Cinderellas, part four: Illegal stamps! 2. Outlaws from the exploding USSR

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There is nothing overtly illegal about this cover, as far as I know. It was sent to me through the mail from Kiev in 1992, the year Ukraine regained its independence. So I can vouch for the authenticity of the cover and the stamps on it. Below left are three copies of the 20-kopek USSR definitive stamp of 1988. Upper right is a 3-kopek value from the same set, this one overprinted with the distinctive trident symbol of Ukraine. The Soviet “CCCP” (SSSR) in the cancel, as well as the use of USSR stamps, is jarringly archaic. This envelope came from “independent” Ukraine. It bears a stamp with an overprint proclaiming Ukrainian sovereignty. Seems to me the Soviet stamps are technically illegal on this letter, if you go by Universal Postal Union rules. And by the way, how come Ukrainian postal officials couldn’t get around to creating cancellations in the name of their newly freed country? Get a move on!

The fracture of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a kaleidoscope of new philatelic ventures. In the Baltic region, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia regained their sovereignty  and began issuing stamps in their own names for the first time since before World War II. In  Ukraine, Armenia, Ajerbaijan and Georgia, their last stamps were issued in 1923, when they became part of the Soviet Union. Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan would be issuing the first stamps of  newly sovereign states.

More philatelic light shards spun off during the seismic weeks and months between the USSR and state governance. “Local issues,” also called
“provisionals,” sparked everywhere as one self-styled postal authority after another stamped their micro-national overprints on copies of the last definitive set of the USSR, across all nine time zones of the Soviet vastness. There were so many local issues that I despair of compiling a complete list. (So far I have 68 on my incomplete list.)

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These are examples of the last set of definitive stamps issued by the Soviet Union, in 1988. Pretty cute, eh? They were overprinted as “local issues” from one end of the USSR to the other in 1992-3.

A philatelic meteor shower occurred in Ukraine. There, a local issue appeared bearing the names of 25 Ukrainian cities (Ternopil, Sevastopol, Lvov, Kiev, Loots … ), in effect creating 25 new philatelic authorities. (see below)

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The same trident overprint, above, is used (spuriously) on “local” issues from Odessa and Zurupirisk in 1992-3.

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A century-old trident overprint on a Russian stamp displays the distinctive symbol of Ukraine.

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The “stamp” at left features the trident and  commemorates 25 years of Ukrainian something-or-other. It was released in 1954. The set above right honors the Olympics in 1960. These are all bogus stamps. Ukraine used only USSR stamps from 1923 until 1991. So where did these come from? And why were they made?

 

fullsizeoutput_1a2fThis illegal Cinderella series from 1958, which marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukraine National Republic, makes its propaganda point pretty clearly: Rise up, Ukrainians!
(Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)

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fullsizeoutput_1a2eHere are some creepy covers. I don’t suppose you would list as Cinderellas these stamps from Nazi-occupied Ukraine in World War II. The stamps were “legal” in their creepy way. The top example is a philatelic cover created in 1942, during the brief Nazi expansionist era. (Notice how the efficient Nazis already had their own cancellation for Ukraine.) By March of 1943, when the cover at right was mailed, the wheels were coming off the Nazi juggernaut. I like to think this envelope shows evidence of desperate times — the haphazard address and placement of stamps, the general wear and tear, one stamp with a corner missing …

fullsizeoutput_1a32Here is another illegal Cinderella from Ukraine that I include because it features the familiar trident — and also because of the crude art work, overprint and around-the-edge lettering, “world refugee year, 1959-60.” It would rank as one of the worst stamps ever designed, were it not for the fact that it’s not really a stamp to begin with.

 

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Do you have a Ukrainian friend? Perhaps he or she could explain what it is about the Ukraine point of view that countenances producing all these stamps for a fictitious independent state of Ukraine? Look at them all! Bogus, every one. And I expect this is far from a complete collection of Ukrainian Cinderellas …

 

 

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Compare this unusual inverted overprint with the stamp on the envelope illustrated at the start of this essay (see enlargement, below). That one was authentic; Is this one?  The stamps looks very similar, though these   carry different values  (5,00 instead of 3,00), and the overprint is red, not gold. The dealer describes the item as Version 2“unlisted,” which raises my suspicions. Nevertheless, Yours Truly shelled out $13.75 for this “error.” What’s an illegal error worth?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fancy commemoratives of the ex-Soviet Union also were appropriated and overprinted as local issues. These two sets carry the names of Russian territory — Zapolarye and Severomorsk.

 

 

Artistic overprints expanded to cover miltiple stamps at a time, creating a new image superimposed on the block-of-four underneath it.

