Recent Russian Commemoratives

Are they Bona Fide Postal Issues?

  One of the reasons that many people collect stamps (instead of baseball cards or who knows what else) is because they are items that are of intrinsic value and use.  They are 'real' things that were primarily created to demonstrate the payment of postage on pieces of mail, and in studying the stamps, we are studying the postal service as a whole.

When adhesive stamps first appeared, no-one ever thought about collecting them, and it took a while for collecting stamps to become an important and 'mainstream' aspect of society and a factor in how national Postal Services approached the issuance of their stamps.  Over time, these Postal Services have come to realize that considerable extra revenue can be gained from what the USPS terms 'retention' - worth a quarter billion dollars a year to the USPS and varying amounts to other postal administrations elsewhere in the world.  Most philatelists will concede that there has been a growth in new stamp issues, occasioned mainly by the postal administrations' desire to sell stamps to collectors, and there comes a point where, as a collector, one starts to suffer from 'too much of a good thing' with too many new issues being released.

Another extension of this catering to the philatelic hobby market is the release of CTO stamps - stamps printed purely and exclusively to be sold to collectors, with never any intention at all of having them ever be used postally.

Overall, most postal administrations strike a reasonably fair balance, and sales to collectors form only a very small part of their total revenue.  Again, quoting USPS figures, in 2000, their 'retention' sales represented about 0.3% of their total revenues - hardly a disproportionate amount.

However, some countries are renowned (and derided) for abusing their ability to issue stamps.  They can even derive a large part of their total national income from the issue and sale of vast quantities of stamps, many times that which would normally be needed for purely postal purposes.  This diminishes the value of their stamps as true postal items in the eyes of most serious collectors.

Examples of this abound in Africa, and in assorted other places such as, eg, the Pitcairn Islands, a small island of uncertain size (various sources state it to be between 5 sq km {according to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica} and 47 sq km {according to the CIA World Factbook} or 2-18 square miles) in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, halfway between New Zealand and Peru, with a population of approximately 50 people - four of whom are employed by the Post Office.  If you collect world stamps, the chances are, however, that you have some Pitcairn issues in your collection!

No-one is suggesting that Russia is a similar sort of country.  It is a very large well established nation with unquestionably bona fide postal service; indeed, in 1999, it had just over 42,000 post offices and handled in excess of 5 billion pieces of mail (by comparison, the USPS handled fifty times as many pieces of mail).

In the same year, 1999, Russia issued approximately 82 stamps and 4 souvenir sheets, much the same as the three years preceding (here is a helpful list of annual issues).

So, what is my point?

My point is in three overlapping parts :

First, Russia prints too few commemorative stamps for them to be considered valid, bona fide, postal issues.

Second, Russia's commemorative issues are not generally available to the public and are not in ordinary use.

Third, the quantities issued are insufficient even to meet collector demand.

Let's look at the facts surrounding Russia's new issues.

Too Few Printed

A typical new issue has approximately 350,000 copies printed.  (For information on new issues, refer to the WSRP's New Issues section).  If we say that, on average, each sheet has 20 stamps, this means that 17,500 sheets are printed.  This also means that, on average, each post office (of which there are 42,000) gets less than half a sheet of each new issue!

Indeed, if we consider that maybe a half (I'm being conservative here - later in this article I calculate that all stamps are sold to collectors, but for the sake of examining every possibility, let's use a very conservative number to start with) of each stamp's print run is sold through philatelic sales rather than postal sales, this would mean that only one in every five post offices ever gets a sheet of any new issue!

To look at this another way, let's take the 350,000 stamps that were printed and then take off a half for philatelic sales, and then split the remaining 175,000 stamps among the 42,000 post offices.  This means that each post office would get only four individual stamps from each new issue!

So, let me ask the rhetorical question - if a stamp is only available at one out of five (or fewer) post offices, and in such limited quantities so as, on average, every post office has maybe 4 individual stamps for each new issue, is it really a bona fide postal release?

