Other Literature Reviews


Philatelist's Guide to Maps, Atlases, and Gazeteers of Russia by Peter Michalove

Wouldn't you love to know where the various different zemstvo stamps were issued?  Sure, there is a very hard to read map at the back of Chuchin, and a clear map, but only of the provinces, not the individual issuing locations, in Artuchov.  Or wouldn't you love to know exactly where a city name on a postmark actually was located?

Such questions are not easily answered by a present day map of Russia or the former USSR.  Russia's various regions and cities have changed in shape and name many times over the last couple of centuries, and many of the names that we come across in our collecting can not be found on any map published within the last one hundred years or so.

So I was excited to discover this publication, originally published by the Rossica Society in 1993, then long out of print, and now available again, republished onto CDrom.  In my haste, I quickly ordered a copy without stopping to carefully consider what the title really truly does - and does not - promise.  I thought that it would actually have, well, some useful maps inside it.  No.  I couldn't be more wrong.  Well, to be fair, it does have some bad to extremely bad copies of some very old maps (eg five hundred years old and more!) that have no bearing on philately at all, but it does not have any maps that would be of any use whatsoever to you and to me.  At first I felt somewhat cheated by this omission, but upon carefully reading the title and the description (which promises, accurately enough, 134 pages and 23 illustrations) I realised with the benefit of 20:20 hindsight that nowhere did it actually say that the illustrations would be useful maps!  <sigh>

The author says in his preface "It is difficult to go very far in studying the postal history of an area without consulting maps and listings of placenames."  He has certainly got that right, but sadly provides neither!  The omission of relevant helpful maps is surprising and serious.  One would have to believe that many of the books that actually contain maps which the author refers to (and which he has presumably sighted himself) are long out of their copyright and could be copied, and certainly the issue of "not being able to get high enough quality material to justify its inclusion" doesn't seem to have been much of a limitation at all based on the poor quality of the images that were included.  I'm left perplexed and disappointed by this omission.

This is not to say that it isn't a fascinating and thorough well researched book that cartographers would enjoy, and that is not to say that it isn't also full of useful data to help philatelists.  It just doesn't have any maps (have I said that enough times now!).  It provides exhaustive bibliographical references to real maps, however, but I challenge you to be able to order any of these long-out-of-print books at your local bookstore, making it all a rather empty and academic exercise.

It also provides some interesting stories that everyone would enjoy reading, like when it recounts the story of how when Russia and China signed a border agreement in 1869, due to the imprecision and lack of geographical knowledge of both countries, they actually ended up apparently defining the border so that there was a "no-man's land" between where Russian territory ended and where Chinese territory started.  Coincidentally (?) it was in this no-man's land that Tannu Tuva is/was located (although the author refers to it by its less well known name of Uriankhai).

It was also helpful to see a flow-chart type description of the various different types of regions, districts, towns, etc.  The 60 regions (or "guberniyas") in existence in 1857 were represented by individual numbers on the "dot cancels" that many readers will be familiar with from early issued stamps, and within these regions can be found districts ("uyezds") and within each district can be found local units or volosts.  In 1917 there were 101 guberniyas, 812 uyezds and 16,760 volosts.

I think the author also recounts the story of the man filling out a form.  The form asks Where were you born?  He answers "St Petersburg".  Where did you grow up?  Petrograd.  Where do you live now?  Leningrad.  Where would you like to live?  St Petersburg.  While this is an extreme example, quite a few cities have changed their names and then changed them a second time.  The author also touches on the fact that many street names have changed, too (eg Moscow's main street - Gorky St in Soviet times, is now Tverskaya St again), and observes that this is a further point of challenge for postal historians, while (very sensibly) not attempting to solve the challenge!  :)

The problem of transliterating Russian letters into other alphabets provides another potential for confusion, and Michalove tells the fascinating story of how one German researcher transliterated Russian names into German, and subsequently, Russian researchers (Chuchin and Prigara) transliterated these names back into Russian, sometimes ending up with completely different spellings than the original names had!