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In the case of these Ukraine-based overprints (above), the “new” images, imprinted on blocks-of-four of USSR definitive stamps, mimic a set produced by independent Ukraine in 1922 but never issued (wonder why?). Note the enlarged images (below) of the 5 and 10 (kopek?) values. The originals stamps are to the left, the overprints at right. Clever, eh?

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The overprints may be crude,  witty, garish or elegant by turns. The regional claims to postal authority become so microscopic or abstract as to be almost ludicrous. What, pray tell, are the borders of Birobidzhan, the Jewish Autonomous Region? Russian Antarctica? Mari-El Republic?

One should wonder: Do these stamps bear any relation to real postage stamps? Or was some guy sitting in his basement turning out these illegal Cinderellas with a pile of stamps and a rudimentary printing press? Certainly there is no reliable postal value to these stamps. Have you ever seen any of them cancelled on a postally used cover? I haven’t.  (Dealer Frank Geiger claimed to have covers for sale with local issues, i.e.,  used for postage.)

Safe to say, a great many of these stamps could be rightly identified (or dismissed) as illegal Cinderellas. There is certainly enough background on these spurious issues by now to make it clear we are talking about unauthorized  stamps. The Philatelic Webmasters Organization lists 35 “members” of the Russian federation whose names are found on illegal issues, including the Kuril Islands, the Republic of Karelia,  Republic of Ingushetia, Spitsbergen Island, Republic of Tatarstan …

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Suddenly I am confronted with a smoking gun: a detailed description of some illegals that are right there in my collection! The Wikipedia entry on “illegal stamps” identifies a specific example, with a large illustration. The caption describes “Stamps of the Soviet Union with overprints supposedly from the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic.” This unwieldy title, also known as  PMR, covers territory in the former Soviet republic of Moldava — specifically Transnistra — that didn’t want to break away from the Soviet Union. When the USSR collapsed, the PMR was basically out of luck and out of business. The stamps illustrated above “were produced in 1992 or 1993 without the knowledge or permission of PMR authorities,” according to Wikipedia. Philatelic scholar Niall Murphy has taken the trouble to study the “Sun Rays Group” of PMR  overprints. There is just no way these stamps can be legal. And there they are, right in my stockbook! It looks like I may have paid $16 for them. The dealer described them as “civil war issues,” staking a vague claim to legitimacy amid the exigencies and fog of battle. I should not have been fooled. Would I be fooled again? Indubitably, because I am fascinated by the first philatelic yelps of new nations being born. The awkward overprints, the false starts and early designs, surcharges, errors — all combine into a revealing portrait of collective human invention, refracted through the lens of philately.

All this means I was a sucker for these “new issue from new republics”  come-ons. Here’s how one dealer, Frank Geiger of Upper Saddle River, N.J., made his pitch, back in the 1990s: “With the disintegration of the Societ Union and Yugoslavia … many new countries have appeared on the globe. As strange as some of these names seem to us today, they will, someday, be as familiar to philatelists as Alderney, Aruba and Aland. We are pleased to offer complete coverage of the ‘new republics’ of Europe and Asia. …”

Nice try, Frank, but I don’t buy it. Not any more. For one thing, Aruba is a legitimate, longtime Caribbean island with its own postal authority. Alderney,  a channel island linked to Guernsey off the coast of Britain, just plays at issuing stamps, while the stamps of the Aland Islands, which is an autonomous region of Finland, are still in Cinderella-land.  Furthermore, time has proven Frank Geiger wrong. Today, no one remembers the stamps from Norilsk, or Ekaterinburg, or Birobidzhan.

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This page includes overprints of USSR stamps for Azerbaijan (top), Moldava (middle) and the Kuril Islands (bottom). FYI, the Kuril Islands are 8,113 kilometers east of Moldava.

Nevetheless, I admit to spending $22 here (Odessa locals), $4 there (Bassarabia, first issue), $25 elsewhere  (Crimea local issues). I guess I spend a hundred or two on these  Cinderellas, with their slapdash  overprints and surcharges on  pint-size  Soviet definitives. I believe I was  hypnotized by these little definitive stamps — so alike and yet so different. I yielded to the philatelist’s impulse to accumulate more and more of these  overprints. I was struck by how, depending on the names in the overprint, two similar USSR stamps could designate territory separated by thousands of miles …

Geiger made his case well, claiming to have some first day covers and other cancelled material available. In the case of a “Russian local issue” from St. Petersburg, he wrote: “These stamps were officially issued by St. Petersburg Postal District and have been used on international mails, but the local authorities have been asked by the central Russian government not to repeat this type of issue.” Tellingly, Ginger did not offer any cancelled examples for sale. And get this added note: “Our St. Petersburg stock came form a local source in 1992 and are genuine overprints. Beware of low-priced fakes now appearing on the market as the demand for these stamps continues unabated.”  Could he really be warning his readers about forgeries of illegals?!  How low can you go?!

