150th Anniversary of the Postal Stamp in Russia Celebrated in December
By Linda Lippner
There was news in October that CEO of Sberbank, Andrei Kazmin is going to work his financial wizardry on the Russian postal service. Kazmin has a challenge ahead of him to reverse the Russian Post defi cit of $112 million last year. The system is huge, serving the largest geographical nation on the planet, with 40,000 offices and tens of thousands of employees, all of whom are sorting and delivering mail without the benefi t of computerized sorting equipment or a reliable surface transportation fl eet. The Russian Government recently approved a $2 billion program to revamp the Russian postal service, but no details of the plan have been released. The appointment of the super-successful Kazmin is promising for a system that needs to modernize in order to compete.
Ironically, all of this change is taking place as the fi rst postal stamps in Russia celebrate their 150th anniversary. In the 1850’s the postal system in the Russian empire was very inefficient due to old fashioned methods of sending a letter with cash paid at the time of delivery at the postal office. No mailboxes or stamps existed, and no extended network of collection and delivery points had been established. In Europe, the forerunner of the modern postal system was took hold in May of 1840 in England, established by Royal Postmaster Roland Hill. Citizens could buy postage stamps and “pre-post” envelopes at a certain set tariff. Russia experimented with this method as well, and set a price of 10 kopeks for a letter of average weight sent anywhere within Russia. Stationery envelopes bearing a stamp of the “Great Kingdom of Finland” soon followed in January of 1845, and St. Petersburg was issuing pre-paid postal envelopes by December of 1845. Special letter boxes were positioned around the city for the collection of these pre-paid envelopes, and large and small stores also installed collection boxes in order for “residents to have the opportunity to send letters through the City Post without paying for them in cash upon presentation. No other payment was necessary,” announced the Russian Postal Service in 1845. This convenience to the population must have seemed miraculous! Soon, letter collection boxes were installed in other cities and towns throughout Russia, and in rail stations, too. Postal service outside of big cities went from summer-only collection to year-round, and the State All Russian Post was on its way to what it is today.
The anniversary we are celebrating in Russia at the end of 2007, however, has to do with the first Russian postage stamp. By the 1840’s stamp collecting had become a profi table and fashionable hobby in Europe. There was much pressure to develop a system of Russian postal stamps, based on different weights of a letter with different charges for those weights. As bureaucracies are timeless and eternal, it became an exercise in meticulous research, bureaucratic deliberation and no full steam ahead to develop the first Russian postage stamp. And it was left up to Czar Alexander II to make the important decision to call them postage stamps rather than the suggested “postmarked stamps.”
But let us back up a few years. In 1851 after a proposal by the manager of the Postal Department and Postal Delivery by Railway, Aleksey P. Charukovsky, this enterprising bureaucrat was sent abroad to study the postal delivery systems in Europe. Charukovsky returned to Russia confi dently suggesting that issuing Russian postal stamps for the convenience of the population and the ultimate profit of the government was the way to proceed. Charukovsky went on to suggest several designs for the postal stamps which included round and rectangular shapes, using the State Coat of Arms and printed in various colors on water-marked silk threaded paper. Another design included the head of Mercury symbolizing swift-footed delivery. Other designs were suggested, proofed and rejected and as philatelic collectors know, these are rare finds indeed in their world. Ultimately, the fi nal designs devised by the engraver F.M. Kepler were accepted which consisted of a medallion with the Coat of Arms in the center, a “mantle” of the Czar with his crown on the top; obstensibly protecting the symbol of the State, and crossed “post” horns below. Three different color combinations were finally chosen; brown with a blue center for 10 kopeks, blue with an orange center for 20 kopeks and carmine with a yellow-green center for 30 kopeks. The Czar signed off on all three priced versions and production began. On December 10th, 1857, the Postal Department of the Russian Post announced the introduction of postage stamps as payment for private correspondence and by the end of the month, over 10,500 had been sold. Officially, the stamps were not to be used until January 1st 1858 but several stamps were cancelled on letters in the waning days of 1857 and collectors find these rare examples of the postage horse getting out of the gate a little early to be an exceptional find.
The process of choosing stamp adhesives, thickness of stamp paper, perforations, watermarks, the evolution of cancellation stamps is all fodder for another article about stamps in Russia, but these few words will suffice to describe what was in the beginning, 150 years ago, what has become today, a huge service run by the Russian Federal Government, now is in the throes of an overhaul and much hoped-for profi tability.