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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Chronicling the revolution: Soviet stamps 1917-1960

First published in October 1960, this is a fascinating, illustrated look at the history of Soviet stamps in the first forty-three years of the revolution.

Stamps actually tell you a lot about a society, what it sees as important and its history. Soviet stamps -- many of which are really beautiful -- are no exception.

The stamps -- from the very first days of the new socialist state to the dark days of WWII to the remarkable recovery after the victory -- chronicle an incredible story of revolution, resilience and rebuilding.

"The design of the first Soviet stamp symbolized the creative labor of a people free of exploitation -- a worker trampling a prostrate dragon at the opening of a cave and looking toward the rising sun.

Since 1921 almost 2500 stamps have been issued in the Soviet Union whose themes are as

different from the old stamps as every aspect of life after the Revolution is different from old times. Soviet stamps are a history in miniature, a reminder of great tasks and great achievements in all spheres of national endeavor."

Text from USSR Magazine, October 1960 by Vyacheslav Merkulov:

ПРTOYTACCCP —this inscription, which means USSR Mail, is the identification of one of the largest and busiest postal services in the world. It appears on each stamp issued in the

Soviet Union.

The average letter writer is likely to forget about these beautifully illustrated labels the

moment he glues them on an envelope. Not the stamp collector, however. He has a cautious eye for the off-beat — the almost invisible variations in print, paper, perforation and color shades that make a particular stamp rare. To acquire such a rarity he will travel many miles and spend many more rubles than the nominal price.

There are hundreds of thousands of these indefatigable collectors of every age and vocation in the Soviet Union. The venerable academician and the adolescent schoolboy are both members in equally good standing in the country's philatelic societies. Many collect the stamps of all countries, but the greater number specialize in Soviet issues. Among them are some who are interested only in stamps illustrating historical events, others only in stamps with portraits of great men. Then there are collectors of stamps devoted to science and technology, or natural scenery and animals, or sports, or children, or you name it.

Soviet stamps provide plenty of room for variation and special interest. Even a partial listing of the themes used for Soviet commemoratives reads like an encyclopedia: history, geography, industry, farming, flora and fauna, political and government leaders, scientists, writers, musicians, explorers, memorable dates and events both at home and abroad, peace and friendship among the peoples of the world. Many stamps are devoted to Lenin, founder of the Communist Party and the Soviet state.

It was in 1845 that the first franked envelope was used in Russia. In 1858 the first stamp

was issued. It showed the imperial eagle in a blue oval. In the sixty years up to the Socialist Revolution there were 128 stamps issued with scarcely any variation in design — they pictured either the reigning czar or the double- headed eagle.

Besides regular stamps for general use and some local issues, there were stamps for the Russian postal services in Turkey, China and Crete. There were also stamps issued by the czarist government for Finland and Poland, which before the Revolution formed part of the Russian empire.

The first Soviet stamp was issued in August 1921, somewhat less than four years after the Revolution. In the interim some czarist issues and various non- postal stamps of the pre

revolutionary period were used, as well as postal stamps issued by the provisional government of Kerensky in 1917 but placed in circulation only in 1918. During this same period there were also stamps issued by local post offices. In 1922 all these stamps were withdrawn from circulation.

The design of the first Soviet stamp symbolized the creative labor of a people free of exploitation -- a worker trampling a prostrate dragon at the opening of a cave and looking toward the rising sun.

Since 1921 almost 2500 stamps have been issued in the Soviet Union whose themes are as

different from the old stamps as every aspect of life after the Revolution is different from old times. Soviet stamps are a history in miniature, a reminder of great tasks and great achievements in all spheres of national endeavor.

The first mass series of standard stamps honored the new masters of the country -- the workers and the peasants. Designs for these stamps were copied from sculptured figures done by Ivan Shadr.

Most interesting among the issues of the twenties were the stamps marking the anniversaries of the Socialist Revolution. Their themes were landmarks on the path of a people building a new life.

In 1929 a series commemorating the first five- year plan was released. Its theme was the

industrialization of the country. The first stamp in this series shows a worker at his lathe, and

the inscription is a popular slogan of that time: “For lower costs, for labor discipline, for better quality of production.” The second stamp shows a blast furnace, and its slogan reads: “More

metal, more machines.” The third stamp illustrates the country's goal to increase metal output,

and the fourth shows the first Soviet tractors working in the fields. This four- stamp series which pictures the country's initial steps toward today's industrial might is now a prized collector's item.

From its earliest days the Soviet Union has worked for friendly relations with other countries.

About 500 stamps issued at various times use this theme. An especially large number came out in the late thirties and the years following, a period marked by major developments in Soviet international relations.

