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Saturday 28 March 2015

One in a thousand? One in ten thousand? One in a hundred thousand?

From very early on in the postage stamp era, there have been stamp issues - often perfectly genuine ones - where the proportion of stamps printed actually used postally is very low. The first 1866 issue of Honduras is a good example. In such cases, catalogues often advise, Beware of Forged Cancellations! But catalogue prices rarely reflect the full reality of postally used scarcity.

An extreme example is provided by the 1919 issue for the Northern Army, # 15 - 19 in Michel, which gives a total printing figure of 3 000 000 stamps for the five values. This figure may well be correct: the Northern Army issue shows little or no sign of being aimed at the philatelic market. The stamps are the worst designed ever, all five of them boring. Proofs, colour trials, errors and varieties are almost non-existent. It may be that the Northern Army really hoped they would need these stamps for post offices in the areas they occupied and optimistically ordered three million.

In the event, these stamps were briefly placed on sale at post offices and a few postally used copies are known on cover and card. Alexander Epstein has chronicled them. Add them all up, and maybe you have twenty postally used stamps.

Rather more stamps are known cancelled to order, either as sheets or on covers. But even including these, it seems to me doubtful that the total adds up to more than ten thousand. The remainder are all mint stamps. But Michel prices mint and used at the same prices. That's absurd.

Another extreme example, and more interesting, is provided by the stamps of Dashnak Armenia. In 1919 - 20 the Dashnaks did attempt to run a postal service in a tiny country ravaged by war, famine and disease, Anyone who could was leaving, taking with them postage stamps which they had exchanged for Armenian currency worthless in the outside world.

As a result, and to this day, mint stamps or CTO stamps massively outnumber postally used ones. How massively? I have handled many thousands of Dashnak stamps in the past twenty-plus years. I doubt that one in a thousand stamps I have seen is postally used, probably more like one in ten thousand. In addition, only a small number of values are seen postally used: the 60k on 1 kopeck first issue, the 10/7 kopeck with framed Z, the 1 rouble, 3 rouble 50 and 5 rouble with framed or unframed Z ... maybe twenty or thirty different types. If you add in the over the counter philatelic productions which Souren Serebrakian used on postcards to his brother in Tiflis, you double or treble that number.

Interestingly, no one to my knowledge has tried to make a full list of stamps known postally used. Someone should do it!

Saturday 14 March 2015

Soviet Use of Ukrainian Stamps in 1920

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Here are two Money Transfer Forms used into Russia proper ( Samara and Tver guberniyas) from Soviet Ukraine but using Ukrainian stamps, revalued x 100 in conformity with RSFSR rules. I spent some time working out that in both cases the frankings are absolutely correct at 2% in one case and 2% plus a 60 rouble premium for the Telegraphic transfer in the other.

Then I noticed the handwritten remarks at the top of each form:

I translate these roughly to mean "Handled under Soviet power" or "Received under Soviet authority". My guess is that this was done to prevent possible confusion caused by the use of Ukrainian stamps - these were transfers from one Soviet area to another, not from one country to another. Can anyone improve my translations or offer more thoughts on the markings?

Added 19 April 2015: Alexander Epstein has scanned me the card below which also has a handwritten remark at the top, but this time it reads "Accepted under the Volunteer Army":

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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:

Wednesday 11 March 2015

The Indefatigable V. V. Tarasoff of Solombala, Archangel

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Anyone who collects Russia postal history from 1917 through the 1920s will, at some point, come across the printed cards of V V Tarasoff of Solombala, Archangel, who publishes a collectors' magazine in English and invites philatelic exchanges.

Who is this man? In a 1970 Rossica article, Andrew Cronin says that he was a printer - which makes sense from the varied printed cards he uses - and that sometime in the 1920s he moved to Leningrad from where he was sending out cards as late as 1937. By that year, anyone doing that sort of thing was running very considerable risks - stamp collectors with foreign contacts were regarded as security threats. In 1941, the NKVD had them listed as a category of people to be investigated when they occupied Latvia. [Added 19 April 2015: Alexander Epstein tells me that in the 1930s Tarasoff was manager of a Soviet Philatelic Association shop in Leningrad. On that basis, I would guess either that Tarasoff died in the Purges or in the Siege of Leningrad].

But what is someone doing in Solombala ("of all places" Cronin remarks) and how come he commands very good English, which he writes very neatly, and who cares enough about correctness to have apostrophes after "Collectors' " and "Correspondents' ".