Now lets look at one other set of figures.  In 1999 the Russian postal service handled over 5 billion pieces of mail, plus a vast amount more in the form of parcels and other postal items.  In the same year, they had 82 stamps issued (and some of these might be definitives, I don't know for sure), about 30 million individual stamps in total (plus definitive reprints).  After allowing one half for philatelic purposes, the remaining stamps represents less than half a percent of the total number of mail pieces handled by the postal service.

Of course, some mail pieces would be postal stationery envelopes with preprinted stamps.  Other pieces of mail would have metered franking rather than adhesive stamps.  But, to partially offset this, some pieces of mail would have two or three or four or more stamps on it.

It is hard to estimate the number of adhesive stamps needed to cater for the needs of the 5 billion pieces of mail that the Russian postal service handled in 1999.  Anecdotal evidence from several sources suggests that a very large proportion of mail is carried by postal stationery envelopes or with franked/metered postage, and so, for this analysis, it is reasonable to say that the 5 billion pieces of mail require perhaps somewhere between 500 million and 1 billion adhesive stamps.

If commemorative stamps do appear on Russian mail, they do so extremely rarely - one Russian based collector says that 99% of the mail he sees does not have commemorative stamps on it, which is in line with what this analysis would suggest.

Another collector in a CIS country comments that he sees commemorative stamps on mail from Russia more commonly than 1% of the time, but points out that postal stationery envelopes are not usually available with international postage values preprinted on them, and so people need to supplement the standard postage with extra stamps.  He also notices commemoratives on larger parcels and has a theory that postal employees would try and 'get rid' of any commemorative issues they had to people when they came in and asked to buy larger quantities of stamps - such buyers typically being junior office employees of companies sent to the post office.

Not Readily Sold to the Public

Well, make what you will of the preceding analysis.  There was quite a lot of estimating going on, and although the results seem fairly clear, you're welcome to interpret them any way you like.

The other part of my analysis is, however, incontrovertible.  You just can't buy commemorative stamps in Russia.  I know this from personal experience.  The only type of stamp you can buy at most post offices is a definitive stamp.  When I asked for commemorative stamps, the tellers told me 'they can't afford to print and sell commemorative stamps'.  You might think that this is surely the most stupid statement to make that you'd ever encounter, but it is anchored in the underlying reality that a small single color definitive stamp printed in very large runs costs tremendously less (perhaps one twentieth of the cost) than a four color large sized short run commemorative stamp.

At St Petersburg's main post office, the second most important post office in the country, there is one single-person window for a local stamp club that sells commemorative stamps.  A part time staff member works there during variable and short hours, and will only sell the commemorative stamps, and only in small quantities, to card-carrying members of the stamp club (membership costs an annual fee of course).  Nowhere else in the post office can you buy anything other than definitive stamps.

Reports vary from other parts of the country.  A collector in Stary Oskol, a small city in Southern Russia, not far from Voronezh and the Ukrainian border, says that he sometimes sees some commemorative stamps for sale in some post offices in his city (but not all commemorative issues for sale regularly and reliably in all post offices).  He says that in order to be able to, himself, be certain to get copies of all new issues he too has to get a special subscription card, much like I observed in St Petersburg.

Another collector, writing from the UK, reveals that in correspondence with a fellow collector in St Petersburg, he was told that the Russian collector also could not obtain recent commemoratives, saying, exactly as I do, that they are not for sale to the public.

To summarize, commemorative stamps are not reliably on sale to the general public in any post office in the country.  This is indicated to start with by the small size print runs, and confirmed by actual observed reality.

How Large are Sales to Collectors?

In the scenario where Russia has a population of almost 150 million people, and the CIS/fSU in total a population of 250 million people, does a print run of 350,000 of a new stamp even prove adequate for servicing the needs of stamp collectors?

How many stamp collectors are there in Russia?  I have no idea!

