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Monday 29 September 2014

Expertising Handstamped Overprints

Because they are handstamped, handstamped overprints are infinitely variable: the way the clerk inks the handstamp can vary infinitely (pressure, angle etc) and the way he or she applies it to the stamp can also vary infinitely.

That causes problems for the would-be Expertiser.

My own strategy is to start with the things which are not infinitely variable.

(1) The Handstamp. What is the genuine handstamp made of? Wood, metal or rubber? If you can work this out, you can also work out what a genuine strike of the handstamp is likely to look like. Quite often, forgers will use the wrong material to make their own handstamps - say, rubber instead of wood. And it is then possible to say that something is a Forgery because you can see that it is made from a rubber handstamp not a wooden one. You don't have to look more closely.

(2) The Ink Pad. In general, for any one handstamp only one or a few ink pads will be used by the post office clerk. If they are re-inked, they will be re-inked from a limited supply of bottles. Forgers producing small batches are likely to use just one ink pad and one bottle - and, in many cases, it is immediately recognisable that the ink they have bought from the local shop is just plain WRONG. You don't have to look more closely.

(3) The Basic Stamp. Remarkably often, forgers use the wrong basic stamp - maybe a forgery or a reprint or a later printing of a stamp which was used to make the original overprints. If the overprint can be dated to 1918 and the stamp was not printed in such-and-such a shade until 1920, then you know you a re looking at a forgery if the stamp is the 1920 version.

Starting this way reduces the number of stamps you have to look at closely - most Forgeries can be dismissed at a glance.

The real art needed to assess the few that can't is to find features of the genuine handstamp which tend to show however the clerk inks the handstamp and however he or she applies it. For this purpose, it is really helpful to have a large multiple showing the same overprint. For example only, suppose that the handstamp is the number and value  "100 r". You may find that however much the strikes differ, the gap between the "1" and the "0" and the gap between the "0" and the second "0" remains the same - when you allow for the slight differences between heavily inked and lightly inked strikes. You may also find curious things like this: maybe a tiny part of the second "0" almost never seems to print whatever the way the handstamp is struck. There is clearly some small defect in the handstamp - an area which is a millimetre below the level of the rest of the handstamp and which only fills up and shows when the handstamp is very heavily inked or struck.

And so it goes ... For the "100 r" Armenain Dashnak overprint on Russian stamps, Stefan Berger tells me he uses a 16 Features Test for the most difficult cases....

Tuesday 23 September 2014

First World War: Franked Mail from Prisoners of War in Russia

After the end of hostilities between Germany and Russia and the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, it is quite common to see Prisoners of War or ex-Prisoners of War still trapped in Russia writing home using stamped postcards rather than Free Frank privilege Prisoner of War correspondence cards. My guess is that some or many prisoners used both methods, reckoning that at least one might work.

The postcard below was posted at CHUSOVSKAYA VOKSAL 13 3 19 [ probably Old Style ]. The station still exists, east of Perm and north west of Yekaterinburg. It was then under the White control of Admiral Kolchak's armies. Like many cards it communicates mainly about failures of communication: I haven't received any mail from you - often followed by "Why haven't you written?" - and giving details of the communications the writer has previously sent and intends to send. This one is a bit more interesting because the writer (Vichtor Sitte) realises that the problem lies with "der Post und die Kämpfe der Parteien"   [ the Post and the conflict of the parties ]. He also says that things are now better and the Post is working again. He asks his correspondent to send him old Newspapers or reading matter.

And he points out to his correspondent that he does not use the term "Prisoner of war" [ abbreviated here to "Kriegsgef".] in the address he is supplying, which is the address of the Chusovskaya Station. He says that this is much better and more reliable. Unfortunately, you have to pay the Postage.

The card was routed to Vladivostok where it was censored - see the violet cachet No. 21 - and it looks like it arrived at its New York destination in about a month and was answered - see the two cachets top left in green-blue. It is possible that the sender had philatelic interests, since the card shows both a 5 kop Savings bank stamp and a 20 kop imperforate stamp (the latter rarely seen), but he makes no mention of the stamps in his message. I guess that that the sender was German-speaking Czech or possibly German. He knows some Russian.

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Sunday 21 September 2014

What Can We Learn from Philatelic Covers?

