A History of Russian Philately. Part 1

Ninth Century

Twelve hundred years ago. Way back then, the earliest known Russian writings referred to messages being sent from person to person, between one town and another. We don’t really know how these were sent, but the one thing that we do know for sure is that the “mail” in some form or another dates back a very long way!

And just to put this into perspective, the very first ever known postal document predates this by quite a bit. 255BC is the date of a postal document found in Egypt, and of course, it is fair to infer that even before that time, postal services of sorts (“kings’ messengers”, religious orders) were in existence.

To start with, these various services were all, of course, essentially private and did not allow the general public to have their ordinary communications conveyed.

Tenth Century

The casual methods of communication evolve into a system of messengers across the land, enabling territories to summon troops, and for governments to pass important messages (about such things as taxes!) to the districts that they governed.


Letters that were sent from one town to another were typically in the form of a roll, with a tied on address label, and the whole thing sealed with either a wax or lead seal.

Needless to say, none of the wax seals have survived, but the earliest known lead seal dates back to 1079, and records that the document so sealed was from the governor of Tmutarakan, a gentleman by the name of Ratibor.


The earliest known cover from Russia is what is known as the “La Tana” cover sent this year to Venice. La Tana is nowadays known as Azov.


By this time, the postal system had improved to the point where there were some 1600 different postal stations spread across the country.

Mail travelled fairly efficiently and regularly – for example, a letter from Moscow to Novgorod (a distance of about 350 miles) would usually take 3 days in transit. (Dare I point out that today mail between those two cities frequently takes considerably longer!!!)


A war between Russia and Poland ended and as part of the peace treaty, the two countries agreed on the establishment of a regular postal route between Moscow and Warsaw.

This marked the start of Russia’s first regular international postal service.


This year saw Peter the Great ascend to the Russian Throne. At the time he was only ten, and ruled jointly with his brother Ivan V. When his brother died in 1696, Peter was then declared Sovereign of All Russia.
Under his rule, Russia did become a great nation, and in 1721 he proclaimed Russia an Empire. He took the titles Emperor of All Russia, Great Father of the Fatherland and “the Great.”

Peter was a study in contrasts. He could be an immensely cruel tyrant (he tortured and murdered his eldest son, and that is far from the worst thing he did) but he was also very intelligent, sensible, far-sighted, and had a clear vision as to how to make Russia into a great power.

He instituted many reforms in just about every aspect of Russian life. Indeed, so far reaching were his actions that he created an entire new city where previously there had only been swampy marshlands and decreed it to become the new capital of Russia – the glorious city of St Petersburg (not named after himself).

Along with all his other reforms, he paid attention to the postal service, and endeavoured to create an overarching uniform structure to what had developed into a complex mess of different jurisdictions, different government departments, and various private contractors. His reforms and improvements to the postal service established the rudiments of a uniform postal system throughout the entire vast country that is Russia, and a code of procedure that safeguarded the fast and safe delivery of mail.

He died unexpectedly on 28 January, 1725(J). He is buried, along with (I think) every Tsar after him (including, finally, now Tsar Nicholas II as well), in the Cathedral of the St Peter & St Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

He will always be considered one of the pivotal leaders in Russia’s history and these few short paragraphs don’t start to do justice to the extraordinary changes he wrought in all aspects of Russian society.


The first post offices to be established under Peter the Great’s new uniform postal service structure were opened in Moscow and St Petersburg.

28 November 1765

The first known Russian postmark can be traced back to this date. It takes the form of a single line with the word ST.PETERSBOVRG appearing exactly as written here – in English not Cyrillic. It is on a letter that was sent from St Petersburg to Pernow.

The first known Russian postmark.   It takes the form of a single line with the word ST.PETERSBOVRG

General practice prior to about this time was to record in some form of ledger at the receiving post office details about each letter, where it was going to, and what the amount charged was (based on weight and distance). Sometimes some hand written details would be written on the back of the letter to record these facts, and sometimes not.

16 August 1781

The first official reference to postmarks occurs on this date in a note from the head of the Riga Post Office that recommends the introduction of postal marks in all post offices as proof that the appropriate fees had been collected.
This recommendation was speedily acted on, and in the postal regulations of 1782 is a requirement that each post office will have a postmark that states the name of the town as proof that postal charges have been collected.

This original concept of postmarks was based solely on a way of demonstrating that postal charges had been paid, rather than as a way of recording any details about the delivery of the letter.

The concept of recording the date that the letter was received by the post office came later, and was slowly introduced between about 1816-1818.

6 May 1840G

The Penny BlackA quick test of your philatelic general knowledge. What extraordinary event occurred today?
Okay, so the answer is nothing to do with Russia, but it sure is everything to do with philately. Today is the day that Britain released its first ever stamps – the “Penny Black” and “Twopenny Blue”. It also released, at the same time, two prepaid envelopes.

Interestingly, the idea of buying stamps in advance initially met with some resistance, but the general public soon came around to the “new” way of doing things, and by the end of 1840, some 72 million Penny Blacks had been issued!


In a major step towards adhesive stamps as we know them today, the postal authorities introduced envelopes that were pre-stamped to record the payment of a 5 kopek postal fee for the local posts in St Petersburg and Moscow.

1 December 1848

The concept of the pre-stamped envelopes proved popular and successful, and so was extended to all post offices throughout Russia

18 February 1855J (= 2 March 1855G)

Tsar Alexander II ascends to the throne of the “Empire of all the Russias”.
His reign was brought summarily to an end when on 1 March 1881J he was killed in St Petersburg by a bomb thrown at him by a student member of a revolutionary group “The National Will”. A new church was subsequently built on this location, the “Cathedral on the Spilled Blood”. This is a spectacular church you should make a point of visiting if you are in St Petersburg; it has recently been wonderfully restored inside and out, and architecturally it is every bit the equal of, and much larger than, the better known St Basils on Red Square in Moscow.


Mr Stanley Gibbons in later life.

At some time this year Mr Edward Stanley Gibbons of London (then aged a mere 16) bought a sackful of rare triangular Cape stamps from two sailors recently returned from South Africa for £5. With this he founded the business that is today the world’s longest established stamp collecting company, Stanley Gibbons.
It is thought that his new company was the first ever company to commercially trade in stamps for hobbyist-collectors.

September 1856

The rapidly increasing popularity of the postal services means that further efficiencies are needed, and so it is decided to introduce adhesive postage stamps.
The stamps are printed, distributed, and even placed on sale in mid/late December of 1857, but (in theory) are not to be used until 1 January 1858. Details of which are in the next part of this chronology.

Source: www.rossia.com.

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