One other challenge for the researcher is that sometimes many towns used the same name - with 44 instances of Kulikovo being reported!

A detailed analysis of what the author interprets (almost certainly correctly) as the deliberate distortion of maps for security purposes during the Soviet era also makes for a fascinating read, even though it has little immediate relevance to philatelists.

The "book" is nowadays available only on a CDrom, with the contents encoded into two Adobe pdf files which are apparently readable by both PCs and Macs.  Some horrifically complicated readme notes are also added to do with reading Cyrillic, but these only apply to Macs.  In any event, I was able to read the Cyrillic characters with no problems on my PC.

The first pdf comprises the contents and preface, and the second is the actual text of the book.

While it is neatly encoded into two pdf files, few of the "clever" added features of Acrobat are used at all.  One convenience is that the first file listing the chapters is hyperlinked to the individual chapters in the second file, but when you click to go to the individual chapter, the first file closes, which makes it inconvenient if you are trying to quickly browse and find a particular thing.  It would have been nice to see some page thumbnails adopted as well.  It does allow for text searching, however, and I noticed an amazing thing - if you enter a word such as "Novgorod" it will find the word in both English and Russian.  Wow.  I have no idea how it does this!  The illustrations are rendered in sometimes very poor quality, to the point of having the finer print on some of them completely unreadable.

I was actually concerned if I'd be able to read the CDrom or not, as there were some strange stains noticed on the data side of it, but it seems to read just fine.

Rossica sell the CDrom for $22 to members and $30 to non-members (one might be surprised by the fact that they are selling the CD for more than they previously sold the original printed volume, even though the CD has hugely reduced material and shipping costs!).  By the value standards of much other philatelic literature, it isn't overly priced, and if your interest in Russian cartography - or philately - is such that you feel this might appeal, it is unlikely to disappoint.  Just don't go looking for any maps inside!

I invited Peter Michalove to respond to this review and he graciously wrote as follows :

Your question about why there aren't any maps is probably a good one.

You may be surprised to hear that in the seven or eight years since I wrote the thing, I haven't really thought about this question.  I had always thought of the book as a bibliography, and in the preface I referred to it a couple of times as a bibliography.  That is, I saw it as a discussion of what's out there, how to use it, and problems the stuff presents for philatelic research.  I didn't see it as a discussion of the geography of Russia, or a place to find names on cancels.  In short, that's why it includes what it does, and excludes what it does.

But I must admit that the whole idea of writing a book about the use of maps and related sources in philatelic research very much reflects my own interests; most people may prefer to skip all that and just use the sources as what they are.  I would hope (in retrospect) that the title would indicate what it's all about, but I can certainly see where it might not.

You also mention that many of the sources are now out of print or hard to find.  But most of the 19th-century sources, especially the postal guides and lists are in the Rossica library.  I'm probably spoiled by having a really great research library at hand, but the fact is that I was able to write the whole book without going any further than the University library here, and using the Rossica library.

But of course, not everyone has these resources at hand.  Obviously a book that showed maps of the areas, so that you could use the illustrations as references themselves, would have been a very different (and much thicker) book.  I guess a sampling of maps of the various areas wouldn't give you anything that your basic library wouldn't have, but the intent was to list (some of) what's available, so that people with specialized interests would be able to know what to request on interlibrary loan.  Here's where, in retrospect, the internet has changed everything.  It's much easier now to locate a source if you have a specific reference to what you want, and I've seen many of the sources for sale (or illustrated).

Peter also generously provided a list of ten URLs that are of help to people seeking map information.  This is being used as the base of a new page on this site providing research links and advice.  Thanks again, Peter, for your generous response to my questions! 

