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Irresistible Passion

Philately in the USSR: ‘asocial infantilism’, escapism, and micro-dissent

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Soviet-era postage stamps illustrate the country's history in miniature, from the early years following the Communist revolution to the 1980s' perestroika. Government and public attitudes towards philatelists reflected an overall distrust of any type of 'otherness'; indeed, why would anyone spend time studying and collecting postage stamps? Thus, it should come as no surprise that periods of philatelic internationalism were followed by times of isolationism and pressure on stamp collectors. Despite efforts to place philately within the procrustean bed of Soviet propaganda, people with a passion for stamps stood out from the crowd and were often perceived as dissenters. The discussion of Soviet philately presented below is based on a paper by philologist Konstantin Bogdanov, professor at the HSE Campus in St. Petersburg.

Collector’s Obsession

An example of a stamp-collecting frenzy is described in 'The Registrar's Past' (1929), a chapter in Ilf and Petrov's famous novel 'The Twelve Chairs' featuring the biography of Ippolit Vorobyaninov, who happened to be an avid stamp collector. Humorously described in the novel as 'The father of Russian democracy' and 'a giant of thought', Vorobyaninov possessed an impressive collection of Zemstvo stamps hailed as the best in Russia. However, Vorobyaninov had a rival – Mr. Enfield, an Englishman whose collection of Russian Zemstvo stamps was even bigger and more complete. To get the upper hand, Vorobyaninov persuades the chairman of his local Zemstvo Council to issue brand-new stamps, which get printed in a limited run of just two copies, before this ‘giant of thought' destroys the printing plates. Mr. Enfield asks Vorobyaninov to sell him one of the two newly-minted rarities but receives a rude refusal.

Passion and rivalry are common among collectors of rarities. The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov described collecting as 'a dark, nervous and irresistible impulse, instinct or reflex'.

Addressing the Third Congress of Experimental Pedagogy in Petrograd in 1916, Pavlov emphasized that collecting defies a logical explanation: '<...> One cannot help being struck by the fact that the items so passionately collected are often <...> insignificant, with absolutely of no value from any perspective, except for being attractive to the collector’.

One can argue the point on 'insignificance' but not on the nature of collecting being somewhere between love and investment. As collector’s items, stamps are endowed not only with utilitarian but also with symbolic, emotional and financial value, the latter far exceeding their nominal price.

'Judging by the mere number of sites where stamps can be exchanged and purchased, philately remains attractive due to its symbolic value, when stamp collecting is seen as an activity of imminent artistic and historical significance', according to Bogdanov. In addition to symbolic value, financial considerations also play a role.

'In June 2021, the British Guiana 1¢ magenta, imperforate and cut in an octagonal shape, with the image of a three-masted schooner in the centre, of which only one specimen is known to exist, was purchased by Stanley Gibbons, the world's oldest rare stamp dealer, for the price of $8,307,000', Bogdanov explains.

Philately is one of the most popular and inclusive types of collecting, practiced, according to various estimates, by anywhere between 6 and 45 million people worldwide. The era of paper-based letters and postcards is (almost) gone, replaced by electronic correspondence, but the interest in stamps, envelopes and postcards is alive and thriving among collectors who now value postage symbols even more.

Originally, only cancelled stamps were collected, because those which could be easily bought at the post office did not provide that thrill of the chase particularly enjoyed by collectors, who often described themselves as 'hunters of postage symbols'.

Philately combines this spirit of adventure, exploration and creativity with the science of stamps. Creativity is manifested in collectors' tastes and choices (including mail art, or creation of imaginary countries’ postage stamps), while science helps with authentication and systematisation of these found treasures. In this sense, every philatelist is a geographer, historian, sociologist and culturologist rolled into one.

Birth of Philately

The first postage stamp was the Penny Black released in 1840 in Great Britain. Almost immediately, stamps became collector's items. The art and diversity of postage stamps gave these merely utilitarian items the aura of rarities.

The term originating from the Greek φιλέω [philos], 'love', and τέλος [telos], '(free from) tax or duty' was coined in 1864 by a French collector, Georges Herpin. It replaced the former terms 'timbrophilia' and 'timbrology' derived from the French timbre , stamp. Around the same time, the first philatelist societies and magazines appeared.

In Russia, the first societies of stamp collectors were founded in 1883, initially as chapters of the Dresden International Philatelic Society, with the Moscow organisation of philatelists being created a mere five years later. By the end of the 19th century, there were philatelist circles not only in St. Petersburg and Moscow but also in Riga, Kyiv, Helsingfors, Warsaw, and Odessa. Russian collectors were members of the International Union of Collectors of Zemstvo Stamps for Exchange and Purchase.

