Life writing by Stas Medvedev

Silver shilling

Today I’ve learnt myth-busting fact: 1954 British shilling is cupronickel, not silver.
Thirty years of delusion.

I was on my tiptoes waiting for the class to be dismissed. Right after the school bell
rang, I rushed to the bookstore a few blocks away. A spacious store occupied the first
two floors of the large apartment building. Once inside, I took the staircase to the
upper level, raced to the numismatic stand and anxiously scanned the display until I
found it. The coin was patiently waiting when I could afford it. I confided to
grandma, and she agreed to co-finance the addition of this item to my collection.
There were a few things which appealed to her. It was British, vintage and
presumably contained silver. Heads side of the coin featured the youthful profile of
Elizabeth II. Grandma liked to remind she was a year younger than the Queen. She
maintained the bond with the Royal Family and even fractured her left hip the same
year Queen’s mother did.

I took my treasure home and found it the rightful place among other coins. Burning
with curiosity, I searched for any information. Encyclopedia was my Internet. I
learned that the shilling was a coin worth one twentieth of a pound sterling and
equaled twelve pence. That was very confusing for a decennial boy. For twenty years
following the decimalisation of 1971 in Britain, the shilling had a value of five new
pence. The coin remained legal tender until the end of 1990. My parents, like all other Soviets, had only three days to exchange their old rubles for new rubles after
the confiscatory monetary reform in January 1991. Small change trapped in my piggy
bank shared shilling’s two decades destiny overnight. Ironically, the Russian ruble
was the first decimal currency to be used in Europe, and the British currency
remained the last outpost.

The Iron Curtain imposed certain limitations on my numismatic collection. Its
assortment heretofore represented countries of the Soviet bloc. I was happy the
British shilling sneaked in. The wind of changes raised from the West. It was strong
enough to bring the coin to me, all the way to the eastern frontier of Europe, to the
Ural Mountains. Sverdlovsk was the capital of the Urals, where the last Russian Czar
was shot dead in 1918, and was home-city of the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
The city where Yeltsin built a career in construction. He became a superintendent of
a textile factory construction, for which he oversaw 1000 workers. This brought him
wider recognition. My grandma became a Chief Legal Officer of that textile factory.
Started with a shock, 1991 continued with many surprises, preparing the most
important one for Christmas. That year, Yeltsin won in the democratic presidential
elections for the Russian republic. Sverdlovsk reverted to its original name of
Yekaterinburg. Likewise, Leningrad became Saint Petersburg. Three Soviet Republics
in the Baltics, including Latvia, restored their independence. On December 25th,
unlike the usually cold day in winter, the weather in Moscow was 0... +1 °C. It was
beginning to thaw. The USSR dissolved. The Cold War ended.

Collection helps the recollections.

I chose numismatics over philately, because coins are more material. Coins are

Apart from that, geography fascinated me, and I read all of Jules Verne. A world map
was always hanging on my wall. I learned the countries and their capitals; I
memorized the flags. Collecting countries was never easy. There were 160 of them in
the world. Since the year 1990, 34 new countries have emerged. The first time I
travelled abroad was at the age of sixteen. Italy was the destination. I killed two birds
with one stone. Three, to be precise. We visited San Marino and Vatican City on that
trip. All kinds of Liras enriched my collection. Turkish liras joined a few years later.
I lived in the United States as an exchange student for one year. This was when I
started collecting years. You don’t go wide. You go deep. How long does it take to
absorb? I picked up a great deal. There was a lot I took back home. My collection
gained at least 60 small cents, all different mintage years.

Then I met the love of my life. She had a collection of her own. My wife was prudent.
She readily united with me in heart, body and mind, but not in the sets of coins. Only
after a few years of marriage was she ready to merge them. We now continue
collecting jointly. Where will it take us? Our son collects minerals, a little daughter
fancies everything pink.

Today, thirty years later, I still keep the shilling. I live in Latvia. It remains
independent. Latvia is now a member of the European Union. Britain is not

I am looking at the laureate bust of the monarch on the coin. My grandma perished
years ago. Her Majesty Elizabeth II is in good health. God save the Queen!
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