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Bribes Paid in Copper Were Once Customary in Russia

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Two hundred years ago, the gold fever took Russia by storm. Hereditary nobility, merchant adventurers, ordinary people — everyone was leaving their settlements, abandoning their routine life, and heading straight to Siberia. These events followed the Senate edict allowing to freely look for and mine precious metals.

Andrei Popov, a merchant in the first guild from Verkhoturye, Ural, became the most successful treasure hunter. In 1828, he discovered Russia's first gold in the Mari taiga, Tomsk Province. Popov did not stop, however, yet continued searching for new deposits and increased his fortune manifold. The area where the gold was found for many years remained the primary gold mining site.

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© Общественное достояние

Another Popov – merchant Stepan – was less lucky than his relative. He gave up on his lucrative business of shipping caravans with goods from Russia to Tashkent and Bukhara; instead, he left for the Kazakh steppes to pursue his quest for gold. Following two years of rigorous search, Popov found it — gold deposits were located along the banks of the Irtysh river — and launched mining operations. Local authorities became soon concerned that illegal mining could be conducted in the area, though. So it was decided to fine Stepan if he would not inform of new discoveries.

Unfortunately, the goldfield the former merchant found turned out to be unprofitable. Popov turned his eye to copper – another metal, but it did not help much. No matter how hard the mine operator tried to make it work, it would only prove a waste of his time. Upon Stepan's death, beside the mining sites, his children, Alexander and Nikolai, were left with sizeable debts to deal with. A year before Popov died, which was on October 19, 1852, the Governing Senate had passed a decree levying a fine of 200,000 roubles against him — approximately $2 mln in today's money.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Everything changes when the 842 kg copper nugget, resembling a bear pelt, was found at one of the gold mines. It was not a secret that Emperor Alexander II was an avid hunter. He loved gunning for deer, foxes, hares and grouse, but particularly favoured larger animals – most notably bears. Knowing that fact, the Popov family decided to present the find to the ruler, hoping it would draw the emperor's attention to their family business and improve their finances. Alexander II passed on the nugget to St. Petersburg Mining Museum, whilst the mine it had been found at operated further on under the new name – Stepanovsky mine. With a metal content of up to ten per cent in the rock, the Popovs earned so much over the next few decades, they literally became "Siberian oligarchs".

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Most of the properties of copper, including its medical uses, were established back in antiquity, with the Greek myths telling the story of the magic Shield of Achilles. The armour was made by Hephaestus from tin, copper, silver, and gold; it helped navigate on the ground and in the sky, making its wearer nearly all-powerful. In ancient Greece, copper was worshipped by people of different professions — armourers, jewellers, doctors. During that epoch, many published medical treatises claimed that copper-based products could cure. It was believed that warriors with copper armour on – as opposed to bronze suits – are less prone to fatigue, whilst their battle wounds heal more quickly.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

The malleable, ductile, corrosion-resistant metal was no less valued in other periods of the development of human civilisation. Copper production increased throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, followed by new applications emerging. Copper-tin alloys were used to manufacture cannonry, whereas brass – an alloy of copper and zinc – was used to make shell casings. As a result, there was a significant shortage of copper at times of great wars. One such example is when during the Great Northern War, before the discovery of large copper deposits, the Tsardom of Russia ended up buying the metal from its enemy, Sweden.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей

Nowadays, the most prominent uses of copper are in manufacturing and architecture. A rare electronic or related device can be made with no copper. It is, for instance, part of track-guided vehicles and silicon computer chips.

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© Форпост Северо-Запад / Горный музей