’ coins not only to their own market but to those abroad, to make good use of their equipment. Belarus is a customer, as are Poland, Russia, Germany and, even, Kazakhstan. The UK continues to work with Belarus, having minted 126 commemorative coins for the National Bank to date.
Symbols of statehood. Commemorative coins are symbolic rather than practical and have been issued to mark a wide variety of jubilees and traditions — from the 2000th anniversary of Christianity and 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations with China to the 60th anniversary of the Great Victory and liberation of Belarus from the Nazis. Coins have also been issued to honour writers and other famous people — such as Adam Mickiewicz, Yanka Kupala, Jakub Kolas, Vincent Dunin-Martinkevich, Ignacy Domeyko and Evfrosinia Polotskaya.
Coins have been dedicated to Evfrosinia Polotskaya several times. The first was in 2001 — for the 900th anniversary of her birth: designer Svetlana Zaskevich spent some time with the nuns at the Spaso-Evfrosinievsky convent in Polotsk, discovering how best to convey the image of the saint. The Metropolitan Filaret consecrated the sketch. The second coin was issued in 2007 — dedicated to the ‘Cross of Evfrosinia Polotskaya’. Its nominal value is 1000 Roubles but it cost 4 146 950 Roubles to purchase and is the heaviest coin, weighing 1kg. Two thousand coins were minted in Moscow, with the golden cross on the reverse hand-made by professional jewellers.
Belarus’ sovereign past is noted from the series entitled ‘Fortification and National Security’, which depicts the princes who ruled Minsk, Polotsk and Grodno many centuries ago: Vseslav of Polotsk; Rogvolod of Polotsk and his daughter Rogneda; Gleb Mensky; and David Gorodensky.
Special edition coins have been dedicated to the 1000th anniversary of Volkovysk, all regional centres and the capital. Each coin is decorated with an image of a famous architectural site and the town’s arms. The ‘Architectural Monuments of Belarus’ series is dedicated to the architectural masterpieces of other towns while ‘Belarusian Holidays and Rites’ conveys folk traditions from ancient times.
Belarusian nature has been a popular theme, with over twenty coins minted in honour of national parks, reserves, wildlife areas and animals like the fox, wolf, lynx, falcon, nightingale, heron and bear.
Belarus is well-known abroad as a sporting country, often winning Olympic medals. The Belarusian team ranked 16th overall at the 29th Olympiad, bringing home 19 medals from Beijing — 4 gold, 5 silver and 10 bronze. Belarusians also won 17 medals in Sydney and 15 in Atlanta and Athens. Each event has been marked by the issue of commemorative coins.
As good as gold. Belarus is known worldwide for its excellent theatre and ballet, so it’s unsurprising that coins have been dedicated to these arts. Those honouring ballet are among the most popular (and expensive).
Every year, American Krause Publications holds an international contest entitled ‘Coins of the Year’, attracting attention from numismatists and banks around the globe. Belarus has won two prizes of eleven — for its 20 Kopek coin dedicated to Pancake Week (‘Best Royal Coin’) and а 1000 Rouble coin depicting the Cross of Evfrosinia Polotskaya (‘Most Inspiring Coin’). Since the contest is held in the USA, with American coins often taking first places, Belarus’ accomplishments are notable.
“When Belarus first took part in the contest in 2005, it won,” notes juror Vladimir Sokol, proud of his contribution (Belarus and Israel are the only states to have jurors from their national banks at the Krause Publications contest). “The silver 100 Rouble ‘Belarusian Ballet’ coin has won ‘Coin of the Year’ and ‘Most Successful Artistic Solution’ — as has the ‘Narochanski National Park’ coin. ‘Mute swan’ became a ‘Royal Coin’. Demand for our coins worldwide has grown phenomenally. In 2006, the National Bank re-issued its golden ‘Belarusian Ballet’ — in 10, 200 and 1000 Rouble denominations. The latter is the most expensive commemorative coin ever at the cost of 15 million Roubles (presented in a special case).”
Clearly the nominal value of each coin differs vastly from its real value, since the precious metals used influence the price. Belarusian coins are made from cupronickel alloy, silver and gold. Collectors can buy them from the National Bank, which dictates its own prices for coins. Many have long since become rare and keep their value well, with international status: such as ‘Easter’, ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Falco Peregrinus’.
Artistic avant-garde. Svetlana Zaskevich — who designed the ‘Belarusian Ballet’ coin, works alongside Svetlana Nekrasova and Oksana Novoselova at the National Bank. All are graduates of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and are employed by the state treasury to design all art work. They are the crиme de la crиme of their profession and were chosen for their original and contemporary outlook, asserts Mr. Sokol. “The girls can accept advice while working creatively and responsibly. It can be difficult to work with established professionals, who have their own style they want to adhere to; young graduates are more versatile. The bank needs originality while being able to mould its employees. These qualities probably ensure the popularity of Belarusian coins with collectors.”
The girls come up with new ideas for coin collections, sketching on paper and using computer software. The coins are first made from plasticine, moulded in gypsum or wax, as a sample, before being stamped in the Mint.
Some coins are the result of joint work from Belarusian, Polish, German, Lithuanian and Russian designers — it is international practice to exchange experience and creative skill.
Naturally, each coin has its own history, known only to its creators. Svetlana Zaskevich has designed several coins bearing images of the first Belarusian princes. “We don’t know what Gleb Mensky or David Gorodensky looked like, so we had to act as historians, anthropologists and archaeologists to form the images gradually — from their helmets to their eye shape,” she notes. Meanwhile, for the coin ‘Putting the Shot’, Olympic champion Yanina Korolchik posed for Mrs. Zaskevich.
The Board of Directors of the National Bank approves the topics of each coin series, which tend to honour Belarusian history, sport and nature. Members of the Academy of Sciences also suggest themes, as do ministry staff responsible for culture, sport, tourism and environmental protection.
Souvenir as a keepsake. This year, the National Bank plans to issue around 30 commemorative coins, compared to just 3 or 4 in the early years! Demand breeds supply. Among them will be ‘Zodiac Signs’ — designed to be the perfect birthday gift. Encrusted with gems denoting each sign, they are individual works of art which are sure to delight collectors and amateurs alike. Gemini shows two boys sleeping in a bed, one with eyes closed and the other with eyes open — shining as blue stones.
Belarusian coins aim to promote national culture, popularising our international legacy. ‘Fairytales from Around the World’ and ‘Family Traditions of the Slavs’ show how Belarusian traditions are connected to those of neighbouring states. They are being issued this year alongside ‘Zodiac Signs’.
Historical and cultural topics are enjoying particular popularity this year. ‘Holidays and Rites of the Belarusian People’, ‘Belarusian Folk Legends’ and ‘Belarusian Folk Crafts’ are all sure to sell well.
The series ‘Painters of the World’ is to honour Russian painter Ilya Repin, who lived near Vitebsk in Zdravnevo mansion; he created a famous picture entitled ‘Belarus’.
The squirrel, white stork and gray goose are to feature too, each adorning coins dedicated to important jubilees: the 600th anniversary of the Belovezhskaya Puscha becoming a reserve; the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis; and the 80th anniversary of the foundation of the National Academy of Sciences.
Coins can be bought from branches of the National Bank in all regional centres, city districts and, of course, in Minsk. They are wonderful presents, particularly for foreign visitors seeking a unique souvenir to remind them of Belarus.