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They are horrible aren't they? Petrograd March 1918. People are cold, hungry and in some cases frightened. But philately goes on. This collector has sent himself - his name and address is also on the back - these ugly, messy but quite expensive covers. What did he think he was doing?

He has picked four kinds of stamp to decorate the envelopes - and probably he sent himself more.

First, a regular Romanov 1 kopeck
Second, currency stamps - 3, 10, 15 and 20 kopeck denominations
Third, imperforate Arms stamps in the denominations of 1,2,3,5,15 kopecks and 1 rouble. All except two of these are marginal copies, so the collector probably realised that this helps guarantee a stamp as a genuine imperforate. The two exceptions are 3 kopeck stamps in a darker shade of red
Fourth, varieties on the 10 kopeck perforated Arms stamp: there are two examples of misperforations and two examples of offsets [ Abklatsch], the stamps being stuck to the cover face down so that you can see the offset.

Foolishly, the collector has put the stamps very close together and even overlapping so it's not possible to remove stamps one by one by cutting them out - something you could do when you realised the covers are a disaster. A couple of stamps have in fact been peeled off one cover.

What do we learn?

First, that Petrograd 4 post office did not tell the sender to Go Away and make a more useful contribution to the Revolution. Nope, the post office took the covers and cancelled them

Second, that these covers show what this [ordinary ?] collector could obtain and what he thought more important to have used on cover than as mint stamps. The choice of Currency Stamps is easy to understand; the regular imperforates less so since the values shown here were freely available.

Third, this collector did NOT have the following imperforates: 4, 10,20,25,35, 50,70 kopeck [ ignore the higher values as too expensive for him ]. Now this is really interesting because these are values which either cannot be found AT ALL in Petrograd at this period [ say March 1917 - March 1918 ] or which are rarities used in Petrograd. I checked my own collection: I have one loose 4 kopeck cancelled PETROGRAD  30 3 18 and a block of 70 kopeck cancelled PETROGRAD 11 6 19. That's it for the values missing from these philatelic covers.

So my guess is that these imperforate values (except perhaps for the 4 kopeck) had not been distributed to Petrograd post offices at this time ( March 1917 - March 1918), or not distributed in significant quantities.  And they were perhaps available to some philatelists with privileged access since at least some of the values I have listed had been printed in Petrograd in the period in question.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

A Little Test Before Next Week's Harry von Hofmann sale ....

Next week in Wiesbaden, Heinrich Koehler will sell the Harry von Hofmann collection of Imperial Russian Registered Mail. Virtually every cover can be found illustrated at

Now Registered mail from Imperial Russia is common. But some Registered items are more unusual than others. And some things you will NOT find in the Imperial period, which ended with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas on March 2 1917 [ Old Style].

For example, the cover below is from post-Imperial Russia but maybe looks like it could easily be an Imperial period cover. There are two reasons why it cannot be that, apart from the readable date of 1918.

First, it is franked entirely with imperforate Imperial Arms type stamps which were only put into circulation during the period of the Provisional Government which came into being after the Abdication.

What about the second reason? Have a look. The cover is sent from ZELZAVA LIFL 17 1 18, addressed to Stomerzee where it was received STOMERZEE LIFL 17 1 18 - so a bit over a month before the German occupation of the Baltics. The cancellations look like standard late Imperial types

Keep looking. Answer below.

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Answer: Under Imperial Russian rule, internal registration labels used in the Baltic states were monolingual, Cyrillic alphabet and Russian language. You don't see any bi-lingual or tri-lingual labels as you do (for example) in Finland. Labels for Foreign mail (R labels) were printed in Roman and usually with French spellings - which is why you see MOSCOU and not MOSCOW or MOSKWA.

But on this letter we have an Internal registration label which is bi-lingual, the "Selsawa" being a Germanic spelling of the Latvian place name whereas in French or English you would probably get "Zelzava" (just as you get "Zemstvo" and not German "Semstwo"). [ I say "Germanic spelling" because the Latvian name is "Dzelzava" or "Dzelsawa" and the German name is "Selsau" - see Harry von Hofmann, Lettland, Die Stempel und Postanstalten 1918 - 1940]

My GUESS is this: this is a post - Imperial label  probably printed in the period of the Provisional Government but on whose initiative I don't know. I am sure there is one person can do better than my guesses ...  

Sunday 14 September 2014

Stamps which Fall between Categories: examples from Russia and Ukraine

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Until 1917, the State Printing Works in St Petersburg and then Petrograd - later part of Goznak and still in existence today - maintained very high standards as a security printer. Defective stamps were rarely produced and even more rarely got into post offices. Errors and even quite small varieties are regarded as very collectable by Imperial Russia specialists - in auctions, there are always bidders for such things.

In 1917 - 1918 standards were not maintained and errors and varieties are more common - some may have been produced deliberately for sale. But they also got to post offices and can be found postally used. These 1917 - 18 errors and varieties are also collected, though they are not so expensive to buy.

The stamps shown above with strongly shifted backgrounds got out of Petrograd and were distributed normally to what were then the postal districts of Kharkov and Odessa. In August 1918 or later, they received regular Trident overprints - Kharkiv type 3 on the 3 rouble 50 stamps and Odesa type 4 on the 5 rouble.

Interestingly, these varieties are not sought after. For Russia specialists, these are not Russian stamps any more so the varieties are no longer interesting. And Ukraine collectors are mainly interested in the Tridents, not the basic Russian stamps. Just in practical terms, there are so many Tridents to collect that stamp errors and varieties cannot be allowed to get in the way of the main task.

However, John Bulat does list quite a few of these varieties in his Ukraine catalogue: the shifted background of the 3 rouble 50 is listed as # 755d and valued at a modest $25 each for mint stamps;  he does not list the 5 rouble variety for his # 1181.

Postally used examples of such varieties are interesting because they indicate that not all of them got into the hands of philatelists. For example, the pair of stamps with Poltava 1 overprints (Bulat # 996) shown below have shifted centres - not very shifted but enough to be collectable. The stamps have punch holes,so came from a parcel card or money transfer form - so they aroused no philatelic interest before they were used in the normal way. 

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Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

Poltava Tridents: Types !a, 1b and 1c

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The Imperial 10 rouble stamp is very useful when you are studying Ukrainian and Armenian Civil War overprints. The pale grey centre allows you to see the overprint clearly. Above I show three of the four sub-types of the Poltava overprint, 1a, 1b and 1c, left to right - I can't show the so-called Type 2 (why not 1d?). 

The 10 rouble imperforate was more widely distributed in Ukraine than in Russia and nearly all the early (1918) uses I have seen are from Ukraine. The stamp came into use in the Spring of 1918, so well before Trident overprinting began in August. Th earliest date of use that I have recorded is 
1 March 1918 on a Parcel Card fragment from LOKHVITSA in Poltava guberniya.

Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

Saturday 13 September 2014

Frankings including Charity stamps: RSFSR Volga Famine Relief issue 1922

Normally, Charity stamps show two denominations: one shows the franking value of the stamp and the other shows the Charity premium paid in addition to the franking value. So "250 + 250" means that you pay 500 but get 250 in franking value. This can get complicated, especially when there is inflation and revaluation happening as in 1922 - 23 Russia. On the two covers below the correct franking is paid entirely by the regular Imperial adhesives and the Volga Famine Relief Charity stamp does not contribute to the franking total, though presumably the sender paid something for the it -  perhaps  250 x 100 ( = 25 000 ). I don't know.

The first cover was Registered from KAMENETZ - POD 24 6 22 and travelled via MOSKVA 4 7 22 (where the Censor opened it) to BERLIN 13 7 22 (though it's not a Brender cover). The Tariff of 4 June 1922 has been applied and the letter charged at 400 000 roubles and the franking fully and correctly provided by the 10 x 4 Kop x 100 x 10 000 twice revalued Imperial stamps.

The second cover was Registered from MOGILEV-POD 28 9 22 and arrived in BERLIN  11 10 22 - this one is a Brender cover. The Tariffs of 1st July and 15 September would yield the same result: the letter should be charged at 900 000 roubles - and it is, using 10 x 10 Kop x 100 x 10 000 twice revalued Imperial stamps.

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This pair of covers is for sale at 120 €uro,net

Friday 12 September 2014

Mysteries of Podillia / Podolia : the early 1920s

I got interested in the stamps and postal history of Podillia in the 1990s when, by chance, I acquired a box of unsold lots and remainders from the 1986 - 87 Schaetzle auctions of the famous Vyrovyj collection. Eugene Vyrovyj had won many Gold Medals for his Podillia collection in the 1930s but though he committed suicide in 1945 the collection did not come on the market for forty years.

In Imperial Russia, Podolia was a large guberniya to the south west of Kiev, bordering on Austria - Hungary in the  west and Romania in the south. The population was very mixed, the majority ethnically Ukrainian or Jewish but with Russians and Poles too. It was also an economically lively region and when I first studied the Vyrovyj material I was struck by just how many post offices there had been in the Imperial period and still operating after 1917. Many of these offices were in small towns with large Jewish populations. Because of the extensive Internet documentation of the later Nazi destruction of the Jewish shteltls and populations of these towns, they are quite easy to research on the Internet. On modern maps of Ukraine, most of the towns still exist and mostly with the same names as in the Imperial period, though now with Ukrainian spellings - but it is nonetheless easy to locate them.

When I made my collection of Podillia postmarks, I stopped in 1920. Today I was looking at a couple of later covers, both of which illustrate just how interesting this region can be to the postal historian.

The first cover below was registered from CHEMEROVTSI [ Ukrainian, Chemerivtsi - north of Kamyanets ] 23 6 22 and routed via MOSKVA 7 7 22 to BERLIN 17 7 22. It was fairly clearly subject to censorship - the envelope flaps have been opened and re-sealed. At first, I looked at the franking. According to the RSFSR Tariff of 4 June 1922 you would expect to see a franking of 400 000 roubles. This Charity stamp doesn't do the job unless it has been silently revalued in an idiosyncratic manner. It could have been converted to 100 000 on a regular basis (100 x 100 times revaluation) or 200 000 if its Charity status was ignored and it was counted as 100 + 100. It could be an example of a local tariff of the kind studied by Alexander Epstein: he tells me that he has seen other examples like this one but using the 35 kop Chainbreaker and he thinks they are local revaluations

But then I noticed something much more interesting about this cover. On the front the sender has marked it as ZAKAZNOE, but the actual post office Registry number is to be found on the back "N 337" and underneath, as you would expect for a Foreign letter,  the place name in Roman script. But look at the spelling - not Russian CHEMEROVTSI (as on the postmark), not Ukrainian either - but instead CZEMEROWICE which must be Polish ... and I think that's the first time I've seen a place name spelt that way by a Soviet post office clerk.

The second letter is another Brender cover, again Registered, and this time paid in cash at "10000p [roubles]" on 8 March 1922.  Now 10 000 roubles is correct by the RSFSR Tariff of 2 February 1922 but that was replaced on 22 February with a 30 000 rouble Tariff. The most likely explanation is that someone got lucky - the old Tariff was still in use at this post office. At the other end, in Berlin where the letter arrived 11 4 22, the Postage Due indicated by the blue "T" and Mss "1600" appears to have been cancelled.

More interesting to me is the cancellation on the front STAROKONSTANTINOV "a" 8 III 22. This device is in a style I have not seen before and it is clearly provisional since the date is inserted by hand. The Registry number 511 is to be found at top right of the cover front with "STARAYA" in Cyrillic underneath in the same violet ink. Someone has pencilled "Starokonstant" underneath the Cyrillic but whether this was a different post office clerk able to write Roman script or a later addition by a stupid collector, I don't know. 

Starokonstaninov is now Ukrainian Starokostiantyniv, south west of Zhytomyr.

These covers are for sale at 75 € each, net [ the first cover has now been sold]

Added 12 September 2014: Vasilis Opsimos sends me scans of this lovely cover from Starokonstantinov. I include his description underneath the pictures. He also tells me he has seen a stampless cover like mine from the same period:

8/8/1922  Cover (Brender correspondence) from Starokonstantinov, Ukraine (now in Khmelnitskiy oblast, then in Volhynia) to Berlin (29/8), through Moscow (21 & 22/8). Franked correctly at the 90R rate with blocks of 10 and of 8 of the 5k imperf Arms. Note that the c”d”s of origin is an unusual single-ring one with just the town name and a large “a” at the bottom – the date is written in only once on the front of the cover (post-revolution – notice the absence of the hard sign at the end). The provo label is made out of a rectangular piece of paper (selvage of stamp sheet – notice the lozenges of varnish) with a manuscript notation “314 Staroconstantinov” in Latin script. (Starokonstantinov - Староконстантинов had a large Jewish population, in 1939 amounting to a third of the town’s total population of 20.000). 