A three- stamp series was devoted to the 1937 Paris World's Fair in which the Soviet Union

participated. Two commemorative series were devoted to Soviet nonstop flights over the North Pole to the United States in 1937 -- first in the history of aviation. Among later issues on Soviet-American contacts are stamps dedicated to the USSR pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, the Soviet Exhibition in New York in 1959 and Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States later that year.

Many stamps are devoted to the theme of international peace. As far back as 1934, on the

twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, a five-stamp antiwar series was issued

a peaceful city bombed from the air, people fleeing a burning city, maimed soldiers returning

home from the front, an ugly warrior with a sword destroying everything in his path, and

soldiers fraternizing at the front.

During World War II most of the stamps were devoted to the theme of struggle against the

nazi invaders. One, designed by artist Ilya Koretsky, portrays a mother seeing her boy off to

the front. The inscription on the stamp reads: “Be a Hero!” The turning point of the war,

the defeat of the nazi army at Stalingrad, is depicted in a stamp designed by Viktor Klimashin.

It carries the inscription: “Stalingrad, the Hero City.” Other stamps commemorated famous

heroes and unknown soldiers, partisans fighting behind the enemy lines, people at the home front working for defense, the liberation of the country and V- day.

Many stamps of the earliest postwar issues show the nation working on the great task of rebuilding the economy. Subsequent issues show the progress of industry and farming, science and technology. The world's first atomic power station put into operation in 1954, the epoch making first sputnik, the cosmic rocket going into orbit around the sun and the other landing on the moon, the space laboratory photographing the moon's hidden side, the atomic

icebreaker Lenin launched in 1959—all these achievements are pictured in commemorative


Among the stamps devoted to peace themes the most interesting are the series catalogued

under the titles: “We are for Peace,” “Peace Will Conquer War,” “For Disarmament and

International Cooperation.” Many stamps are devoted to such events reflecting combined under takings of many nations as the International Geophysical Year, the World's Fair at Brussels or the Olympic Games.

Many more new issues in recent years have been dedicated to world - famous figures in literature, the arts and the sciences both at home and abroad. Among the great men of other

countries to be honored in commemoratives were Victor Hugo, Robert Burns, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Heinrich Heine, George Bernard Shaw, Rembrandt

and Mozart -- to mention only a few.

All stamps in the Soviet Union are issued by the Ministry of Communications. Their designs are done by many distinguished artists. Frequently open contests are announced for the best

commemorative, and people all over the country -- both professional and amateur artists

submit drawings. One such recent contest was for the best stamp based on children's drawings.

Many of the Soviet stamps have been acknowledged outstanding works of art at world

philatelic exhibitions. Gold medals were awarded Soviet issues at international stamp exhibitions at Basel in 1948, Leipzig in 1950, Ricione (Italy) in 1952 and Rome in 1954.

1. The first stamp of the young Soviet Republic, issued in August 1921. The worker trampling a prostrate dragon and stretching his hand toward the rising sun from the opening of a cave symbolizes labor freed from exploitation .

2-4. A 1946 series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the issuance of Soviet stamps.

5-14. A 1958 series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first stamp issued in Russia. Illustrated in the first row is the evolution of postal service from the 15th through the 19th centuries (5-9). Stamp with Lenin's portrait (10) is inscribed with his statement on the significance of the postal and telegraph services for socialism. Stamp showing the Communications Museum in Leningrad (12) has an inscription dedicated to its stamp collection, one of the world's largest and most complete. Other stamps in this group show a variety of transportation means used for postal delivery.

15-28. Some of the air mail stamps. A 1922 commemorative for the 5th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution overprinted with a plane silhouette (15) was the first stamp to be used for air mail, but the first stamp actually designed for air mail (16) was issued in 1923. A commemorative for the first International Air Mail Conference (17). A stamp from a 1937 series showing various types of Soviet planes of that period (18). A stamp from a 1951 series devoted to aviation sports (19). The next two stamps (20 and 21), illustrating air mail service to remote parts of the country, are philatelic rarities because of their overprints dedicated to the Soviet

North Pole air expedition in 1955. A commemorative for the TU - 104, the world's first jet airliner, and some of its early routes (23). Other stamps in this group show various models of modern Soviet civil aircraft.

29-38. Commemoratives for some of the major events of Soviet history prior to World War II: from the series marking the 1923 Exhibition of Agriculture, Industry and Handicrafts that summed up early gains in rebuilding the country (29); from a 1929 series illustrating the goals of the industrialization program started by the first five year plan (30); from the series commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution -- the newly built Dnieper Hydro power Station, Europe's largest at the time (31); from a 1939 series dedicated to the opening of the permanent USSR Agricultural Exhibition showing achievements in collective farming (32); sculptured figures of a worker and a collective farm woman with hammer and sickle, a symbol of the unity of the two classes of Soviet society, for the USSR pavilion at the 1937 Paris World's Fair (33); the USSR pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair (34); the first Soviet air expedition to the North Pole in 1937 (35); the first USSR-USA nonstop flights over the North Pole in 1937 -- in June by Chkalov, Baidukov and Belyakov (36) , and in July by Gromov, Yumashev and Daniiin (37); the drift across the Arctic Ocean of the ice breaker Georgi Sedov in 1937-40 (38).

