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Sunday 24 August 2014

Postmarks and Politics: Language Policies in the New Republics 1917 - 1923

When Empires break up, newly independent states often want to change languages. Not always: in Africa, former British and French colonies have generally kept the colonial languages as the medium of public administration simply because those are the only languages people have in common. Likewise, when the Parliament of newly independent India met in 1947 and had to choose the language of debate it settled for English - a bit reluctantly but, still, it was the only language every member of parliament understood.

When Imperial Russia disintegrated, five new states hurried to eliminate Russian from public life. Finland already had tri-lingual postmarks and those remained in use - but with the Russian third filed down or otherwise removed. Finnish and Swedish were retained.

Estonia, Latvia,Lithuania and Poland had only monolingual Russian cancellers available or German Occupation ones. Neither were acceptable and so we see a period in which rather crude handstamps or manuscript cancels are used. If you look at the Harry von Hofmann Lithuania collection, currently on line at you can see a very scarce and unusual range of Lithuanian manuscript cancels on offer.

Despite the desire to replace Russian, the correct spelling of replacement names had not always been established before the change was made. Thus, early Latvian postmarks spell the country name LATWIJA only later replacing this Germanic spelling with the alternative LATVIJA which has persisted until now. Similarly, in Estonia the town which transliterates from Russian as VESENBERG but is usually known as WESENBERG initially became RAKWERE and only later RAKVERE.

In the Caucasus, there was no great haste to eliminate Russian. Interestingly, the first stamps of Azerbaijan and Georgia (and a couple of new postmarks produced to go with them) are inscribed bi-lingually with French as the language chosen to make the stamps internationally recognisable. Armenia's Dashnak government chose English as the language for the Chassepot series of stamps commissioned in 1920. It may be that this choice reflected the heavy reliance which Armenia was placing on the good offices of the USA and Great Britain to protect it.

In the Caucasus, the production of cancellers in local languages only really gets going in the early Soviet period (1921 - 29) and can be seen as an expression of early Soviet Nationalities policy. Azerbaijan is interesting because policy there took its lead from Turkey: when Ataturk switched his country to the Roman alphabet, Azerbaijan followed. Inevitably, "correct" Roman spellings were not always obvious.

Emerging from the Austro - Hungarian empire, Western Ukraine produced some cancellers in Ukrainian. Later, when Western Ukraine became part of Poland, old Imperial-period bi-lingual cancellers continued in use, generally with the German names filed down or otherwise removed.

Lastly, there is Ukraine. The newly independent republic operated an extensive postal service at least through 1918 and into 1919 but did not try to Ukrainize the Russian cancellations or replace them with manuscript, presumably because Ukrainian speakers could perfectly well understand the postmarks and weren't that offended by them. A couple of cancellers in Ukrainian were produced for Kiev (reading KYIV) and for Kharkov (reading KHARKHIV) and that's about it. Some postal stationeries were produced centrally and, in addition, one enterprising postmaster in Yampil ( Russian Yampol) did produce his own Money Transfer Forms printed in Ukrainian - but as John Bulat remarks in his Catalogue, his spelling wasn't perfect.

The use of Ukrainian spellings in describing the postal history of the 1918 - 20 period seems to me a bit anachronistic since very few people were using those spellings at the time. It is only later in the 1920s that Soviet nationalities policy is followed through into the Ukrainization (or bi-lingual spellings) of cancellers and registration cachets and so on. Technically, the difference between Ukrainian and Russian names can be dealt with by writing like this, "sent from Sataniv and cancelled SATANOV" where the capitalised letters are the transliteration of what it says on the Cyrillic Russian postmark and the non-capitalised "Sataniv" uses the Ukrainian spelling.*

I do something similar when I write,  "sent from Moscow and cancelled MOSKVA" though why I don't write "sent from Moskva and cancelled MOSKVA" opens up a whole new set of interesting questions about how we treat other people's place names. The only short answer is this: We treat them inconsistently.

* I chose Sataniv / Satanov because it is an interesting place to Google. But Googling again, I see that there is a further dimension to the language problem. Sataniv / Satanov was - in the period 1918 - 20 - as it had been for a long time - majority Jewish and majority Yiddish-speaking. One of my Google sources reckons that Yiddish speakers called the town by its Russian name, Satanov. In that case, it's likely that very few inhabitants - possibly none - called it Sataniv. It would have become Satantiv at a later date and primarily through the application of a centralised state policy.

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1919. Registered letter addressed in Russian to the Kamenetz Podolsk District Court, franked to the equivalent of 85 kopecks, the stamps cancelled SATANOV POD "a" 23 1 19, receiver cancellation KAMENETZ POD. "s" 26 1 19, the cover expertised UPNS ZELONKA. 

