Food for thought – The Philatelic consequences of the breakup of the USSR

Food for thought – The philatelic consequences of the breakup of the USSR.

The reaction of the philatelic community to the breakup of the USSR was a schizophrenic one with on the one hand a welcoming of new or revived issuing countries and on the other a distaste for the plethora of “provisionals”, local overprints and other philatelically contrived devices.

This area however offers the opportunity for relatively cheap but serious philatelic study and the possibility of making new discoveries about the way in which postal services adapt at times of huge political upheaval.

This study has relevance for the traditionalist as well, those who collect the issues of post revolutionary and pre-soviet Russia can observe first hand and with relatively fresh information these transformations. This may then provide some insight into the provisional issues of the past, their “validity” and life.

The “nothing but wallpaper” view of many 1990’s provisionals and locals has unfortunately been the loudest proclaimed which has delayed much serious research in this field. This view together with the many fakes and bogus issues has also made many a collector wary of even venturing into the field.

The research carried out in order to ascertain the postal validity and provenance of a particular issue is complex and wide ranging. It includes research not only along official lines via postal authorities but also a detailed examination of the political climate in a particular emerging country or indeed a region of one. The history of Russia is complex and has involved much movement of boundaries and people and as in any emerging new political geography politicians will ruthlessly exploit all means possible to pursue their own agenda. This is particularly the case in the post-soviet states.

In researching these new areas attention has also to be paid to the traditional tests such as correct tariffs, commercial usage, mail that can be sure to have travelled – receiver markings etc.

As with research in all troubled times anomalies have turned up and outside factors have muddied the waters, in the case of the issues of the former soviet union one large-scale problem has been the rampant inflation prevalent at various times in the different successor states. This of course is part of the rationale behind provisional issues but complicates matters by introducing rapidly changing rates, with which, even the postal clerks had problems. This of coupled with stamp shortages leads to slight over and under-frankings, which further confuse the issue.

Attention has also been paid to personal experience and observation both by myself and my family whilst traveling in Russia and Ukraine. This first hand experience of the posts and post offices is most instructive in beginning to understand how and why some things happen.

An envelope made from a postal telegram form is a case in point, at first it might seem a little suspicious – perhaps a confection from the postal clerk. Knowing however that these forms are freely available on a help yourself basis from pigeon holes at every office and having witnessed someone in a Moscow post office make a similar envelope as though it were the most natural thing in the world gives a different perspective.

The accompanying illustrations show, for a number of issues, notably those of Sevastopol, Nikolaev, Kiev and the Crimea that they were genuinely accepted for postage and have been correctly used. The two sheets of Moscow inflationary provisionals, one from the post break up inflation period of 1993 and another from the pre-rouble crash period of 1998 illustrate that the production of such items was almost routine even in the capital. These two examples are it should be added from commercial rather than philatelic mail.

The two sheets of Moldavian material at the end of the exhibit illustrate the technique of comparative analysis used when there are no published rates, in this case a completely unattractive parcel front franked with a “TP” mark has been compared with a similar front from the same time period to the same address but which is franked with provisional overprints. Such methods are not of course conclusive but are indicative of correct usage.

Likewise examination of the manuscript markings on the envelopes is also revealing, in one case here this, together with an analysis of the denominations on the cover reveal that it is not the “dubious provisionals” that are over franking the cover but a few low denomination Kiev provisionals added for philatelic flavour.   This is a nice example of a cover that in one respect is “Philatelic” has by accident become an unintentional genuine piece of postal history.

Perhaps the most interesting story is however the Crimean regional overprints. The Crimea has not been independent since the days of Peter the Great nor is it now; the issue has no UPU status and has even been denied by the Ukrainian postal authorities.

Despite all this here are some genuinely used covers with the correct franking rate that have been accepted at a Crimean post office and transmitted without postage due by The Royal Mail.

How does this come to be?

It is in fact the result of regional politics and ethnicity. When Ukraine was granted independence by Russia there was a lot of opposition to the Crimea being included in the deal, this arose from several quarters:

  1. The Russian Government wanted to keep the bulk of the Black Sea fleet and the naval facilities at Sevastopol.
  2. The ethnic composition of the Crimea since the deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin is predominantly Russian.
  3. The Crimea was originally an independent Khanate until the 1780’s and then until the mid 1950’s was divided between Russia and its neighbours. In the mid 1950’s Khrushchev’s politburo swapped the Crimea (going to the Ukrainian SSR) with a large area of fertile ‘black earth’ territory around Taganrog (going to the Russian SSR). The Tatars retuning from their Diaspora were not happy to be given over to the descendants of their old Cossack enemies and the Russians transplanted into Crimea by Stalin when the Tatars were deported in 1945 were not happy either with being passed to Ukraine or with the fact that the Tatars were allowed back……things had settled down again until more recently another Russian dictator looking for an external enemy and wishing to bolster his image and flagging state decided to invade Crimea and take it back for Russia……conveniently forgetting to offer back Taganrog of course or to ask the Tatars their opinion.
  4. Regional politicians in the Crimea sought to make this fertile and pleasant vacation destination a personal fiefdom.
  5. The politics of the Crimea was and still is predominantly communist in its outlook and thus political change of the sort promised by an independent Ukraine did not appeal. The result of this was a lot of political wheeling and dealing mixed with coercion and secret deals, the upshot being that Russia maintained her base at Sebastopol and got the lions share of the Black Sea Fleet together with Ukraine’s commitment to the SALT disarmament talks.  In return Ukraine kept the Crimea but on the basis that it formed an autonomous republic within Ukraine.   This of course was something that would never work. The Crimean regional government took the definition of autonomous very literally and began behaving very much as its own government, refusing to implement government laws or decrees, setting up de-facto customs posts and generally promoting Crimean independence.
  6. The new Ukrainian government was at this time weak and had many other problems to deal with so this situation continued for some time. It is my strong belief that these issues are at least semi-official; it is significant that one of the motifs prominently displayed is a map of Crimea and the abbreviation for Crimean Republic. It is also significant that these issues were accepted without question by the postal authorities in Crimea, I have yet to see a single cover with invalidated or unaccepted stamps.   This situation could not last however and in another later shady deal Moscow’s covert support for the Crimean separatists was bargained away in exchange for Ukrainian concessions elsewhere. This left the now stronger government able to deal with the Crimean politicians who were fairly quickly sidelined and ousted following a virtual blockade of the Crimea.   Naturally the Crimean regional issues were denied legitimacy by Kiev. On this last point it is also noteworthy that due to the rigid Soviet centralisation and control when the Ukraine was granted independence it had no record of how many post offices it actually had or their locations. This situation led to acute local shortage and a number of “postmaster provisionals” which were then described by the authorities as “unauthorised”.   This brings me to the end of this short article and to a question for you all: When is an issue genuine? Is it when it is issued by a recognised government and recognised by the UPU? Or..Is it when it is issued by a legitimate controlling authority and accepted as paying postage both inside and outside that area?