Postage Stamps of the Soviet Republics 1917-25 by Godfrey M White

One day I was treating myself to some time browsing through Stanley Gibbons' store on The Strand in London and came across the most marvellous find.  A copy of a small booklet printed in 1925, the subject of this review.  Described as Handbook number 7 from Philatelic Magazine, and published by Harris Publications Ltd in London, this 56 page treasure (about 5"x7.5", softcover) delights on every page.

I no sooner started reading it than I learned something that I had completely failed to realise until then.  The first ever postage stamps of the RSFSR - the well known sword breaking through the "chains of bondage" (Scott 149 and 150) were actually designed and prepared during the brief period of the Kerensky government, but not issued until after the Bolsheviks came to power.  I think this is incredibly significant - the Kerensky government has generally not been credited with issuing any stamps at all, whereas White in this volume is suggesting that they got as far as "preparing" - does this mean printing, I wonder?  In any event, such a landmark stamp as the first ever postal issue of the RSFSR, the antecedent to the USSR, seems to actually belong to the government which the RSFSR overthrew!

The booklet was originally sold for 2/6 - two shillings and sixpence, or, in new decimal pounds, 12.5 pence.  I willingly paid something like 20 to buy it from SG, thinking at the time "who needs to invest in stamps - a far better investment might be to invest in stamp literature!"

There are 72 illustrations in the course of the booklet, which covers not only Russian issues, but also has brief sections on semi-postals, air mail issues, and local issues of Kharkov, Kiev, the Rostov charity issue and the Far Eastern Republic, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Transcaucasus.

He includes some fascinating data about the inflation rate during 1923 and 1924.  The essential summary is that the value of a ruble in March 1924 was 1/50,000,000,000th as much as it was before the start of the war (I think he means World War 1 from 1914).  What does this mean?  Well, in round terms, it is the difference between the wealth of Bill Gates and two one dollar bills - in other words, impossible to comprehend.

A "bonus" is that this publication extends into the first years of the USSR, covering some of the early issues up to the Death of Lenin stamps (approx Scott 300).

Each stamp has generous comments about its printing, and the various variations of it that may be in existence.

This book is an absolute treasure for people interested in this fascinating period of Russia and its postal history, all the more so for being in English!

Being as how it is 75+ years since it was published, I believe that the copyright has long since expired.  On occasion I very carefully photocopy off a few copies of it and offer it for sale to people so interested.  These are photocopied to a slightly enlarged scale so as to best preserve the images (which aren't wonderful to start with) onto 8.5x11 paper and sent loose unbound - you might want to do the same thing I've done with my "working copy" and put them in sheet protectors into a three ring binder as the best way of preserving a copy.  If you'd like a copy, then you're welcome to have one for $12 plus postage.  Let me know if you'd like a copy.

Russian Postmarks by A Kiryushkin and P E Robinson

Our field of interest is really like an onion, isn't it.  There are many layers on which it can be enjoyed.  The beginner just likes getting "pretty stamps", intermediate collectors start to delve into the complexities of subtypes and variations, and then "advanced" collectors delve off into all manner of different directions - postal stationery, postal history, etc etc.

One recognised specialty field is the study of post marks.  This is as interesting and complex for Russia as is every other aspect of Russian philately, and in this publication, with the subheading "An Introduction and Guide", Kiryushkin and Robinson make an excellent presentation aimed not only at the already experienced specialist seeking to "drill down" into arcane aspects of the field, but also as an introduction and overview for people new to this aspect of philately.

The publication is printed (looks like on a Gestetner for those of you that recall such things!) and published by J Barefoot Ltd, and was published in mid 1989.  The authors in their Introduction make a tantalising reference to this being the start of a series of publications they plan to publish, but I'm unaware of any others having yet been released.

It covers the period from "way back whenever" through to the Revolution.  The careful history of the evolution of post mark usage is fascinating and easy to follow, and chapters on various types of post mark (eg railway postmarks, steamship postmarks, postage due marks, and even censor marks) clearly lay out a comprehensive coverage of this fascinating aspect of philately.