Before the 1917 revolution, Russian collectors freely traded stamps with peers in other countries – cross border philatelist exchanges flourished. A Russian citizen, Friedrich (Fyodor) Andreas Breitfuss, founded the International Philatelic Society of Dresden and owned one of the best stamp collections in the world.

Membership in philatelic societies was fee-based and seen as a pastime for the elite, endowing stamp collecting with an arcane and conspiratorial aspect.

Incidentally, certain Russian philatelic magazines, such as Philately and Russian Journal of Collectors continued to be published until mid-1918. Then Soviet philately came along, bringing something far more isolated and hermetic.

Soviet Stamps

After the communist revolution, the postal service was reorganised and stamp collecting taken under government control. In 1921, the state monopolised all international trade in stamps; private trade with foreign philatelists was banned and prosecuted under article 136 of the RSFSR Criminal Code. The government appointed official regulators of philately: the Organization of the Commissioner for Philately and Bonds (OUFB), headed by a 'professional revolutionary' and prominent collector Feodor Chuchin, and the Russian Bureau of Philately (RBF), followed by the Philatelic International (1924), the Soviet Philatelic Association, and the All-Union Society of Philatelists.

Feodor Chuchin is widely considered to be the key person behind Soviet state-controlled philately. He founded Soviet Collector (originally, Soviet Philatelist ), a magazine published between 1922 and 1933, and initiated the All-Union Exhibition of Philately and Bonds, the first major stamp exhibition in the USSR, held in the winter of 1924-1925.

Held during the years of the New Economic Policy, this first exhibition featured private collections with numerous stamps from pre-revolutionary Russia and foreign countries. In contrast, the next philatelic exhibition held in Moscow in December 1932 showcased a very different mix of collections, presented by the People's Commissariat for Communications only.

The country had changed dramatically over the eight years between these two exhibitions, with the NEP cancelled and Stalin rising to power. Instead of 'capitalist' stamps, those issued in the USSR took centre stage and by that time, they had been turned into a Soviet propaganda tool. Driven by ideological isolationism, the state sought to exclude foreign stamps from the reach of Soviet collectors completely.

According to culturologist and researcher of socialist realism Yevgeny Dobrenko, the allegorical imagery of early post-revolutionary years (such as The Liberated Proletarian on the first Soviet stamp issued in 1921, the Emblems of Industrial Labour and Emblems of Peasant Labour series, Worker , Harvester ) and industrial slogans (e.g. ‘For industrialization of the USSR’) was gradually replaced by commemorative images, e.g. those issued in the memory of Lenin in 1924.

Ambitious, mainly Moscow-based, projects, such as the construction of the Moscow Metro, the first All-Union Congress of Architects, and the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition (later to become VDNKh), became frequent themes of stamp art. During and immediately after the Great Terror in 1938-1939, bombastic stamp series depicting sea resorts came out, such as 'Views of the Crimea and the Caucasus' featuring Yalta, Alupka, Gurzuf, Sukhumi and Kislovodsk. 'The country’s vast periphery was hardly ever pictured', adds Bogdanov.

'Enemies of the People' Label

In the late 1930s, many stamp collectors – both prominent and ordinary – were targeted by political repression. 'In the context of the government-driven spy hunt, organisations with connections outside of the USSR were deemed suspicious', according to the researcher. 'This happened to the Esperantist Society, and then the same fate befell the Soviet Philatelic Association and the All-Union Society of Philatelists <...>'.

Between 1922 to 1938, in order to trade stamps with foreigners, Soviet citizens had to go through a special agency in charge of transborder correspondence; they had to pay a fee and give their names to be registered in the agency’s books. After 1938, when all correspondence with foreigners was banned, records made in these books were used by the NKVD to locate potential 'enemies of the people'.

American historian Jonathan Grant found that repression against Soviet philatelists was driven mainly by mid-level Communist party functionaries who found stamp collecting hard to explain and therefore suspected the international stamp trade constituted illegal speculation, especially by association with private enterprise and foreign exchange transactions, both strictly prohibited in the USSR.

Seen in this context, the innocent hobby was perceived as dangerous, while philatelists' pledges of ideological loyalty and references to the propagandist value of stamps did not sound convincing enough. Even arguments involving the heroes of communism – Karl Marx whose daughter collected stamps and Friedrich Engels who helped with building her stamp collection – did not work.

Bogdanov agrees with Grant who links the 1930s repression against philatelists with an overall trend towards tighter government control over non-governmental organisations and with the propagation of conspiracy theories following Stalin's statement that the class struggle and external threats would escalate to stop the USSR from successfully building socialism.