Saturday 23 August 2014

Brailov, Podolia / Brailiv, Podilia 1918: a Jewish Student and Austro-Hungarian Occupation

It's easy to let oneself think that it was Germany which occupied Ukraine for most of 1918, creating  a Protectorate under the shelter of which the Ukrainian National Republic operated . But actually it was the Central Powers who together occupied Ukraine, so that you also find occupying Austro-Hungarian troops - as I will soon illustrate.

Imperial Russian Brailov, Podolia guberniya, was a small town south east of the regional centre of Vinnitsa and north west of Zhmerinka. In the 1890s it had a population of about 9000, of whom about 4000 were classified as Jews. By the mid 1920s the population had shrunk to around 3000 and nearly 100% were Jewish. A Pogrom in 1919, during Denikin's White Army occupation of Ukraine, had left 20 dead and a hundred women raped.

The Shpits Jewish family in Brailov included several brothers and sisters born around 1900. Here is one of them, Yakov, writing in August 1918 to the Austro-Hungarian Command in Vinnitsa. He writes in Russian on the front and German on the back and gives his own name (preceded by his status - "Student") and address on the reverse of the card:

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He has gone to the Brailov post office and registered a Kerensky postcard uprated to a total of 35 kopecks with five stamps. This is the correct rate according to the UNR Tariff of 28 January 1918 *. It looks a bit philatelic but it isn't: either the Brailov post office had run out of much-used 5 and 10 kopeck stamps or else Yakov had some stamps at home that he wanted to use up. The Brailov postal clerk has recorded the card as "N 494" in his Registry book - see the Manuscript in violet, top left of the card - and cancelled the stamps BRAILOV POD "a" 17 8 18. A bit remarkably, the card arrived the same day in Vinnitsa: there is the receiving postmark of that town, weakly struck, in the centre of the card.

Yakov had an important request to make of the Austro - Hungarian Command. He writes in German - my guess is that his mother tongue was Yiddish and possibly his mother script - which I translate as follows:

Please give me a Pass [ Erlaubnis] for travelling to Crimea, to the town of Yalta, where one finds the University, where I am a student. I must travel there in a few days to learn and without a Pass from the Command one cannot travel to Crimea.
Student Yakov Schpitz
The Austro - Hungarian Command endorsed the card on the front, top left, with a cachet reading GESEHEN [Seen] and two or three other words which I can't read.

Yakov has Germanised his surname but his name would more accurately transliterate from Russian as Shpits (which is how it appears on Google). Either way, he is recorded as dying in Kyiv in 1941 with one of his brothers, Ovsey Shpits,  surviving to die in Odessa / Odesa in 1986.

Soviet Ukrainian Brailiv was occupied by German troops on 17 July 1941 and most of the remaining Jewish population was liquidated locally between February and August 1942.

* See Alexander Epstein, "The Postal Rates of Independent Ukraine 1918 - 1920" in Ukrainian Philatelist # 92 (2004)

Monday 18 August 2014

Russia 1920 - 21 Postmaster Provisionals on Mail Going Abroad

My guess is that over 90% of the 1920 - 21 Postmaster Provisionals - the "pyb" and "p" handstamped locally on Imperial Arms kopeck value stamps - were used on Money Transfer Forms and Parcel Cards, especially the latter. Red Army soldiers at this time were sending home very big parcels of Loot from areas recently taken by the Red Armies and lots of stamps were needed on the parcel cards. A 20 kopeck stamp overprinted "pyb" had twice the value of the highest value Imperial stamp, the 10 rouble. And for part of the period, ordinary letters and postcards were carried Free for civilians and soldiers alike.

Occasionally, it is possible to find the Provisionals on cards and letters. Small and sleepy Kustanai in Turgai became an important Red Army base (it is now in Kazakhstan) and the soldiers made extensive use of its locally overprinted stamps on their parcels home. But here, very unusually, is a Registered letter from Kustanai to Germany:

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This letter was posted at Kustanai on 26 6 20, the first week in which mail services to foreign countries resumed. It transited through Petgrograd on 6th and 7th July, with no obvious signs of censorship, and arrived in Magdeburg on 27 July 1920 - so just a month in transit. Usefully, the MAGDEBURG cancel ties both groups of stamps to the cover.

The only puzzle is the franking. The Tariff of 6th June 1920 priced a Registered letter going abroad at 10 roubles. But here we have a 100 rouble franking, far too much to be accounted for by weight steps. One obvious possibility is that Red Army Kustanai was working on a local currency or Tariff which converted the 10 roubles of the National tariff to 100 roubles locally. There is nothing about the cover, which appears to be from husband to wife, to suggest that it is philatelic.