For those collectors interested in valuation, a brief appendix on valuation makes a brave attempt to assess some across-the-board guidelines for this material, much of which is rarely offered for sale.  Of course this information now dates back to 1989, but it gives a good indication for the relative values of different types of postmarks even now.

Its 110 pages include a lavish number of post mark illustrations and also nine appendices, including information on forgeries, a chronology of postal rates that I found very interesting, and a noble attempt to try and explain Russian grammar to the uninitiated!  Some clear easy to read maps  and a glossary of Russian words shown in both Cyrillic and English round out the tome.

It shows a retail price of 10 (about US$16).  If you've ever wondered what that strange postmark means, then go and spend this small amount of money and get the book - you'll find it a great addition to your reference shelf.

Postmarks of Russian Empire (Pre Adhesive Period) by Manfred Dobin

I wrote positively about the previous publication on Russian postmarks.  It is an unassuming volume that delivers more than it promises, and it is a very useful introduction to the subject of Russian postmarks, just as its authors claim.

But if you are becoming increasingly interested in the subject of Russian postmarks, then you'll inevitably seek further satisfaction, and in such a case, this is the book for you!  Comprising 540 pages of material, this hardcover book is written in both Russian and - joy of joys - English, too, in a side by side translation.  This doesn't mean that you are really only getting 270 pages of material, because much of the book is taken up with diagrams and photos and tables where the translation represents only a very small share of the total space.

The book opens with a comprehensive historical review of the evolution and usage of postal marks, and then an explanation of the author's eight point classification system for the ensuing catalog of postmark types with over 2000 illustrated examples!  Wow.

A feature of this classification is that each postmark is awarded a value for its rarity on a 1-10 scale with also a table of value modifiers to be applied to the base rarity (ie value) factor.  This is a very helpful tool for people seeking to understand and evaluate the material they might already have or subsequently be offered.

Excellent quality maps are included of all the major post offices and their subordinate offices which really helps understand how the entire Russian postal system was set up.

Note that this work details postmarks only up until 1859 and the start of adhesive stamps.

This is a hard to obtain publication.  It was published in Russia in 1993 in a limited numbered run of only 1100 copies.  Due to some twist of fate, I am the privileged owner of copy number 0000!

My recommendation - buy a copy of this book.  Even if the subject of pre-adhesive postmarks isn't of interest to you today, it might become of interest later, or, alternatively, you'll almost certainly be able to sell the book to someone else subsequently!

A postscript to this review.  I note today (27 July 00) a copy for sale on eBay.  The seller - a Russian gentleman now apparently resident in Norwood, MA who offers a lot of higher priced material on eBay - is asking $70 for it and claims that the normal retail is $100-120 and that it is sold out and hard to find.  Hmmm......  At the time of writing, no-one has yet bid on it.  As always on eBay, "let the buyer beware" and never base your evaluation of anything's value on what the seller claims!

A postscript to the postscript.  I have now seen this for sale several different places, and generally for less than $70, but I came across it also for sale with an asking price of $120 at http://www.philatelic-literature.com/russiapage.htm.  These people also sell the Artuchov zemstvo books for 20% more than the normal price, and the Chuchin reprint for 30% over the going price.  It is one thing to make a fair profit, but these prices seem to be somewhat past that point.  Buy from these people with extreme caution, accordingly.  I have written to them asking them to explain their high price.

And lastly, a post post postscript.  In a recent trip (Jan 2001) to St Petersburg I managed to acquire a couple more copies of this work, which I'm now offering for sale if you'd like a copy at a more reasonable price.

Postage Stamps of Russia 1917-23, Volume 3 - The Armies; Parts 1&2 The Northwest and Northern Armies by Dr R J Ceresa

Wow.  What a title!  And what a book.  Scott devotes a single column to this subject, Stanley Gibbons likewise, and about the same from Michel.  Scott identifies nineteen stamps in total in its single column.