Bogdanov argues, however, that Grant has overlooked an important aspect, namely that stamp collecting did not fit in with the widely promoted collectivist values. Being perceived as 'different' in a society declared to be uniform, philatelists could not avoid repression even by pledging political loyalty.

Before World War II, all private philatelic organisations in the USSR ended up being closed down, and stamp collecting, while still accepted as an educational tool, was taken fully under government control as a high-risk activity with the potential for illegal trade.

Philately during Khrushchev's Thaw

Partial liberalisation under Khrushchev caused philately, as well as the broader cultural sphere, to revive and to open up to the outside world. The 1957 Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow was a landmark event making it possible for Soviet citizens to communicate with foreigners again. The Moscow City Society of Collectors, which included philatelists, was established. In March 1966, the All-Union Society of Philatelists (VOF) was launched, followed a few months later by Philately in the USSR , a magazine that eventually survived the Soviet Union's collapse.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, stamps largely depicted 'happy lives of Soviet people' and featured diverse propaganda-style images. Many stamps portrayed the classics of Marxism-Leninism, Communist Party officials, and heroes of the 1917 Revolution, Civil and Great Patriotic War. Other themes included the Communist Party congresses, achievements of Soviet industry, science and sports, Soviet peoples' friendship, and cooperation with the socialist bloc countries. From 1961 onwards, stamps also celebrated the USSR's space explorations.

Some Soviet stamps carried portraits of other countries' scientists and authors, such as Carl Linnaeus, Nicolaus Copernicus, William Blake, Henry Longfellow, and Hafiz Shirazi. However, global events were consistently played down and presented as a ‘long-gone past', with Soviet history in the limelight.

As the Iron Curtain fell after World War II, philately, in particular pre-Communist and foreign stamps, opened a small window to the outside world for Soviet citizens. Stamp collectors were like travellers in time and space, and even non-collectors, by opening a stamp album, could feel the flavour of different continents and historical eras. In this sense, philately was part of the broader travel culture with cosmopolitanism built into it.

Although opportunities for physical travel across borders were limited for Soviet people, there were no limits to imaginary travel, for example that inspired by Samuil Marshak's 'Pochta' ['Post'] (1927). Its hero is the eminent writer Boris Zhitkov who had the privilege of being able to travel around the world, while a registered letter sent to his Leningrad address followed him to Berlin, London and Brazil, only to go full circle and reach the addressee back in Leningrad. In 1929, artist and animator Mikhail Tsekhanovsky produced the first Soviet animated film based on this poem.

Later, in the 1960s, tens of thousands of Soviet people from all walks of life went on imaginary travels by leafing through stamp albums and stockbooks. Alongside adventure books and infrequent screenings of foreign films, this served as a way to escape everyday reality.

Sectarians, Escapists, Rebels

Unlike the taste for imaginary travel shared by many, a collector’s obsession with stamps was not something most people could understand, meaning philatelists were often considered weird.According to Bogdanov, non-philatelists often perceived stamp collectors as sectarians or infantile escapists holding on to values which were out of sync with those shared by the broader community.

An illustration of this alleged combination of escapism and 'alien' values is the title character of Dima Gorin's Career, a 1961 romantic comedy directed by Frunze Dovlatyan and Lev Mirsky. Dima, the main character, is played by Aleksandr Demyanenko (who also starred as Shurik in a number of Leonid Gaidai's comedies). While the characters of Dima and Shurik are in many ways similar, Dima Gorin is clearly an individualist, in contrast to Shurik who fits in perfectly with the Soviet collectivist ideology.

A deputy manager at a savings bank, Dima Gorin expects to be promoted soon to branch manager. Dima wears eyeglasses and looks somewhat nerdy; he is not a member of the Komsomol; on top of that, he is a philatelist with a passion for foreign stamps – all making him a 'non-Soviet element'. By the end of the film, Dima is completely reformed after he travels to Siberia, meets a construction team installing an electric power line through the taiga, falls in love with a woman on the team, and changes career to be one of them. He even joins the Komsomol against the backdrop of a newly constructed power line. What more could one want from life?

In his book A Country Named Philately, Soviet artist and writer Boris Kissin refers to the depiction of a stamp collector by the Russian-Italian painter Gregorio Sciltian as illustrating 'everything a Soviet philatelist should not be': 'An untidy, cluttered room. <...> Tired hands, dull eyes. Stamps are the only passion left in his life.’ This capitalist version of collecting, according to Kissin, is alien to Soviet people. 'Stamps are not for escaping the world but for understanding it better', he explains. 'We collect stamps <...>to live fully and more joyfully for greater benefit to ourselves and others'. It is symptomatic that Kissin, an avid philatelist himself, tries to 'justify' philately by placing it within the prescribed ideological agenda.