The Norilsk set Geiger offered was used, he further claimed, to mail parcels between the islands of Novaya and Malaya Zemiya, off the northern coast on Siberia on the Arctic Ocean. However, he was not able to offer any cancelled examples or covers for sale.

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Is this a Cinderella or a real stamp? Legal or illegal? I say legal and official, because I received it from a postal agent in Ukraine in 1992, in response to my request for a stamped cover. His/her bonus enclosure of this mint stamp was accompanied by the hand-written note — “First stamp independente Uraine” — which displayed a touching sense of national pride along with the awkward syntax and amisspelling of “independent.” At my next Syracuse Stamp Club meeting I will try to remember to check an up-to-date catalogue to make sure this really is a first. (Update: I did; it is.)  Certainly it’s not the first Ukrainian stamp, though. That one date back to 1918 and the Ukrainian National Republic. Moreover, numberless Ukrainians, proud and stubborn and creative, would point to the many issues put out by loyal exiles through the years of Soviet rule. Now that the Soviet Union is long gone, the thought suddenly occurs: Might it some day be time to review those “illegal” Ukraine issues, and to reimagine those Cinderellas as authentic, flickering emblems of a dormant nation that awoke in 1992? Sounds to me like a fairytale ending  …

So here I am, with set after set of these bland USSR definitive stamps and their obscure and ephemeral overprints … Prednestrova, Birdobidjian, Udmurtija, Alta, Abhkazia, Karelia, Karil Islands …  No matter what they cost me, I now wonder: What are they worth? Surely something — if only as evidence of the aspirational lodestar that spun off all this spurious philately.

 

 

 

 

A small gallery of overprints from the exploded USSR    

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I don’t believe you will find these stamps listed in any reputable catalogue. (Maybe a disreputable one.) I kind of like the USSR stamps — they’re pretty. Plus, they have these interesting overprints. The bottom ones say “Azerbaycan,” which must be Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic now going strong on its own. So why is this an illegal Cinderella? Oops, I should be answering questions, not asking them.

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All these stamps (above and below) are “local” overprints from the USSR definitive series of 1988. They all purport to represent the Crimea, which was part of Ukraine before the Soviet anschluss. OK, you may be right if you suggest that I am going overboard on these stamps. Back in the 1990s, though, there was something mesmerizing about all these stamps sparking up from the former Soviet Union. These Crimea locals, with their overprinted symbols (can you find Prince Vladimir’s trident?), assert a renewed national identity, literally imprinting Crimea’s sovereignty on the emblems of its former Soviet ruler. Similarly, throughout the crumbling Soviet empire, the spirit of sovereignty and independence flared and flashed in the local overprints that rebranded stamps from the old regime as beacons of freedom.

 

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Version 2

Here’s a wild melange (above), including overprints from Birobidzhan (the Jewish Republic) that imprint a Menorah over Soviet-era stamps. Could this be a little jab at the USSR for its historic hostility to Jews? Likewise, the Russian Cinderellas depict Czarist emblems — isn’t that the doomed Czar Nicholas himself, in full uniform, spread over four USSR definitives? What would Lenin make of these counter-revolutionary Cinderellas?

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Quiz time: Are these real? Here are three blocks of stamps, the left from from Ukraine, the other two from the USSR. All are overprinted on behalf of the Ukrainian army battalion serving as UN peacekeepers in Bosnia in the 1990s. Were these stamps ever actually used on mail out of Bosnia? Out of anywhere? It’s easy enough to make out a value on each block — .05, .20 and .25 (what “C” stands for I don’t know). I am not going to try to decipher the overprint. I do like stamps issued for peacekeeping contingents, though. I guess that’s because I am a strong advocate for peace, and savor philatelic emblems of peacekeeping which reflect that noble human aspiration. (I hope they are real — the stamps as well as the aspiration!)

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Finally, here are stamps from a modern definitive set, officially issued by postal authorities and put to use in Ukraine. The denominations are letters not numbers, as is customary in much of the modern world. It’s a modest and boring set, I suppose, though I like definitives   like this share a design concept, with varying images and colors. I have one concern about the legality of these stamps, though. I thought the Universal Postal Union directed that all stamps (except those from Great Britain, which invented stamps) must have the issuing nation’s name on it — in roman letters. This has been an issue throughout the Russian sphere — the lettering is cyrillic — as well as in some Arab/Asian nations. Now those stubborn Ukrainians continue to thumb their nose at philatelic protocol. Or should the UPU diktat be discarded as outdated and Roman-centric?
ADDENDUM: By the mid-1990s, both the Ukraine and Russia had (grudgingly?) accepted UPU guidelines. Ukraine stamps henceforth were inscribed in cyrillic and also in roman letters (“Ukraina”). Russian stamps bore the roman footnote, “Rossiya.”

END OF PART FOUR: 2

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