A History of Russian Philately. Part 3

25 October 1917J (= 7 November 1917G)

With the support of the armed forces, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin seized power in Petrograd. Elections a couple of weeks later showed them to be in a minority position, and the country rapidly fell into civil war for the next several years, with various alternate groups fighting against the Bolsheviks.

The civil war was essentially over by late 1920, to be replaced by a period of hyper-inflation, settling down again in 1923.

What was formerly Imperial Russia now became known as the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic (abbreviated RSFSR).

This is a dreadfully confusing (or amazingly interesting – depending on your point of view) period of Russian postal history. Many of the breakaway groups issued their own stamps, all manner of different surcharges were applied to pre-existing stamps, and confusion and chaos generally reigned supreme!

January 1918

The new Soviet government initially continued to use existing stamps – it was way too preoccupied with a desperate struggle for survival to consider such lesser things as new stamp designs!

However, in January 1918 they authorised the postal use of some three Postal Savings Bank stamps – a 1k, 5k and 10k stamp, all still bearing the Romanov double headed eagle.

31 January 1918

This was the last day that the Julian calendar was used. People went to bed on the night of the 31st of January and when they woke up the next morning, it was the morning of the 14th of February.

15 May 1918

Regular airmail service in the US was established on this date between New York and Washington DC.

7 November 1918

The first RSFSR stampsThe first RSFSR stamps were issued today – a 35k and a 70k stamp showing an image of a sword cutting through chains.

Important note : Although not generally credited as such by the major catalogs, White ( http://www.rossia.com/stamps/reviews/reviews.htm#7g ) suggests that this stamp was actually designed and “prepared” during the brief period of the Kerensky Government the previous year. If so, I think it significant to appreciate that the stamp that is generally considered to be the first issue of the RSFSR government actually was not, but rather is the only issue of the Kerensky government!

Note that even after this date – more than a year after the revolution – the government continued to issue new stamps in old imperial patterns, such as the 1R, 3R and 7R stamps issued in November and December of 1918.

1918-22 period

The Civil War has a massive impact on philately in Russia. Most serious collectors either were forced to flee from Russia, or were casualties, either on the battlefields or in the basements of the notorious Cheka secret police. As for their collections – confiscated, destroyed, or stolen.

19 April, 1922

An obligatory tax stamp was issued on this date. This was the first of such stamps (others followed). There were four different designs in the set, with values shown as 2T, 2T, 4T and 6T. The “T” (which is the same letter in both English and Cyrillic) stands for “thousand” and means that the stamp values are actually 2000R, and so on.

These stamps had no stand-alone postal value but were added as a surcharge to registered letters, money orders and parcels in addition to the regular applicable postal charges (and stamps). Proceeds from the stamps went to help famine relieve in the Roston-on-Don region.

15 July, 1922

Sort of the first airmail stamp was issued on this date.

It was actually a Consular Fee stamp issued only at the Russian Embassy in Berlin, and showed values in both German Marks and Russian Rubles and were used for mail transmitted from the Embassy back to Russia via the Berlin-Moscow air service.

6 July, 1923

The Soviet Union is officially constituted, comprising initially of the RSFSR plus the Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR) of Ukraine and Belorussia and the Transcaucasian Federation.

In October 1924 the Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs were added, and in December 1929 so too was the Tajik autonomous SSR.
A new constitution was adopted on 5 December 1936, at which point there were 11 republics. This grew to 16 in 1940 and reduced to 15 in 1956.

19 August, 1923

The first Soviet stamps are issued.

The first Soviet stamps

Interestingly enough they are commemoratives, not definitives (these came later, in October), and were issued to denote an Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow.

1923-30 period

Those who survived the previous period returned to philately plus the state programs of education started to use philately as a form of distributing knowledge to the population as a whole (fascinating concept – I must say it works as I recognise a lot more Russian painters, writers, etc, after having seen them repeatedly on stamps!). Numerous philatelic societies were established and a new generation of collectors joined the hobby.

1931-41 period

During this period – the era of the worst totalitarism in the history of the USSR (under the rule of Stalin) the authorities became to understand that collectors have too many contacts and know too much outside of the confines of official propaganda. Moreover philatelic societies (as any other unofficial community of more than one person) were looked upon suspiciously as potentially counterrevolutionary organisations. Accordingly well known and active collectors went either to labour camps or were killed. During this period the collections of such unfortunates were accurately confiscated and sold to finance the rising Soviet military industry.

3 September 1939

Germany and Russia, after recently signing a treaty making them allies, jointly invade Poland. Poland turns to its own treaty partners, including France and Britain and appeals for assistance in resisting this attack. Poland’s allies demand that Germany/Russia withdraw from Poland, and when they don’t, they declare war on the Axis powers – Germany, Russia, and Italy. The alliance between Russia and Germany surprised many, as the political leaders of both countries had, until that time, been outspoken critics of each other.

