Stamp collecting is having an unlikely moment in Ukraine today, amid an attempt to break the very existence of the state and the national identity of the country where I built my life. It seems as though everyone in Ukraine, from Kyiv to Odesa, Lviv to Chernowitz, is obsessed with postage stamps.
In addition to the fact that stamp collecting was the quintessential Soviet pastime, the fact that Ukraine is in the midst of a life-and-death struggle to Westernize and survive as its Russian neighbor tries to strangle its very independent identity makes the whole phenomenon seem highly improbable. Post offices in Kyiv, Minsk, Moscow, and Tashkent all follow the same basic layout and design aesthetic from the 1950s, which was inspired by neoclassical Stalinist architecture. The hazards and rituals of waiting in line for a first day stamp while being yelled at by a stern heavyset woman in her mid-50s are universal.
Stamp collecting was designed as a Soviet-wide hobby with uniform rules and practices, so that people of different ethnicities and languages could enjoy it together (including Buryats, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, and Georgians). It was the result of state-sponsored propaganda meant to shape the minds of the working class in the Soviet Union, and it goes by the name philately (from the Greek for “love” and “taxes”). The Soviets used philately as a tool to indoctrinate the masses with Soviet symbols and aspirations between the end of the Soviet Revolution and the beginning of World War II. Stamps were first and foremost ideological objects, whether they were released to honor recently deceased Bolshevik leaders, to show government support for new economic policies, to introduce new communist slogans, or to announce the launch of a new industrialization initiative. I inherited a collection of Soviet-Chinese friendship space program stamps and many others depicting Laika, the first dog to orbit Earth, both of which were regularly released by the Soviet Union to celebrate fraternal relations with other communist regimes. (After such a scientific and public relations triumph, did Laika return to Earth? Did the Soviet government make it sound like she made it seven days when she actually only made it two? You could have gotten in trouble with the law for asking questions like these in the past.
Even though I was born in the middle of the 1980s in Uzbekistan to Russian speakers, I still remember looking through my parents’ stamp collection and learning about the different indigenous costumes of the Soviet people and other revolutionary milestones. When I find vintage Soviet stamp collections at garage sales or thrift stores, I snap them up immediately. The world after the fall of the Soviet Union, however, still bears the habits and wounds of the past.
Why do some of the most anti-Russian post-Soviets still indulge in stamp collecting? What was it about stamp collecting under Soviet rule that so captivated people. Stamps are beautiful because they are both mass-produced utilitarian documents made by a bureaucracy and fleeting works of art.
Real art collecting was impossible in the Soviet Union due to the lack of an actual art market and individual property rights. Still, any Soviet citizen with an eye for beauty could indulge their hobby by collecting stamps, some of which featured reproductions of works of art from both domestic and international collections. As such, it served as a cheap stand-in for the experience of collecting something rare and beautiful and exchanging it with like-minded individuals.
While most Soviet citizens were restricted from leaving the country, they were free to collect stamps from around the globe. Soviet philatelists could experience the excitement of writing to a pen pal abroad, where their letters would mysteriously arrive from the untouchable West, complete with a beautiful token of the recipient’s foreign culture.
When the Ukrainian Postal Service released a stamp in April commemorating the successful attack and subsequent sinking of the Russian flagship in the Black Sea, the Moskva, it caused a sensation around the world. The Ukrainian border guards who defended the besieged Ukrainian base on Snake Island while the Russians demanded their surrender were commemorated on the stamp because they responded coldly to the Russian warship’s demands by suggesting that it might do something unspeakable to itself.
The Ukrainian stamp depicting a border guard defiantly giving the finger to the Moskva battleship was a huge hit. Massive segments of the Ukrainian population were pleased and patriotic enough to wait in line for hours to obtain the special stamps, all thanks to the process of creating a national myth. The first printing is already fetching hundreds of dollars online.
Ukrainians in the midst of the war were also given the chance to vote on the design of their next major stamp, with 340,000 of 834,000 online voters agreeing with the Ukrpostha survey’s selection of the winning painting by artist Anastasia Bondarets as the second and latest in the series since the invasion. The stamp features a watercolor image of a tractor dragging away a tank with its turret bent and crooked. This alludes to the many decommissioned Russian tanks that resourceful farmers in Ukraine have taken off the battlefield and put to good use. According to her, “this tractor” symbolizes how “every Ukrainian does everything in his power, to the best of his ability, to bring our victory closer.” The tractor is transporting damaged enemy equipment to be repaired and put into service by Ukrainian military forces.
If you get there early enough and wait in line long enough, you can secure a first edition marked as posted on the first day of issue and take home a memento of a harrowing and heroic chapter in Ukraine’s national history. And I did it.
Along with the rest of the Ukrainian public, I eagerly await the next in a series of cool stamps from the wartime nightmare that, if nothing else positive can be said of it, will evermore serve as a searing shared national experience. The Jack Russell terrier named Patron, who belongs to an explosives engineer in Ukraine, will be featured on the next commemorative stamp because he has helped locate hundreds of land mines. When compared to Laika, Patron inevitably draws comparisons to her.
Ukrainian stamp collecting mania is further evidence that despite the country’s post-Soviet trauma, Ukrainians are eager to return to their previous cultural pursuits. Ukraine’s cultural and artistic institutions are trying to resume normal operations despite the almost insurmountable odds they face as the war and the need to repel the Russian invasion dominate everyone’s thoughts and actions.
In Odessa’s famous Baroque opera house, I recently saw Aida, Verdi’s story of lovers whose romantic love and love of country come into conflict during a time of war. Although there would have been plenty of takers for over 1,000 seats, only 350 were occupied. The underground bunker can only hold that many people at once. As we took our seats, we heard that the show would go on even if we had to take cover underground for less than an hour due to an air raid. They threatened to cancel or reschedule our flights if the Russian bombers stayed in the air for too long. In the meantime, the doors to Ukraine’s elite cultural institutions are still mostly locked, albeit slightly ajar. Most museum artifacts have been relocated to safe houses in case one or more museums are hit by Russian missiles or shells; this way, only the buildings themselves would be lost, rather than the irreplaceable cultural history of a people. The majority of Kyiv and Lviv’s national institutions, however, have reopened. Also, some museums and galleries have reopened in western and southern cities, with a natural emphasis on works of art with a military theme.
War that seeks to eradicate our national identity has not changed the ugly reality of destruction, deprivation, and displacement that dominates most Ukrainians’ daily lives. However, similar to how flowers can grow through cement, cultural needs will flourish even if a war is going on. Demonstrating that the human spirit seeks beauty, intrigue, and self-expression more than mere survival, the crowds of wartime Ukrainians enthusing over our nationalist stamps are a strange combination of Soviet history and the will to have a victorious future in a free Ukraine.
Russian-American author, translator, and one-time Odesa Review editor Vladislav Davidzon. He currently serves as an Atlantic Council non-resident fellow. He currently resides in Paris, though he was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Examiner of Government in Washington War in Ukraine, Russia, Europe, the Postal Service, the Postal Office, and Popular Culture are all topics covered in these videos.
Originally authored by Vladislav Davidzon
In its first home: Ukraine’s cultural affinity for stamp collecting during the war
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