A very little Googling suggests that he was a Doukhobor or the descendant of Doukhobors. They were a Russian religious sect, exiled to the corners of the Empire in the 19th century and most famous for their pacifism - at the end of the 19th century, they conducted ceremonies where rifles were burnt.

Tarasoff is a Doukhobor family name and Archangel was one of the ends-of-the-earth places to which they were exiled. Many emigrated to North America (Saskatchewan and Oregon) and it is possible that Tarasoff originally needed English to correspond with family members.

There is another curious possibility. From the 18th century and into the 20th, the  northern ports received foreign ships regularly. The visits from Norwegian ships gave rise to a dockside pidgin language well known to linguists as Russnorsk - a mix of Russian and Norwegian. But Google also tells me that there was a port pidgin called Solombala English, about which little is recorded. So it is just possible that Tarasoff was helped on his way by the fact that the Archangel port areas were places where some English was spoken.

Now to the card. Written on 29 December 1918 it is correctly franked according to the RSFSR tariff of 10 March 1918. The postmark of SOLOMBALA ARKH, is not date-legible (it could be the 30 or 31 December or 3 1 19)  but what is legible is the British censor cachet in violet - at the end of 1918 the area was occupied by British Intervention forces. The card then went out into the Arctic winter and got to the far-north Norwegian port of VARDO on 20 February 1919 and from there overland down through Norway and then on to Holland, where a typical C292 cachet was applied. A remarkable journey - and one no longer possible for RSFSR mail.

From 1 January 1919, Bolshevik Russia had no mail links with foreign countries. They were not restored until June 1920 when the first new route abroad was established - out from Archangel or Murmansk and on to Vardø. And one of the things I am really looking for is a 1920 item of RSFSR mail with a VARDØ transit mark ...

Added 7 May 2015: And here it is! Jan Lauridsen in Vardø has photographed this Esperantist card, sent from EKATERINODAR in the Kuban (and only recently under Bolshevik control), routed via Moscow where a Three Triangle censorship mark was applied, addressed to Christiania (= Oslo) and sent via the Northern route with a clear VARDØ transit. Jan L. is trying to get a photo of the front to see if it franked; the correct Tariff was 2 roubles but it may have been sent using the obsolete Free Post tariff. If you look at a map, you can see how indirect is the route followed:

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Added 17 April 2015:

.... and Jan Lauridsen in Vardø has sent me scans of a very, very interesting Tarasoff card. You will see that it is registered from Solombala in December 1920 and addressed to Switzerland. The Kerensky card is used as a Blank and the Imperial Arms stamps are revalued x 100 to give a correct - and very rare - 7 rouble franking for a Registered postcard going abroad (Tariff of 30 September 1920). Most importantly, the reverse shows an ARCHANGELSK transit cancel - and also a MURMANSK cancel. This last proves that the card went out by sea (in the middle of the Arctic winter), northwards and westwards towards Norway. At Murmansk the card would have been transferred to a ship headed for Vardø. By 1921 or 1922, as foreign mail handling was centralised, the card would have travelled south - overland - to Moscow or Petrograd and been censored there before being sent on to Switzerland, probably via Germany. But here we have the Northern route still being used, just as it was for the British Occupation card shown above.

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I am very grateful to Jan Lauridsen, who is a specialist collector of this Northern route, for letting me show his card here.

Added 19 April 2015: Alexander Epstein sends me scans of two more cards. The first one ,like Lauridsen's, is franked at 7 roubles with the Kerensky card used as a blank. The second card is a non-Tarasoff item, family correspondence written in Swedish and addressed to Finland. Postage Due has been raised, the Kerensky card presumably treated as a blank. Notably, the Archangel transit is clearly a Three Triangle censor mark and this may also be  true of the (part) Archangel cancel on the Lauridsen card:

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Added 13 March 2021: Franco Tealdo of the French coin and stamp company Nummusphila has sent me these scans of an interesting January 1921 Registered item sent by Tarasoff to Switzerland, routed through Moscow and picking up a Three Triangle censor mark there. The Imperial kopeeck stamps have been revalued x 100 to give a 7 ruble franking. The letter shows Tarasoff trying to set up a business link, though he writes about"exchange":

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Monday 9 March 2015

Last Post: Bolshevik Russia to Foreign Destinations 1918

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I have blogged previously about the fact that Bolshevik Russia offered NO mail service to foreign destinations from 1 January 1919 until end of June 1920 - a remarkable fact.

But when I look at my mail from Bolshevik Russia going abroad in 1918, there is very little after August - September. I began looking for the latest date in 1918 I could find and picked out the letter above to the USA which started out from Tula on 10 December 1918.

The letter did not arrive in the USA until June 1919 - something the British censor [ in London?] may have had something to do with more than the fact that it is incorrectly franked (or maybe a stamp is missing).

Anyway, once again we have a puzzle: How late into 1918 could you send letters abroad which would still arrive ( and not get turned back at some point)? Examples please to 

Added 19 April 2015: Alexander Epstein thinks that this cover dates from December 1917, with a slipped date in the Tula cancellation. I think he is probably right - the remark on the Censor strip is compatible with British policy in January / February 1918.

Russia 1917 Imperial Arms Imperforates - Earliest Dates of Use

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Michael Kuhn in Germany answered my earlier request for examples of earliest dates of use of Imperial Arms imperforates. His cover above now holds the position of Earliest Known Use. These 1 kopeck stamps were used to provide a correct 10 kop franking from Petrograd 11 on 1 April 1917 . The letter is addressed to a stamp dealer in Åbo / Turku, Finland and has part of a red Finnish censor mark.

Maybe this 1st April date can be improved on: can any readers find earlier dates in their collections, for any imperforate value? I don't count back-dated cancelled to order Baku or Tiflis or fake 1916 Riga!

Scans to

Added 27 April 2015: From my own collection, here is another 1st April 1917 use, this time the 5 kopeck on a non-philatelic Khristos Voskresi! Easter card, usefully dated in manuscript confirming the PETROGRAD VITEB[sk] VOKS[al] 1 4 17 cancellation:

Saturday 7 March 2015

Russia 1917 Imperial Arms 10 Rouble Imperforate: When and Where was this stamp distributed?

There is a certain fascination in Top Values - and from 1906 until 1921, Russia's top value was the 10 rouble Imperial Arms stamp in red with a yellow background and a grey centre.

As a perforated stamp it is common in the wove paper printings usually dated to 1915 - 1917 and in two distinct shades. That is thanks to inflation. Here, for example, is a page from a 1919 Petrograd parcel receipt book, the 10 rouble stamps belonging to the later printing in a darker red:

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The earlier printing in a lighter, more orange, red was still freely available as late as 1922 - 23. Here is an example from August 1922 and the sort of franking you can easily find on covers of this period:

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In contrast, the 10 rouble imperforate, printed in 1917, is a scarce and rather mysterious stamp.

I believe that this stamp, printed in relatively small numbers, was only distributed from Petrograd to a few postal districts. Those districts included:


but did not include:

- or for that matter, most of Russia "proper"

In Baku, the stamp was used after independence but prior to the introduction of the "Musavat" pictorials. I don't now have a copy but in the past ten years or so have, I think, sold two examples.

As for the other districts which got the stamp, here are some used examples:

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The top left stamp is cancelled ODESSA 8 12 17 and this is the earliest date I can record for use of this stamp. Odessa at this time was a "Red" (Bolshevik) city. Below this stamp is a divided pair cancelled KHARKOV 4 4 18, the earliest date I have for use there - I have 15 more stamps cancelled at Kharkov between May and July, some of which I think are cancelled to order. Kharkov was a "Red" city until the Bolsheviks surrendered to the Germans on 9 April 1918. 

Below the Kharkov stamps is a copy cancelled SUMY KHAR[kov] also in April 1918. I have seven more copies used at Sumy in April and May, which leads me to think that Kharkov passed on some of its stock to other offices in its postal district.

Then there is a copy on a formular fragment used at LOKHVITSA POLTAVA  1 3 18 - the fragment is signed Z.MIKULSKI - so earlier than the Kharkov district stamps. As in the Sumy case, tghe use of this stamp at Lokhvitsa indicates that the Poltava main office passed on some of its stock to other offices in its district.

The stocks in these three districts - Odessa, Kharkov and Poltava - were clearly quite large as the stamps can also be found (and not as rarities) with Trident overprints of those districts applied later in the year (probably August - September). Kyiv and Podillia Tridents on 10 rouble imperforates are listed in the Seichter and Bulat catalogues but they are rarities and do not lead me to conclude that there was a regular distribution to these districts. I do have a 10 rouble cancelled KIEV 29 6 18 but this is cancelled to order and could have been brought to the counter.  But it's possible that Kiev got a small allocation of the 10 rouble stamp.

But what I would like readers to show me (scans to is clear evidence of the distribution of these stamps to other postal districts than the four I have listed.

Added 22 October 2016: I now have a pair of 10 rouble used at IRKUTSK 8 4 18 which adds a use in Russia.See my Blog of 22 October 2016