More Postmaster Provisional overprints were made in 1921, the better known ones include those of Minsk.

The following two covers sent from BORISOV MINSK in September 1921 and addressed in different handwritings to the Jewish Daily Forward, a widely-read socialist newspaper published in Yiddish in New York, are both franked with 8 x 2 kopeck stamps revalued by the large Minsk seal applied (normally) over blocks of 4 and converting each stamp to a 250 rouble stamp. They are thus franked at 2000 roubles which is correct for registered letters abroad by the National Tariff of 25 August 1921. But one cover, sent on 2 September, has stamps revalued with a seal in violet ink. The second, posted on 12 September has stamps showing a black seal. Both covers transited through Moscow and picked up a Three Triangle Censor cachet there, and both covers have New York Registry Division receivers which helpfully are over the stamps.

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Saturday 16 August 2014

Russia: Foreign Mail Tariffs in 1920 - 1921

From 30 September 1920, all mail sent from Bolshevik Russia to foreign destinations had to be franked - the Free Post for foreign mail was abolished. Letters were charged at 5 roubles for an ordinary letter and 10 roubles for Registered. This Tariff persisted into 1921 and was not formally changed until 25 August 1921 when a new Tariff of 1000 roubles for ordinary letters and 2000 roubles for Registered mail was introduced. I am using here data from Alexander Epstein's publications.

But as is so often the case, the old Tariff was remarkably persistent. Here are three registered letters from Petrograd in August 1921, one before the Tariff change (10th), one on the day of the change (25th) and one a few days later (30th). You would expect post offices in Petrograd to know what they were supposed to be doing, and even if the stamps on the second and third letters have been silently revalued  x 100, they are still franked at the old rather than the new rate:

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The next two examples of 10 rouble mail from earlier in the year (April and May) helpfully show how Registered mail was routed through Berlin. The April cover from Tambov to France has picked up a Registration label in Berlin and the May cover Syzran to the USA has got a violet Berlin Auslandstelle cachet - upside down at the bottom of the cover - which (I think) says that it has been received from abroad as registered mail:

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I would also like to make a study of postcards abroad in 1920 - 1921 but I don't have very many. So if you have any for sale, let me know at

21 August 2014: Alexander Epstein comments:  I have studied this matter of RSFSR foreign rates in 1920 - 21 in detail and collected a lot of information concerning the existing covers. I described my conclusions in an article in Deutsche Zeitschrift für Russische Philatelie #94. You can also find it  in English at: Since then I have continued to expand the data base. I published an updated version of this article in Russian (Journal RUS).  The matter was very complicated in 1921 on the local level. I would like to add also that there was  official permission from the Central Postal Administration to use the old 1921 tariffs (instead of those of 25 August) till October (!) while post offices were waiting for the delivery of the new Arts and Industry stamps. 

Wednesday 13 August 2014

Origins and Destinations 3: Ekaterinburg to France

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A week or so after the 1918 execution of ex-Tsar Nicholas and his family in the Ipatiev House, Ekaterinburg, that town was captured by the White armies of Admiral Kolchak. Investigations were opened into the fate of the Romanovs and the representatives of Allied intervention forces,especially the French, took an active interest in the enquiries led by the investigating judge Sokolov. The Whites held Ekaterinburg into the summer of 1919.

From the cover shown above, it can be seen that during the White period, France opened (or re-opened) a Vice-Consulate in Ekaterinburg. The ordinary letter is franked to 1 rouble and cancelled EKATERINBURG  21 6 19. It was routed to Kharbin (Manuscript endorsement on the front), by the Trans-Siberian for sure, and picked up a transit cancel there on 5 7 19 (see back of envelope). It was promptly passed on to the Imperial Japanese Post Office at Changchun where it picked up another transit cancel on 6 7 19 (see top right of front of cover). Japan at this time was another of the Intervention powers in Siberia. The cover would have travelled by sea (from Dairien?)  to reach Alais in the Gard in France on what looks like 19 8 19, a fairly rapid journey. The GARD cancel can be seen on the back of the cover on the consular seal. From there, it was re-directed to England.

When the Bolsheviks established their own postal services as they moved east through Siberia, those services routed mail westwards to Moscow and Petrograd. If a transit cancel shows the routing, then that is an easy way to tell if a place was under White or Red control at the time. Of course, the Bolsheviks were not able to offer any mail service to foreign destinations during 1919. Mail going abroad in 1919 is always White mail. 

