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Friday 10 August 2012

Postal History and Social Philately: Russian Possibilities

Postal History involves looking at

Who sent
What to
By what Means (How)
At what Cost (Tariffs)
and at what Risk (Loss, Censorship, etc)
And Why?

What makes this History is that it is looked at over time. But the interest in Who, What and Whom is also an interest that might be called Social Philately.

Consider an easy example. You could study, for Imperial Russia, Who sent Visiting Cards and to Whom and Why. You would learn about social class, about etiquette, and so on. Along the way, you might look at who produced visiting cards, and how much they cost, and you might notice that there were even postal stationery envelopes produced for them (some of them privately ordered).

More obviously connected to postal history, you would soon notice that special reduced tariffs were available - for much of the Imperial period, this can be summarised by saying 1 kopeck for local sendings; 2 kopecks for anywhere in the Empire (including from Levant or China post offices); 3 kopecks for abroad. This is maybe a bit surprising; after all, you will have already realised that the people who send visiting cards are people who can (easily) afford to send them. They don't really need reduced tariffs. Nor do visiting cards obviously benefit Trade and Industry, unlike commercial printed matter.

So this could be an interesting collection with lots of scope for setting it in context. And you will be able to explain why you don't find Visiting Cards being sent after 1917...

I just finished reading Orlando Figes, Just Send Me Word (2012). This is based on a 1246 letter correspondence between Lev Mischenko in the Gulag at Pechora in the Komi ASSR 1946 - 54 and Svetlana Ivanov in Moscow. The letters are now held by Memorial in Moscow. Lev Mischenko published part of his autobiography before his death: Poka ia pomniu (Moscow 2006).

To make a serious collection of Gulag correspondence would not be easy. Letters to or from prisoners are not common. Letters to or from the central and local branches of the Camp administration (the MVD) also seem to be uncommon. I have only handled a few examples of Gulag-related material in recent years. Maybe much more material exists in Russia. Maybe much of it passes unnoticed in dealers' boxes - it rarely looks very interesting.

There is also the fact to be taken into account, and which Figes discusses in his book, that prisoners often tried to get their letters sent for them outside the Camp so that they were able to avoid censorship. This involved bribing guards or finding free workers willing to help. Likewise, if prisoners could find an address outside the Camp to which their families could write - the final stage of the delivery then being undertaken privately - then they too could write more freely. These "outside" addresses are like the "undercover addresses" in Neutral countries, which during the second World War allowed people to correspond with relatives living in enemy territory.

Visiting Cards and Gulag letters are two completely different worlds, and not the easiest. In contrast, Prisoner of War correspondence is an "easy" field in which to do interesting postal history - especially for World War One, it is freely available and cheap. Correspondence to or from Arctic and Antarctic stations is another "doable" field. But, really, the list is as long as you like to make it. At the moment, I am looking at Parcel Cards from the 1917 - 1921 period - and I am interested in buying more.

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