Added February 2020: Most of my Ukraine-related Blog posts are now available in full colour book form. To find out more follow the link:

RSFSR Tariffs 1922 - 23: Examples from Belarus

At any one time, you will probably find me with a group of RSFSR covers which are waiting to have their Tariff period identified and their franking checked against it. Sometimes it's a slow job. Maybe it was a slow job for the postal clerks too.

Here are two ordinary letters sent from GOMEL P.T.K, the first sent to New York on 16 June 1922 and the second to Paris on 24 July 1922. Both were routed through Petrograd and picked up Three Triangle censor marks there. The Paris letter has a receiver cancel.

The first cover has been carefully sealed with five stamps - I guess the idea was to make the Censor notice the cover, which he or she did - the envelope has been opened and re-sealed through the middle of the back flap and then opened at the top by the recipient. Anyway, this cover is correctly franked. The Tariff of 4 June 1922 applies and it specified a charge of 200 000 roubles for an ordinary letter going abroad. The franking makes that total as follows: 2 x 4 kopeck stamps already revalued to 4 roubles each now further revalued to 40 000 roubles each + 10 kopeck revalued on the same basis to 100 000 + 1 rouble revalued to 10 000 roubles + Charity stamp [ I am assuming] revalued from 100 rouble franking contribution to 10 000 = 200 000 roubles. 

The Tariff of 1 July 1922 applies to the second cover and specifies a charge of 450 000 roubles for an ordinary letter going abroad.  The home made envelope may also be franked to attract the Censor - the franking could have been simpler. What we have is this: 4 x 10 kopecks previously revalued to 10 roubles now revalued to 100 000 roubles each + 2 x 1 rouble revalued to 10 000 roubles each + 4 x 7500 rouble surcharges used at face = 450 000 roubles.

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The next cover is not such a mathematical challenge but it does illustrate an uncommon Tariff. This is a Registered cover sent locally within Minsk with a MINSK GUB 15 1 23 cancellation. The letter is addressed to the People's Commisariat of Finance - "NARKOMFIN" in the first line of the address and again on the violet registry cachet. All the five stamps are used at face value and add up to 150 roubles of which 50 roubles is for the reduced tariff for sending a LOCAL letter and 100 roubles is the standard registration fee.

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How much are these covers worth? They are for sale at 50 €uro each, net.

Sunday 7 September 2014

1920 Armenian Overprints on Romanov Stamps

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Dashnak Armenian overprints on Imperial Russian Romanov stamps are always philatelically-inspired and very often forged. On two values - the 4 kopeck and the 10 / 7 kopeck - genuine overprints are quite common and they can be found in multiples. Above, for example, is part of a complete sheet of 100 (minus one stamp ...) in the Peter Ashford collection which is surcharged with the 5 rouble (Type 3) overprint. In the bottom left corner you can see the ink signature of Kaushavili, an early dealer in this material - he sold to Agathon Fabergé, notably -  and whose signature is a good guarantee of authenticity.

It seems clear that the 4 kopeck and 10 / 7 kopeck stamps were still in the stocks of the Armenian post office in 1920, probably several thousand of each value, in sheets. But it is doubtful that any other values were held in anything but part sheets - and for some values I think that overprinted copies were brought to the post office in Yerevan by collectors/ dealers for surcharging. Genuine copies of surcharges on these other values of the Romanov stamps are extremely rare and forgeries are much more common.

The chalk paper of low value Romanovs and the recess printing of the high values are both unsuitable for surcharging by hand. Weak and smudged prints on the 4 kopeck and 10 / 7 kopeck are common. This makes expertising more difficult.

Recently, for the first time, I obtained a 100r surcharge on a 5 rouble Romanov. I show it below grouped with a block of three 10 rouble stamps also surcharged 100 roubles and, once again, from the Ashford collection.

