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Wednesday 22 April 2015

Much scarcer than Russia Number 1 on cover?

This is my favourite recent acquisition. What and why?

In June 1919, the Volunteer Army forces of General Denikin captured Kharkov from the Bolsheviks, who had returned after the withdrawal of German forces at the end of 1918. The Volunteer Army held on until the end of 1919 when the Bolsheviks re-took the city.

This letter from a South Russian mining organisation located in Kharkov (I can't manage a word-for-word translation) was sent as unsealed Printed Matter to a mine in Alexandrovsk - Grushevski, then in the Don Cossack Oblast with a population of 50 000 and many mines. Today it is Shakhty in Russia, northeast of Rostov on Don. It got its new name (which means "Mine") in 1920 and hosted the first of Stalin's show trials in 1928 when fifty-odd mining engineers were accused of wrecking and sabotage as agents of the former mine owners. Later, it was home to a serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo - the subject of a film Child 44 currently causing controversy in Russia.

The stamps are roller cancelled KHARKOV 16 11 19 and there is a receiver cancellation on the back dated 23 11 19.

The 10 kopeck franking here compares with a 35 kop or later 70 kop tariff for ordinary letters and double that for Registered letters, so it's a cheap rate - just like the cheap Imperial printed paper tariffs. I don't think I have previously seen this Tariff in operation. I also don't think I have seen a cover franked exclusively with the lowest value in the Denikin series - the 5 kopeck orange which keeps the colour of the Imperial 1 kopeck but increases the face value to 5 kopecks ( the Denikin 10 kopeck green parallels the Imperial 2 kopeck and the 15 kopeck red parallels the 3 kopeck).

Maybe there is a whole heap of these Printed Matter covers out there - send me scans! - but my guess is that you will find it much easier to find a Russia Number 1 on cover - even a pair of Russia Number 1's on cover - than to find another commercial cover with this franking.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Russia - Germany 1917 Armistice Mail

When the Bolsheviks seized power on 25 October (7 November New Style) 1917 they had three strategic objectives: Bread, Peace and Land. They moved rapidly to exit from World War One, and ceasefires and local armistices soon emerged. On 2 December (15 December), Russia signed a short Armistice agreement with the Central Powers at Brest - Litovsk. This Armistice held until 17 / 4 February 1918 when Germany gave 7 days notice of its intention to resume hostilities - which it did on 24 / 11 February when the successful Operation Faustschlag was launched with the aim of forcing Russia into signing the full Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

An English version of the Armistice agreement can be accessed via the Wikipedia article "Armistice between Russia and the Central Powers". It  provides, among other things, for the exchange of unsealed mail at the front("between sunrise and sunset") and sets up a commission in Petrograd to work out the details.

This provisional measure is very different from a full resumption of postal relations, with mail heading by train to Petrograd from Berlin and vice versa. It basically expresses an intention to give civilians access to the military field post at front-line exchange points.

The collection of Harry von Hofmann sold recently at Heinrich Koehler in Wiesbaden included some examples of such Armistice mail from the German side. Some of it is puzzling and in the absence of the text of the arrangements agreed by the Petrograd commission, it's necessary to guess what is happening, though Alexander Epstein published some information in Yamchik  (June 2005).

Here are three cards which belong to this category of Armistice mail:

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The first card, written in German and giving family news, starts in RIGA on 2 January 1918 using a 7 1/2 Pfg card (originally attached to a Reply paid card),. It transits through a Russian Field Post Office (POLEVAYAR POCHT KONT but Number not legible) on 29 12 17 (Old Style) and arrives in VLADIVOSTOK on what looks like 23 January 1918. [Alexander Epstein thinks the Field Post Office will be Nr 42, attached to the 15th Army Corps and located at the time near lake Naroch in what is now Belarus']

The second card, also in German and asking for material help, starts in LIBAU 31 1 18 with a 15 Pfg franking and is addressed in both German and Russian to a company office in Petrograd, where it could not be delivered. There is a cachet of the Address Bureau at bottom left and a central vertical line of glue which probably indicates that a SPRAVKA label has been attached during the attempts at delivery. The card has then been marked with French language (International) cachets for Return with addressee Unknown. Libau was occupied by Germany in 1915 and this would have been one of the first civilian items of mail to travel to Petrograd since the beginning of the Occupation.

The third card, in Russian, starts in RIGA 30 1 18 with 10 Pf in franking on both the outgoing and Reply half. It's addressed to Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Dünaburg) and gets there on 28 1 18 (Old Style) where a mute receiver cancel without town name has been applied (this cancel I have seen before). From the fact that the address on this card begins with "Russland" in German, one can infer that Dvinsk at this point was on the Russian side of the armistice line.

Since each of these three cards is differently franked, it cannot be inferred what the Tariff was supposed to be!

Now to two strange envelopes:

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Both envelopes started out from RIGA 23 1 18 one addressed in Cyrillic but with "Russland" in German, and the other in Latvian - both franked 20 Pf (so we might be tempted to infer the Tariff!). The handwriting is different, but the stamps may have come from the same sheet.

They are both addressed to the Riga - Valk Highway, Libek Station [ Sastawa Libek - which in German would be tranliterated or translated as Lübeck - just as the German city of Lübeck is rendered LIBEK in Russian ], Peace Section No.  2,  Iskolostrel [mis-spelt on the Latvian letter]. From Alexander Epstein's article in Yamchik, I learn that"Iskolostrel" is the acronym for the Executive Committee of the Latvian Rifle Regiment, a pro-Bolshevik unit.

One possibility ( and Alexander Epstein also thinks this possible) is that these envelopes contained cards for onward transmission to Russia, the senders making use of the German civilian Ob Ost post to get the cards to an exchange point. Why they did this is a mystery, given that the other cards appear to have travelled without use of envelopes. The top cover is unsealed and the bottom cover looks like it has been sealed later (the rear flap is partly detached). Of course, these envelopes could have contained enquiry letters to Iskolostrel itself, for example, asking about the whereabouts or fate of members of the Regiment.

None of these five items bears any censor marks

And just to complicate matters:

Here is an ordinary letter, correctly franked, sent from MOSKVA 14 2 18, the first day of the new calendar and just a few days before the Germans withdrew from the Armistice agreement. It's correctly franked at the internal letter rate, probably sent unsealed but sealed by the Petrograd censor. It's also addressed to Station Libek but with no mention of Iskolostrel. The handwriting is almost identical to the first envelope above sent from Riga, but there are small differences. It is marked in German "Züruck" on the grounds that the address needs to be in the Roman alphabet.

BUT ... this letter is addressed to a destination on the Russian side of the Armistice line. There is no reason for it to be addressed in Roman script. There are two possibilities: either this letter fell into the hands of the German troops or administration, advancing as part of the Faustschlag offensive and sent back as non-compliant with later regulations (Treaty of Brest-Litovsk mail) or there was a letter or card inside this envelope when it was sent from Moscow, addressed to German-occupied territory but (incorrectly) addressed in Cyrillic. The envelope and contents may have been passed across the exchange line as part of the distribution process and then the whole thing returned back. But still very much a puzzle ...

Click on Image to Magnify