April 1940

The role of stamps as a wartime propaganda vehicle is applied for the first time. Curiously enough, World War 1 (1914-18) went entirely unremarked, philatelically speaking, in Russia. However April 1940 sees the release of the first war themed stamps for World War 2, with a series of five stamps recording Russia’s occupation of new territory (SG893a-897; Scott 767-71, M 736-40). Interestingly Scott, Michel and Liapin record this as the Red Army being welcomed to Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia whereas SG says the stamps denote the occupation of Eastern Poland.

The cheery Russian soldier holding a happy child on the 10k, and the friendly villagers welcoming a tank crew on the 30k stamps bore little reality to the grim brutality that was occuring. These early stamps had yet to record the horror of war which subsequently was more realitically portrayed philatelically.

22 June 1941

“…a date that will live in infamy…” – no, we’re not talking about Pearl Harbor. Instead this date – as all Russians will clearly remember, 4am with a surprise bombing attack on Kiev – marks the occasion when Nazi Germany launched its sudden full-scale attack against Russia. Subsequently, historical documents have revealed that Hitler beat Stalin to the punch by a narrow margin – Stalin was preparing at the same time to launch a surprise attack on Germany! The outcome of this falling out was, of course, Russia changing its status from an ally of Germany (and therefore at war with the western powers) to becoming an enemy of Germany, and, on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” an ally of the western powers for the balance of the Second World War, or, as it is referred to in Russia, “The Great Patriotic War”.

13 August 1941

Philatelic support for the change in Russia’s war fortunes is quick to follow. Less than two months after their change in sides, they release a stamp encouraging men to volunteer for the Army. The stamp shows a soldier bidding farewell to his mother, underneath which is the slogan “Be a Hero!” (S 856, SG 983, M825).


Collectors who survived the previous period continue to die either at front during the “Great Patriotic War” or have their collections confiscated by, this time, German administrations if they find themselves within occupied territory. In 1944 and 1945 things went other way round – Russian soldiers and officers (with any interest to stamps) “confiscated” private collections in Hungary, Romania, Austria and Germany and a flood of stamps went to Russia to fill childrens collections with rarities. While these “enthusiastic amateurs” brought home stamps as part of their war “souvenirs, the officials did it more seriously, moving to Russia entire postal archives, State collections and especially accumulations of stamps formerly confiscated by the Nazis all over Europe. (Anatoly writes that while a beginning collector, he knew a Polish Jew who was a stamp dealer before the war. The whole war he spent in a concentration camp and survived because of his philatelic knowledge – the Nazis needed specialists to sort out confiscated collections. When the Russians took Poland he was brought to Russia together with stamps and continued the work in NKVD camps till 1951).


During this – a relative golden era in Russian philatelic terms – there was the rising of a new generation of collectors. Shops are full of nice stamps at prices next to nothing, and collectors were not so afraid to communicate with one another, as after the war the value of human life was ascribed a modest amount of value. Stamp clubs were established in major cities under the overall management of official societies such as the Artists’ Union, Theatre societies and similar organisations.

4 July, 1957

Russia releases a stamp to commemorate the world “International Geophysical Year” showing a telescope and the sky. This is significant as I believe it to be the first overtly space themed stamp released. This first stamp is the precursor of what is soon to become a common and popular theme. Indeed, in the remaining half of this year eleven space themed stamps are released.

I’ve tried to make a table showing the number of space themed stamps issued per year, but even such a simple task as this is not as simple as it might seem, because some stamps are ambiguously themed – are they “space” themed or not? Anyway, if you’re interested, here is the ( http://www.rossia.com/stamps/history/historyspace.htm ) table. Let me know if you think I’ve omitted or incorrectly included stamps in this list.

4 October 1957

“Beep beep”. This was the sound an astonished world heard from space on this date, when Sputnik 1became the first artificial satellite to successfully orbit the Earth. It was a metallic sphere about 2 feet across, weighing 184 lbs (84 kg), with long “whiskers” pointing to one side, and stayed in orbit for 6 months before falling back to Earth. Its rocket booster, weighing 4 tons, also reached orbit and was easily visible from the ground.

The second Sputnik satellite was launched on Nov 3, 1957 and carried a dog, named Laika, into space. Biological data was returned for a week before the animal had to be put to sleep.
Welcome to the “Space Race”!

5 November 1957

A dramatic illustration of the importance of stamps to national pride and propaganda is provided today. Barely a month after Sputnik 1 was launched, a stamp is released to commemorate this achievement (SG 2147, M2017, S1992). This stamp proves so popular that its first print run of 3 million is quickly sold out and a second print run of 2.5 million is released on 28 December.

This stamp was followed up a few weeks later by an overprint of a stamp commemorating the birth centenary of Russian rocket pioneer K E Tsiolkovsky. The stamp was originally issued on 7 October (2 million copies), just three days after the Sputnik launch, and was overprinted to say “4 X 57 First Artificial Satellite of the World” and a print run of 115,000 (yes, this short print run does make this quite a valuable and collectible stamp, but beware – counterfeits are known to exist) was released on 28 November (S2021 SG 2151 M2026).


Stalin dies and Kruschev takes over power. This was a period of liberalization in the USSR. Many local philatelic societies and clubs were established all over the USSR, but, please note, they were not societies or clubs from the British or American point of view. As no philatelic dealers, apart from state philatelic shops and mail deals of individual “collectors” existed, the societies and clubs’ main function was a place for collectors meeting to exchange, sell and buy stamps.

1 January, 1961

The USSR revalued its currency. Ten old roubles were now worth one new rouble, ten old kopeeks were now worth one new rouble. A new set of definitives were released on 1 January showing the new values, with values 1,2,3,4,6,10 & 16 kopeek (SG2523-30, Sc 2439-48, M 2434-40).

12 April, 1961

Russia’s dramatically extends its lead in the space race today when Colonel Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man in space. His flight in Vostok 1 lasted 108 minutes – not long by today’s standards, but still a massive accomplishment and another “first” for the Russian space program. Although he was on board the space craft, he was essentially a passenger only. Scientists did not know what effect the weightlessness and outer space would have on him, and so he was, in effect, merely an “experimental cargo” rather than a participatory pilot! The rocket was controlled by a combination of an onboard computer and radio control from the launch control station back in Russia.

The combined shock of Russia’s two space “firsts” causes US President Kennedy to make his famous speech in which he commits to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

This date – 12 April – becomes an annual anniversary usually denoted by the issue of a set of space themed stamps for “Cosmonauts’ Day”.

13 April, 1961

Wow. The very next day, Russia release a set of three stamps commemorating Gagarin’s accomplishment! Definitely a pre-planned and coordinated event. These stamps are S 2463-5, SG2576-8 and M2473-5.


The relationship between local stamp clubs and their local authorities varied widely from region to region. Some local authorities supported the hobby while others paid little attention. At the same time, “competition” in the form of trading via local “flea markets” was becoming more intense. So in 1966 the National Philatelic Society (VOF) was established.
This was an interesting time in the Soviet Union with “double standards of thinking” and the VOF was a good reflection of this in Philately. The society founders (activists of local societies) promoted the idea of the society (to the various relevant authorities) as a means of publicising USSR stamps and the Communist Party ideals. Both sides knew well that it was rubbish – really, collectors simply needed a place for official meeting to deal with stamps and guarantees to protect themselves from local authorities’ unpredictable suggestions. The higher authorities understood this, but needed a decent reason to support philately, which was considered by all to be the publicising and promoting of the underlying Communist agenda.

16-24 July, 1969

A glorious climax to a decade of the “space race” occurs with the Apollo 11 mission, taking off on 16 July and landing back on Earth on 24 July. This sees America put a man on the moon (4.17pm, 20 July, EDT) – a fascinating record of the mission can be found ( http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/history/apollo/apollo-11/apollo-11.html ) here.

And, as suddenly as it started, the space race subsides. Public interest in “men on the moon” dwindles and dwindles, as does funding, and at the time of writing this, 31 years later, scientists say that the technology to put a man on the moon has been lost and that it would take at least ten years to redevelop this ability. Progress is a funny thing, isn’t it!

12 April, 1970

Rather like the Sherlock Holmes tale where the clue was the dog that did not bark, the remarkable thing about today is the thing that did not happen!

Was it just a coincidence that, subsequent to “losing” the “space race” last year, this year is the first year in many years that the Soviet Union does not issue a set of stamps to commemorate their 12 April “Cosmonauts’ Day” anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight? 🙂

12 June, 1990

The beginning of the end. On this date, the Russian republic’s legislature, under Boris Yeltsin, passed a radical declaration of sovereignty, proclaiming Russia’s laws take precedence over those of the central Soviet government in the republic’s territory.

26 December 1991

Not quite 75 years after it was established, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved on this date.
Note that in the several years prior to that time, various components of the Soviet Union unilaterally declared independence, and various stamps appeared of varying degrees of official acceptance. Overprints of Soviet issues, and various local issues are all to be found. Some have been postally used, many have not been.


A time of huge social turmoil in Russia. A bout of almost hyper-inflation saw the rouble drop in value from its earlier “official” exchange rate which was in the order of 1R=US$1 to as low as 6000 to the dollar – which was not just a notional number that economists use but a reflection of the reality of the declining value of people’s life savings. Pensioners and others on fixed incomes saw their purchasing power and life savings drop to poverty levels, and the government did nothing to compensate. This forced many long-time collectors to sell their stamp collections in a desperate attempt to raise money to live on, bringing a lot of additional material into the market.

1 January 1998

Russia revalues its currency so that one new rouble equals 1000 old roubles. A new set of definitives are released on this date showing the new values (10, 15, 25, 30, 50 kopeek and 1, 1.50, 2, 2.50, 3 and 5 roubles – SG 6718-35, Sc 6423-33, M 628-638).

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