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Sunday, 12 January 2020

Free Frank mail from Imperial Russia to Mont Athos


This is a continuation of the Blog post of  27 December 2019

I illustrate here two Free Frank letters sent from Russia to Mont Athos. They require explanation, not least because they are going outside the territory of Imperial Russia into the territory of the Ottoman Empire, though a part which enjoyed internal administrative autonomy. Nonetheless, there was an international frontier at the port of Daphne, the harbour of Mont Athos , and it was under Ottoman control until 1912-13 when control passed to Greece.

Free Frank privileges are common enough and have always been subject to abuse. In Great Britain, Members of Parliament enjoyed Free Frank privileges and thoroughly abused them before the advent of Penny Postage. With postage rates maybe ten or twenty times greater than one penny, you could do favours by posting other people’s mail - and all that was required of you was your signature on the outside of the letter and use of the House of Commons mail box.

In Imperial Russia, Free Frank privileges were extensive but subject to requirements designed to enable accounting and reduce fraud. So on the front of a letter a cachet and a number was required - the number entered into an accounting book. And on the back a seal was required which asserted the right to the Free Frank privilege. The seal could be wax, paper or the impression of another rubber or metal handstamp.

But Free Frank privilege cannot normally extend beyond the frontier unless as part of some convention or agreement with another state or within an Empire - in the British Empire, Free Frank privilege could carry an O H M S letter from a colony to London.

So how did these Free Frank letters get from Russia to Ottoman Athos without any charge being raised? The simple answer is that they travelled to their destination without passing out of Russian hands. At Odessa, Russian postal officials handed over them to Russian agents of the R O P i T shipping line. 

The R O P i T boat sailed to Athos where the Russian ship was subject to Ottoman quarantine rules. But the bags of mail were handed directly to agents of the R O P i T post office on Mont Athos without Ottoman intervention. The post office then handed them to monks from the appropriate monasteries - the bags were I believe already pre-sorted by monastery. There were really only four possible destinations, two of them represented by my letters: the skete of St Andrew and the skete of the Prophet Elijah. (The other destinations were the monastery of Panteleimon and the Kellion of St John Chrystostom).

These Free Frank letters are not common but more will be on offer in the Heinrich Koehler sale of a large collection of Mont Athos material, scheduled for March 2020.

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