Extraordinary Russian Stamp Collection Found in Smithsonian Vault
By Sally R. Rountree
Washington - One of the best collections of Russian stamps in the world was recently found within the back cabinet recesses of the storage vault at the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum. The collection, composed of more than 14,000 Russian stamps, is truly exceptional in terms of the quality and rarity of many of the stamps, according to a leading expert in Russian stamps.
The rediscovered collection, including hundreds of first-issue stamps that were printed and used more than a century ago, "is one of the greatest collections outside Russia," according to Leon Finik, a frequent contributor to the Journal of the Rossica Society of Russian Philately, which is the world's leading publication on Russian stamps. Finik, a member of the Society's Expertization Committee, which certifies the authenticity of rare stamps, was brought in by the Smithsonian to review the collection. "Certainly," he added, "this collection ranks as one of the top three collections in the world, rivaling only the Russian Postal Museum or that of the British Library, and the quality of the stamps is outstanding for this type of material."
The stamps have not been seen since 1984, when they were first donated to the Museum by the estate of G.H. Kaestlin, a Russian philatelist living in England. Thomas Lera, the Smithsonian National Postal Museum's Winston Blount Chair in Research, had "no idea" of the collection's existence. "The museum has over 5 million stamps stored in its facility; not all have been fully processed and catalogued," Lera told America.gov.
The discovery was the result of a recent query from State Department officers working on U.S.-Russian cultural relations. "It would have been many years before the Postal Museum worked on this collection had the State Department not inquired," said Lera. "Elizabeth Schorr, collections manager at the museum, remembered another Russian donation, and together we located it in one of the cabinets in the vault," he said. "Once I realized the extent of what was there, I spent three days turning over 1,000 pages!" he added.
STAMPS CAPTURE HISTORY
The value of this discovery is not only the exceeding rarity of the stamps, but that they also uniquely capture the culture and history of their time. "This collection," says Lera, "is vastly superior to the others in completeness and presentation, especially the Imperial stamps and their associated postal history, which other collections do not have."
The collection reflects stamps that were issued in Russia between the end of the Crimean War in 1857 and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and are generally labeled as either "Imperial" or "zemstvo."
The Imperial stamps were issued by the central government to serve the larger cities and towns. The first Russian postage stamp, the "1857 Tiflis Provisional" issued from Tbilisi, Georgia, is included within this newly found Kaestlin collection. This extremely rare stamp bears an oval center with the Imperial coat of arms, a double-headed eagle, and the postal emblem of two crossed post horns. Only five copies of this stamp are known to exist, one of which is within this Smithsonian collection.
In 1862, Czar Alexander II, seeking to allow local communities greater autonomy to provide social and economic benefits, created a system of local assemblies called zemstvos, or "land councils." The number of zemstvos grew from just 30 in the mid-1800s to more than 100 by 1880. To serve country areas between the major towns not served by the Imperial Post, the residents of the zemstvos began their own courier service, also know as Zemstvo Post or Rural Post. The zemstvos were ultimately permitted to issue their own postal stamps, but these were required to bear a distinctly different design from the Imperial stamps.
In 1865, Shlisselburg, located about 35 kilometers east of St. Petersburg, issued the first zemstvo stamp, which is now part of the Smithsonian Collection.
The lithographed stamps from Shatsk (1871) and Tambov (1870) are popular among thematic stamp collectors for their depiction of bees and their hive, both symbols of hard work and industriousness. These stamps are extremely rare, with only 13 and seven, respectively, known to exist in the world.
"To understand the importance of Russian stamps is to understand Russian history," Lera says. While the first mail coach was dispatched in the Middle Ages to carry official government documents between the Crown messengers, it was not until the 17th century that private letters could be sent via coach. Peter the Great is credited with creating the first post offices in St. Petersburg and Moscow and establishing a uniform postal system throughout Russia, with postal roads following military roads or former trade routes.
During Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, two notable battles occurred in Krasny, southwest of Smolensk. Both actions are depicted through artistic multicolored renditions on zemstvo stamps found within the Kaestlin Collection, with the unexpected Russian resistance commemorated in the 1912 stamps Neverovsky's Heroic Deed and The Retreat of the French Army.
Also included in this unique collection are the first stamped envelopes from the Moscow and St. Petersburg town posts.
A special display of the collection is being planned by the National Postal Museum for viewing in the new Gross Gallery, scheduled to open in late 2012.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )