Thursday 2 April 2020

My third string - a different Commonwealth.

Thirty Years ago - life was so different, especially in the Soviet Union

1989 was a year of turmoil from Communist China to Eastern Europe, from Tienaman Square to the Berlin Wall, via Poland, Hungary, Czecholsovakia and Roumania, and into the Soviet Union, starting with the 300,000-strong 'Singing Revolution' in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).

There were insurrections in the Azerbaijan, Moldavia, Tajik SSRs and Lithuania declared independence in March - independence from the USSR - it was almost unbelievable, and it was resisted by Moscow.  Estonia and then Latvia followed Lithuania, the two Germanys were united, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin bounced onto the world scene as he was elected first president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

Further east, Iraq invaded Kuwait, Armenia declared independence from the USSR, and at home Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister and the Channel Tunnel linked France and the UK.  Interesting times, but most interesting for collectors with a wide view was not the joint issue of a set of stamps marking the Channel Tunnel, but what was happening in the Soviet Union over the next few years.

All over eastern Europe the fall of communism continued, not least in the USSR where, one after another, the Soviet Socialist Republics declared that they wanted independence from Moscow.  The USSR collapsed and was dissolved on 26 December 1991.  What followed was, for a period, The Commonwealth of Independent States.

But for those states, and their peoples, who had either demanded independence or had it thrust upon them, the troubles were only just beginning. The centralised control over the economy of the Soviet Union meant that the economies of many of the constituent republics had been founded on a single or few industries, with all the market for their products being controlled from Moscow. With the loss of this central control and the loss of raw material supplies from other republics, the new states were now fighting inflation by setting up their own central banks and printing their own banknotes, which created inflation. This caused all prices, including postage rates, to increase, and stamps – and the means to print them - were in short supply. Provisional stamps and surcharges proliferated. The confusion also allowed individuals to create their own free-market economy - and stamps to sell to the west.

Meanwhile in the west.
As usual I visited the big London Stamp Exhibitions.  Stampex, StampWorld '90.  There were also big events held at Wembley in at least 1995-97.  As usual I bought a few stamps, but mostly browsed the boxes of covers, looking for the unusual and cheap, because I favoured quantity over quality.  Yes, it may not be the best way of building a collection, but if you are starting something new, then buying contemporary non-philatelic material was really quite cheap in those days.

It was at one of these that I chanced upon a shoe-box full of c6-size envelopes, mostly from "Russia' but some from Albania and other east European countries. Like many I had learned the Cyrillic alphabet at school, even though I never learned Russian.  Picking out covers from the Baltic States was easy: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia had bright new stamps, although Latvia had overprinted some Soviet definitives.  These seemed a good find.  But the gem, which sparked my long-term interest - almost an obsession for a while - with this area, was this unstamped postal stationery cover.

Provisional postage from Kazakstan to India 1992 (senders address at lower right).

This has several attractions: (1) it is to India, rather than to the UK or north America; (2) it is from Kazakhstan (Республика Казахстан); (3) the postage is paid by a TP (Taxe Perçue) marking on a small duplicated label.  Although the value is written on the label, it still qualifies in many ways as a stamp.

And so I veered away from GB stamps, in the main, and acquired as much knowledge as I could about this area.  I had never collected 'Russian' stamps - those of the USSR, so the whole area was new to me.

Without the web
But how did you do research before the World Wide Web was established - Tim Berners-Lee only produced the first written proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989, and the internet was in its infancy.  Who remembers 'newsgroups', such as rec.collecting.stamps ?

It's difficult to imagine now, not opening up a web browser (ok, you have one permanently open), and tapping into the URL field a subject that you want to research.  Now, most browsers will give you a google-created list of webpages covering your field.

Then you had to look for discussions already taking place, and read, and maybe ask a question, or just post your own and hope that somebody would answer it - and all this was on a dial-up modem connection!

I had this sort of thing, provisional, typewritten labels from Ukraine, postally used(?):


Eventually I was part of a worldwide network of similarly-interested people, but still email and webpages were not widespread.  To further my studies of the provisionals of Ukraine, I purchased a groundbreaking 270-page handbook (and that's only volume 1) full of illustrations.  However this was produced in eastern Germany, and the text was in German.

It included copies of many 'official' documents from postal officials in the 25 regions of the country - translated into German (above right).

Best of all it included postage rates from 1 January 1991 to December 1993: eight rates in this short period.

Translation was not easy - and I like languages!  To get the basics I did a term of Russian at a local evening class.  Like English, Cyrillic script letters are quite different to capitals, but more so!  The script т is actually the letter T, which would be written as a small т if written upright!  Now we have google translate and although entering Cyrillic is a pain, at least German is easy enough!

Oh and if you think that is difficult, here are extracts of other languages, in their own script:
  • Armenian: Անկախ պետությունների Համագործակցություն (ԱՊՀ);  (APH)
  • Azerbaijani: Müstəqil Dövlətlər Birliyi (MDB)
  • Belarusian: Садружнасць Незалежных Дзяржаў (СНД), (SND)
  • Georgian: დამოუკიდებელი სახელმწიფოების თანამეგობრობა
  • Kazakh: Тәуелсіз Мемлекеттер Достастығы (ТМД), (TMD)
  • Kyrgyz: Көз каранды эмес мамлекеттердин шериктештиги (КМШ),  (KMŞ)
  • Moldovan: Comunitatea Statelor Independente (CSI)
  • Russian: Содружество Независимых Государств (СНГ),  (SNG)
  • Tajik: Иттиҳоди Давлатҳои Мустақил (ИДМ),  (IDM)
  • Turkmen: Garaşsyz döwletleriň arkalaşygy
  • Uzbek: Мустақил Давлатлар Ҳамдўстлиги (МДҲ),  (MDH)
(Moldovan is like Roumanian (and hence Latin), Uzebek, Tajik, Kyrgyz, Kazak, Turkmen and Azerbaijani are Turkic languages but some use a Turkic variation of Cyrillic!)

My contacts were in the USA, Australia, Canada, Holland, Germany, Ukraine, Siberia, Turkmenistan, and in this country.  But there were not many of us and resources were few.  I joined the British Society for Russian Philately and the American society Rossica.  The drawback to these societies was that whilst there was interest in all periods, the majority were interested in imperial Russia and the USSR period.  But through the BSRP I met and kept in contact with a collector and publisher from Minsk, Belarus, whose website continues to provide useful information to collectors to this day.

One collector in the US formed a new group to study just the 'New Republics', not only the 15 from the USSR but also those which formed out of Yugoslavia some years later.  But he was photocopying and posting all his material.  It was unsustainable in that form and he abandoned the distribution of information in 1995. 

As I pull back from dealing in newer Great Britain, and move to older definitives, my thoughts are on my other two main passions, modern British Postal History, and the Former Soviet Union (FSU).  I think I have more covers for the latter, but both are barely organised.  There is much to do, and for those who are interested I shall be putting more modern postal history on the accompanying blog.  I shall probably add more FSU material to the website, rather than start a third blog, but I'm open to suggestions!

So if you have anything to contribute on either topic, please do write to the email address at top right.  Illustrations should be in jpg/jpeg/png format (not pdfs, please), and no more than 300 dpi for full covers (higher for highlights, of course).

Next - On The Collector's Bookshelf.


  1. Good evening Ian, a fascinating article and perhaps a subject I should follow myself as I seem to have innumerable stamps from these various satellite countries.

    Regards Peter

  2. This may well be the wrong post, but this page from the Posteurop website might be of interest


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