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I think the overprint on the 5 rouble Romanov is genuine - the characteristic features one looks for are there. The ink seems a bit denser but that may be deliberate - it makes the overprint on a dark background a bit clearer. But I will want Stefan Berger's Opinion before I am willing to sell this stamp as genuine. The stamps is signed, twice, ECONOMIST, and it has the house mark RJC of Dr Ceresa.

Added 29 September 2014: Here is Stefan Berger's Opinion:

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Routes Out of Russia 1917 - 1918: Odessa

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In war time, mail routes (inland, foreign or both) are disrupted just like every other aspect of civilian life. In addition, if mail going abroad is censored - as it normally is - it has to be transferred to censor offices. These tend to be centralised: censorship works partly by aggregating information from a large volume of mail and if there are just a few censor points information is aggregated from the start; it does not have to be collected in.

Anyone looking at Russian censored mail with foreign destinations will see Petrograd and Moscow marks dominating the censorship scene. Maybe 80% or 90% of mail for censoring was handled in those cities. But some mail going abroad was censored elsewhere, notably in port cities like Odessa and Baku - and then despatched by sea directly from those ports.

I was looking through a dozen items of mail going abroad censored in Odessa during 1917 - 1918. The letters originated in Odessa itself but also Ekaterinoslav (what is now Dnipropetrovsk) and Elisavetgrad (Kherson). They were going to Denmark,  England, Holland, Switzerland and the USA.

The cover illustrated above is particularly interesting because it shows part of the route this letter followed. Posted from ODESSA 10 11 17 ( a couple of weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd) it was censored there, a fact recorded by the boxed violet cachet numbered 297. From a smudged cancel on the reverse, it then looks like the letter was sent on its way on the 11th. It then turns up in Milan where it was again censored - the white censor tape VERIFICATO PER CENSURA  is tied to the cover by strikes of the MILANO POSTA ESTERA cachet, front and back. Under the tape is a Milan arrival mark for which the date is not readable without lifting the censor tape. The letter then travelled down to Bologna (I assume - the route could have been the other way around) where it picked up a BOLOGNA POSTA ESTERA RACC. ASS. 1 3 18 registered mail cachet - nearly five months after its departure from Odessa! It makes better progress (overland?) to Copenhagen arriving there on 24 3 18 - the weak cancellation is on the reverse. At this time, most mail to Copenhagen is addressed to the Red Cross but this is a private or commercial letter.

Monday 1 September 2014

Ryazan 1919: Dream Cover or Philatelic Cover?

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Here is one of those rare things from 1919 Free Post Sovdepia: a franked cover. I bought it in auction at and paid 30% of my Bid - only the back was illustrated and maybe other collectors thought it was just too good to be true (as I did when I first looked at it).

It is correctly franked to 50 kopecks, the rate for Inland Registered letters during the RSFSR Free Post period. But the franking includes 5 Postal Savings Bank stamps - quite scarce on cover - and a 25 kopeck imperforate - a stamp which is genuinely rare on cover, both before and after the 1920 revaluations. So is it too good to be true? Is it philatelic? Note in particular that a 50 kopeck franking could have been provided with just two copies of the 25 kop imperforate. So why the other stamps instead?

Look at the cover more closely. It was sent from RYAZAN on 26 5 19 and addressed to Mikhailov in the same guberniya - and there is a MICHAILOV RYAZ. "b" 28 5 19 receiver cancel on the reverse. It's addressed to someone at a War Commissariat, Alexander Nikolaevich Dobrokhotov. The sender gives an address at the bottom of the letter and it's that of another member of the same family

I think the cover is non-philatelic. Philatelists usually send covers to themselves or to friends. They use street addresses or PO Box numbers, not War Commissariat addresses. They put stamps on the front of the cover (even in 1919). They don't open the cover as roughly as this one - which has been cut down at the left (and could have been sewn into a file - which would explain the cut-down).

My guess is that Ryazan post office was genuinely short of stamps. They had used up the much-used 5 and 10 and 15 kopeck stamps. They had lots of little used 4 kopecks which are "uprated" (as it were) to 5 kopecks by being paired with 1 kopeck Postal Savings bank stamps. To save doing this ten times, an odd 25 kopeck stamp at the counter was used for half the franking.

The result, if I am right, is a dream cover. Readers' comments are welcome ...