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Origins and Destinations 2: Tula to Detroit

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In previous Posts, I wrote about the fact that from January 1919 to mid - 1920 Bolshevik Russia had no mail links to foreign countries - a very unusual and possibly unique situation for a European country to find itself in during the 20th century. This adds to the interest of mail from December 1918, when connections were still in place.

Here is a cover Registered at TULA - well to the East - on 10 December 1918 (Old Style). Franked to 40 kopecks on the back, it was routed to Moscow where a circular violet Censor cachet was applied (front of cover, top left). I don't know what route it then followed, but the British got hold of it and censored it, the Censor writing on the paper seal "From Enemy occupied territory". Since the Armistice was in place, this can only refer to Bolshevik Russia itself. The receiver cancel of New York is over the paper seal, so it's definitely the case that the cover was censored on its journey to the USA not on its way back to Russia.

The envelope arrived in New York on the 6 June 1919, six months after it was sent, and then arrived in Detroit on 14 June. But as so often with foreign mail to the USA at this time, the Post Office claims not to have been able to locate the addressee. The letter is therefore marked for "RETURN TO WRITER". But there are no Russian cancellations to indicate that it got back to where it came from.

21 August 2014 Alexander Epstein comments: The cover from Tula of December 1918 interested me. However, after some reflection, I cannot agree with your conclusions for the following reasons. I have the feeling that the problem is a wrongly adjusted canceller, i.e. the letter was posted actually in 1917 rather than 1918!
First, there were no postal communications between Soviet Russia and abroad at the end of 1918. They existed, for example,  with Germany until 1 December as the latest known date according to the literature. Second, the Registered (!) letter is franked on 40 k, i.e. according to the rate of 1 September 1917, while the foreign rates were raised (to 60 k for R-letters) as early as on 28 February 1918.
My theory is as follows. The letter was posted soon after the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd and began to extend their power gradually into other regions. Consequently, the movement of mail became slower. This cover passed via Moscow where censored, then Petrograd. The only way from European Russia to the West was at that time via Finland, Sweden etc. Thus, this letter should be transferred first to Helsinki. However, power was seized there by Red Finns in the 2nd week of January 1918 and the war with the White Finns who held the northern part of country started then. Thus, the cover was delayed in Helsinki for rather a long time and could be forwarded farther only after the White’s victory. Of course, we cannot say when it happened actually. Also Germans landed in Finland in March 1918 and helped in defeating the Reds. This explains the note “from enemy territory” on the British censor’s label. Of course, my theory has some gaps too (e.g. very long time for the letter on the way to the USA) but I believe that it can explain something.

Origins and Destinations: Shusha to Lausanne

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If you read the backs of postcards written in war time, writers often enough complain that they have had no letters from the addressee for a long time - despite the fact that they themselves have written a dozen times! Sometimes they complain bitterly, not imagining that maybe their mail does not arrive at its destination and that the same is true for the mail sent by their correspondents ...

In this context, it is sometimes surprising to see mail which does arrive. Look at the little item above. It was posted in Shusha, Elisavetpol guberniya - deep in the Caucasus - on 24 October 1917, which happens to be the last day on which the Provisional Government held power in Petrograd. It was underfranked, the postal stationery card having been uprated to the internal 5 kopeck tariff but no more. But it found its way to Petrograd, arriving of course after the Bolshevik seizure of power, and there it picked up two censor cachets. By some route it was sent on to Switzerland and it may have been there that the fact that it was underfranked was picked up, indicated by the T in circle and the manuscript "15c" above to the right. Finally, it arrived at Lausanne's Poste Restante office on 25 February 1918. Allowing for the fact that the Shusha cancellation uses the Old Style calendar, 13 days behind Switzerland's, this little card was nearly four months in transit. On this occasion, one of the Babaians in Shusha succeeded in communicating with a family member in Lausanne. Remarkable!

I suppose I should try to establish the details of its most likely route. And get the Armenian translated.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Rarities of Soviet Union Postal History ?

I once made a collection of One Kopeck frankings of Imperial Russia from the 1860s through to 1917, when the lowest Tariff was increased to 2 kopecks. At the same time, I discovered that the 1 kopeck Tariff was re-introduced in the early Soviet period. But I never found more than a few items to illustrate it. You would have to search through many Dealers' Boxes to find items like those shown below:

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Folded sheet with typed notice of a meeting
 locally sent within Petrograd 23 10 23

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Unsealed Printed Matter (PECHATNOE cachet at top right) 
locally sent within Leningrad 8 9 25

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Printed Notice for a Pushkin Anniversary meeting 
locally sent within Leningrad 20 5 29