A two Kopeck coin which has come to light during recent digs in the city of Moscow, has undeniably been in the past ownership of a pickpocket.
The coin has one edge which has been hammered flat to form a sharp edge, perfect for use as a blade. The blade is then used as a silent razor to slice open coats and pockets allowing access to money and other valuable possessions totally unknown to the victim. These are known as ‘Thieves’ coins. The owner of such an item was called a ‘scribe’ or ‘carver’.
This particular coin was found during building work on the Soimonov Passage in the centre of Moscow. It has been identified by archaeologists as minted between 1757 and 1761 which is the reign of Empress Elizabeth, the only period of time in which these particular coins were struck.
Tailors and seamstresses of the period were well used to creating secret pockets and compartments within clothing to provide the necessary hiding places for valuables. Even corsets had their own security pockets! Male clothing was also designed to accommodate weapons and buttons were often used to close hidden pockets with the express purpose of deterring thieves. Cleverly designed clothing thick enough to keep out the chill Moscow air… it is easy to see now how necessity is the mother of invention and the thieves developed their own tool of the trade. Gruesome punishments including death if caught and convicted of picking pockets did not deter.
However these coins had a dual purpose. They could double up as a ‘shiv’ which is a weapon of defence, a blade to be used against the victim if they were alerted to the robbery and took defensive action.
Pickpocketing was its own established profession and as well as tools of the trade, pickpockets had their own language and slang hence the word ‘shiv’ and ‘piska’ which is the name given to the thieves coin when it is used as a tool of theft. This developed as the thieves worked in gangs and may be described as the language of the underworld. Criminal slang is not found purely in Russia but in other cities across Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
These city centre renovations in central Moscow have uncovered other unusual finds ranging from small items to actual thieves dens. Moscow has frequently unearthed historical treasures from its recent and more distant past. Items of note include a rare 14th century birch bark manuscript.
Russian pickpocketry takes on a different form now in this modern age, and with arguably a far greater reach than merely arms’ length. Russia has a fearsome reputation as home to some of the most deadly and serious cyberhacking groups such as Anonymous International and the Koobface Gang. They are to modern cyber crime what their villainous ancestors were to the pockets and valuables of eighteenth century Russia.
Sometimes hackers are motivated by political ideology and a cause to believe in but Russian hackers simply seem intent on emptying other peoples’ bank accounts, and not a thieves’ coin in sight.