Opium Banknote (Turkestan)


Opium Banknote (Turkestan)

This is a 250-ruble banknote printed in 1919 during the civil war in the Turkestan province of Semirech’e (its territory included present-day south-eastern Kazakhstan and a large part of Kyrgyzstan). The text in Russian in the centre reads: “Credit notes are issued on the basis of opium stored by the State Bank and of all the assets of the Semirech'e region. These banknotes are exchanged by the State Bank. Counterfeiting is punished by law”.

In addition to the low quality of the printing and the simplicity of the design (which, however, was an improvement on the first banknotes issued in 1918), the number 250, written in Arabic script, and the coat of arms of the Semirech’e region are also noticeable. In contrast to the coat of arms used in the period 1878-1917, after the fall of the monarchy the crown was replaced by a two-headed eagle that was still somehow related to the imperial one.

Between April and June 1919 alone, the State Bank in Vernyi (present-day Almaty, Kazakhstan, then the administrative centre of Semirech’e) printed almost 26.5 million opium-based rouble banknotes. In November 1918, in Vernyi a pud (16.38 kg) of flour cost 52 roubles, and a pud of wheat 45 rubles, but inflation eroded the purchasing power of the banknotes. While in 1918 the opium reserve guaranteed the value of small-denomination banknotes (3, 10 roubles), banknotes of 250 and 500 roubles were printed the following year.

During the period of civil war in Central Asia, economic relations between Turkestan and central Russia broke down. In a number of regions, local powers began to issue their own currency. In Semirech'e, the Turkestan province bordering Xinjiang, Slavic settlers who had fought in World War I proclaimed their support for the Bolsheviks and seized power in the region's cities in early 1918.

From the end of the 19th century, the Semirech’e districts near the Chinese border produced opium, which was smuggled into Xinjiang. The most important producers were Dungans (Hui, i.e. Chinese-speaking Muslims) and Taranchis (later ethnically categorised as Uyghurs), but Russian and Ukrainian peasants also cultivated poppy. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz brought it across the border. In the context of civil war and the disorganisation of agricultural production, opium was Semirech'e’s most important economic resource.

The “red” settlers of the region took control of the opium harvest from 1918. They killed and expelled the Taranchi and Dungan opium poppy cultivators, and used Kyrgyz and immigrant labour from China to harvest opium. The substance was then transported to the vault of the state bank branch in Vernyi from the production districts (Karakol, Pishpek, Zharkent).  The banknotes were only used within the territories controlled by the Reds in Semirech’e.

These banknotes are evidence of the importance of the opium economy in some regions of Central Asia in the first half of the 20th century, and of the integration between the economies of Russian Turkestan and Chinese Xinjiang, where opium drew its market value (opium consumption in Russian Turkestan was negligible).

Niccòlo Pianciola, Nazarbayev University