Yet here is a 70 page book devoted to this same subject.  How is it possible?  No - it isn't just a case of double spaced big type and wide margins!  :)  This book, published in 1981 by Dr R J Ceresa is a scholarly example of how one can "drill down" into a subject and expand it and then expand it again and again, seemingly with the only limitation being the time available to one to so do.  In truth, for most collectors, much of the text will not be of great interest, but if you should find a copy somewhere (it appears it was published in a limited numbered edition of 300 - my copy is number 265) then if the "price is right" (it initially sold for 6.50 or US$18.50 including air postage in both cases) you should probably add a copy to your library.

The early part of the work has a fascinating albeit very confusing history of these two army groups (they merged after some separate existence) and their doomed attempts at combating the Bolsheviks; then comes a detailed analysis of the stamps issued and their postal use, and this in turn is followed by some exhaustive analysis of counterfeit varieties.

The subject of whether or not information on how to detect forged stamps should be made public continues to cause discussion.  Some (I consider them "elitists") believe that such information is too dangerous to be placed in the hands of the general public, for fear, presumably, that forgers will use this to improve their work.  I disagree.  Of course, forgers already know about the shortcomings of their forging, and if they could do it any better, (and wished to), then they would.  Ceresa refers to this debate, and then sides with the other point of view - the "right to know" people who believe that collectors have every right to know as much as possible about their hobby and how to protect against the attendant dangers of forged material, and, with the blessing of some Russian specialist societies, but not of others, decides to "publish and be damned".  Good on him for doing so.  :)

A series of illustrations at the end complete the publication.  By its title, it would appear that it is one in a series of many parts on the overall subject of the stamps of Russia during the Civil War - an amazingly complex time when over 21 different authorities were all issuing stamps!  I hope to find other parts of this series as time and good fortune allow, and if you should stumble across any, either buy them for yourself, or please let me know so I can buy them for me!

Stamps of the Russian Empire Used Abroad by S D Tchilinghirian and W S E Stephen

(this review currently being written)

I managed to purchase a photocopy of this work.  It was originally published in 1957 by the BSRP, and it seems that it was originally published in five separate parts.  My photocopy includes all five parts, and totals 288 pages.

This publication focuses on one of the lesser known aspects of early Russian philately.  More so than many countries (the authors suggest that Russia's network of foreign post offices was equalled only by that of Great Britain), Russia had a network of post offices outside of Russia itself, primarily in the Orient and south-east Europe, most notably in Turkey and in China.  These foreign post offices sometimes issued their own stamps, but more commonly would use regular imperial stamps, with the only remaining evidence of their involvement for stamps that have been lifted off their covers being whatever identifiable traces of the foreign post office cancellation might remain on the stamp.

Now for the exciting part.  One of these cancellations might lift your otherwise ordinary 15c stamp into a very rare and very valuable category.  I personally know of two occasions when an eBay seller inadvertently sold what appeared to be a common low value stamp but which actually had a very rare and valuable cancellation on it, and who knows how frequently such transactions may not occur.

Which acts as introduction to the purpose and content of this book.  Identifying and, to an extent, valuing postmarks.

The work is lavishly illustrated with over 400 illustrations, largely comprising very clear reproductions of postmarks.  It also has a table at the front showing the Cyrillic alphabet in both printed and written form, but this table does not conform to modern conventions (this is the kindest way I can think of saying "it is wrong"!) - strangely it omits the "yo" letter entirely, and the commentary is also incorrect when it says that the hard sign was eliminated when the Soviets simplified their alphabet - its use was drastically curtailed but it is still used in some words and is still considered an official letter of their alphabet.

The work only covers civilian operated post offices, it does not broaden its scope to consider military Field Post Offices; indeed the authors estimate that including this subject would probably require doubling the size of their already substantial publication.


This page last modified on May 15, 2010