One way of estimating the size of sales to collectors is to look at data from other countries.  Although the US and Russia are two very different countries in almost every respect, some things like interest in stamp collecting are probably surprisingly similar.  In 1999 the USPS reported sales of $186 million worth of stamps to collectors and in 2000 a much larger $237 million (two interesting articles in Linn's Stamp News analyze sales data for 1999 and 2000).  If we say that the average value of stamp sold was 33c (it was slightly lower in 1999), this suggests that the USPS sold 558 million stamps to collectors that year, or just over 2 stamps for every person in the country.  In 2000, if we take an average value of 35c, this suggests sales of 677 million stamps to collectors.  Lets use the lower of these two numbers for our calculations, so as to continue being very conservative.

Linn's also estimate that there are three different types of stamp collectors in the country, 300,000 active traders, 1.5 million casual collectors, and 5 million stamp savers.

In 2000 the US issued approximately 174 stamps (wow - more than twice as many as Russia) and in 1999 an even larger 203 (no wonder US collectors complain about the prolific release of new stamps).  This suggests that about 1.3% of the population (3 million people - a number that fits closely into the Linn analysis)  - bought a complete set of all new issues.  Of course a more realistic statement is more like '6 million people each bought about half the new issues'.  However it is phrased, it would seem that, on average, each new issue had sales of about 3 million copies to collectors.

Translating this to Russia, we could be very conservative and assume that fewer people collect stamps than in the US, although there is no reason to assume this is so.  On the other hand, with far fewer issues, it is also realistic to assume that each individual collector obtains a larger percentage of all new issues released.  On balance, it is probably very conservative to say that only one sixth as many people collect new issues in Russia - 0.2% of the population.  This represents an off-take of at least 300,000 of each new issue just to collectors within Russia!  And maybe if we say that there might be, perhaps, one in two thousand people in other fSU/CIS countries that also collect Russian new issues (0.05%), this represents another 50,000 of each stamp, totaling 350,000 of each printing of 350,000 being sold just to collectors!

There is a lot of guesswork in the above estimating process (and I have ignored issues like sales to international collectors), and of course the assumptions and calculations could be substantially reworked, but my feeling is that the final result will come out to a similar conclusion.  It seems an inescapable probability that the entire printing run of most Russian new issue stamps are sold to collectors only!  This is entirely consistent with the incontrovertible fact discussed in the preceding section that ordinary citizens can not buy commemorative stamps for regular postal use.

Summary and Conclusion

It seems an inescapable conclusion that Russian commemorative stamps are produced primarily and almost exclusively for the philatelic community, and have very little underlying postal purpose or usage at all.  As such, but for the opposite reason (too few rather than too many) they are no better than the morass of stamps from such dubious nations as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Pitcairn Islands.

Lastly, and perhaps most contentiously of all, it could be argued that postally used (not CTO) examples of these stamps are very much more valuable than mint unused examples.  For it is only if the stamp has been postally used that its rather dubious claim to being a bona fide postal issue is established.  This of course flies in the face of common valuation methods used by the major catalogs, but increasingly I am meeting 'serious' collectors who feel that the truest types of stamps to collect are indeed postally used.

A Postscript - It isn't only Russia!

To be fair, the 'exploitation' of stamp collectors is something that isn't unique to Russia, and it could be argued that a large share of all new issues from all postal administrations are intended primarily for sales to collectors rather than primarily for 'pure' postal purposes.

Indeed, it is probably fair to say that no-one ever decided to send more mail just because they liked the look of the stamps - unless, of course, the person was a stamp collector!  As such, a strict 'cost control' approach would argue entirely against any commemoratives at all, because, as observed above, definitives are very much cheaper to print and easier to manage from an inventory point of view.  Perhaps the prime justification for commemoratives has always been to sell to the collectors and hobbyists?

Which leaves one with the unpleasant thought that most casual collectors choose to overlook - is our entire hobby based on shaky foundations?  Should we only be collecting definitives?

And a Postscript to the Postscript

When is a definitive a definitive and when is it a commemorative?  Good question, with the dividing line getting increasingly less certain.  In some countries, the answer remains obvious one way or the other, but in others (I'm thinking of even the US) there is a grey area where plain stamps but with themes and short lives in the marketplace are hard to categorize as either one type or the other.


This page last modified on May 15, 2010