39-41. World War II and postwar reconstruction. A sample of wartime commemoratives (39) -- it is dedicated to the Battle of Stalingrad. A commemorative for the 1943 Teheran Conference (40) whose inscription is a call for victory. The Dnieper Hydro power Station rebuilt from the ruins left by the nazi invaders (41).

42-46. Building communism: from a 1960 series honoring Lenin, the founder of the Communist Party and the Soviet state (42); from a series commemorating the Socialist

Revolution (43) -- the storming of the Winter Palace on October 25, 1917 (November 7, New Style now in use); from another series commemorating the Socialist Revolution the new worker (44) and the new farmer (45) shown in contrast with the old (see lower left corners); from the series commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Young Communist League (46).

47-51. One of the many series picturing Lenin's life: the house in Ulyanovsk, formerly Simbirsk, where he spent his childhood (47); Lenin at Smolny Institute, the headquarters of the October Socialist Revolution (49); young Lenin with his fellow students at the University of Kazan (50); the historical moment when Soviet power was proclaimed (51)

52-59. A few samples of stamps dedicated to children: with Lenin (52 and 53); Young Pioneers (54 and 55); a 1960 series reproducing drawings done by children (56-59).

60-74. Capitals of the USSR's fifteen Union Republics and their national emblems: Moscow, capital of the USSR and of the Russian Federation (60); Kiev, Ukraine (61); Minsk, Byelorussia (62); Tashkent, Uzbekistan (63) Alma- Ata, Kazakhstan (64); Tbilisi, Georgia (65); Baku, Azerbaijan (66); Vilnius, Lithuania (67); Kishinev, Moldavia (68); Riga, Latvia (69); Frunze, Kirghizia (70); Stalinabad, Tajikistan (71); Yerevan, Armenia (72); Ashkhabad, Turkmenia (73); Tallinn, Estonia (74).

75-82. The Soviet Union for world peace. Bronze figure Beating Swords into Plowshares by Vuchetich displayed at the 1959 Soviet Exhibition in New York and then presented to the United Nations as a gift from the Soviet Union (75). For disarmament and international cooperation (76). Atoms for peace: the world's first atomic power station (77) and the world's first atom-powered icebreaker Lenin (78). The 10th anniversary of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights (79). The USSR pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair (80). The 1959 Soviet Exhibition of Science, Technology and Culture in New York (81). Nikita Khrushchev's visit to the United States last year (82).

83-92. Soviet contributions to international scientific cooperation. The 1956 expedition to Antarctica (83). Research stations on drifting ice floes in the Arctic Ocean (84 and 85). Scientific bases in Antarctica set up under the International Geophysical Year program (86). The Vityaz, one of the Soviet floating laboratories for IGY oceanographic research (87). A 1958 series for the International Geophysical Year, illustrating different research fields: meteorology (88); study of the aurora borealis (89); study of geomagnetism (90) -- this stamp shows the non-magnetic ship Zarya which was especially equipped for this type of research; study of solar activity (91); study of meteors (92).

93-101. Exploring the cosmos. A commemorative for Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who at the turn of this century did the pioneering theoretical research on jet propulsion and was first to substantiate the idea of space investigation with rockets (93). When Sputnik I, the world's first artificial earth satellite, was launched on October 4, 1957, this stamp was overprinted with an inscription to commemorate the epoch - making event. Now the over

printed Tsiolkovsky stamp is a philatelic rarity. Almost simultaneously a stamp actually designed to commemorate Sputnik I was issued (94). Each of the successive space - exploring probes was commemorated by a special issue: Sputnik II carrying the dog Laika, the first cosmic traveler, was marked by a stamp that symbolically shows mankind penetrating the cosmos (95); Sputnik III was marked by an unusual double stamp whose inscription reads: “May 15, 1958. A third artificial earth satellite that weighed 1327 kilograms and rose to an altitude of 1880 kilometers was launched in the Soviet Union under the IGY program” (96); the first cosmic rocket that passed near the moon and then went into orbit around the sun (97); the second cosmic rocket that landed on the moon (98); the third cosmic rocket that photographed the hidden side of the moon (99 and 100); the 10,000- pound spaceship launched May 15 , 1960 , that orbited around the earth with a dummy astronaut (101).

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