Another trait ascribed to philatelists was infantilism, based on a common belief that collecting stamps was okay for children and adolescents but not for adults, indicating that their proper socialization might have been delayed.

Despite many examples of prominent Soviet stamp collectors, such as composer Dmitry Kabalevsky, actor Mikhail Zharov, world chess champion Anatoly Karpov and others, this stereotype still affected most philatelists whose 'individualistic' hobby was seen as incompatible with collectivist values.

Bogdanov recalls, 'Based on my personal observations as a teenager attending weekly meetings of philatelists in the Volodarsky Palace of Culture in St. Petersburg between 1977 and 1979, most philatelists gathering there were interested in stamps having little to do with the ideological guidance provided in Philately in the USSR . <...> Some collectors were interested in stamps depicting fauna or flora, some in German stamps of the Nazi era, and some others in stamps with portraits of Napoleon and Josephine'.

Most collectors meeting in the House of Culture were older men who may have started their collections during the ideological liberalisation of the late 1950s and early 1960s. According to Bogdanov, their collections were thematically remote from the Soviet visual propaganda and featured historical references and apolitical images of animals and plants which 'added diversity to the officially accepted information about the world'.

Microscopic Dissent

Collecting combines rationality with passion, and philately is no exception. Collectors examine stamps at an almost microscopic level, noticing every typo, shade of colour and perforation, as all these details influence the value and price of a stamp. Soviet philatelists were as meticulous as any other type of collector throughout history, with perhaps an additional and unsurpassed ability to read between the lines.

One example of extreme attention to detail is described in a 1915 issue of Philately : an enthusiastic stamp collector, having reviewed more than a 100,000 seven-kopeck stamps issued in 1883, proudly reported having found several stamps with a shifted background or without an internal frame, and one stamp with a single dot – instead of two dots – following the word kop[eck]. Several issues of the magazine featured an extensive study of Russia's early stamps with a detailed account of relevant circumstances and a description of minute differences in form, colour shades, watermarks, etc.

Soviet philatelists were also on the lookout for details having a political connotation.

As an example, experts have noticed that in the 1951 Illustrated Album of USSR Stamps, a few pieces from the 1933 ethnographic series were missing, namely those dedicated to the Chechens, Jews and Crimean Tatars. The catalogue also lacked a 1945 military stamp depicting the flags of USSR's allies in the anti-Hitler coalition ('Long live the victory of the Anglo-Soviet-American military alliance!'). Likewise, the 1972 Israeli stamp with the inscription 'Let My People Go' in Russian looked ambiguous when viewed within the contemporary Soviet context.

Shadow of Perestroika

By the end of the Era of Stagnation, official philately was completely loyal to the government, but society's attitude towards collectors was nevertheless still suspicious, since trading in stamps continued to be associated with illegal speculation and foreign currency transactions.

'By the end of the 1980s, with the Soviet regime obsolete and relations between government and society overly hypocritical and cynical, stamp collecting was almost unquestionably associated with illegal speculation', according to Bogdanov. 'The somewhat relaxed control of private contacts with foreigners added diversity to the philatelic market but also confirmed the assumption that philately was a sort of illegal business'.

Suspicious attitudes towards collectors for being ‘different’ persisted, as illustrated by Bespredel, a 1989 crime drama directed by Igor Gostev based on a script by Leonid Nikitsky. Victor 'Philatelist' Moshkin, a young inmate unfairly convicted on charges of illegal speculation in postage stamps, fights to stop the abuse of prisoners by their peers collaborating with the prison administration. At the end, Philatelist dies but a friend continues his fight for human dignity. The film shows clearly that the young philatelist is always perceived as a pariah by the authorities.

In Conclusion

The Soviet ideological project was ambitious and all-encompassing. Anything that was not fully aligned with its values, and the unquestioned priority of the collective over the private, was doomed. Brief periods of tolerance for 'otherness' always gave way to a tightening of the screws on dissent. Despite collectors' efforts to protect philately by presenting it as a helpful propaganda vehicle, the authorities were suspicious of anything that threatened the ideal of Soviet homogeneity.

Bogdanov believes that the history of Soviet philately provides material for reflection on the role of leisure activities which conflict with the ‘established social and psychological value systems' and ultimately defy ideological control.


Study author:
Konstantin Bogdanov, Professor, Department of Philology, School of Arts and Humanities, HSE Campus in St. Petersburg
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, April 12, 2022