Specialty Catalog Reviews


Russian Zemstvos by F G Chuchin (Barefoot reprint)

Until recently, the Chuchin work in its various reprinted forms has reigned supreme as the leading and most commonly used publication on the fascinating subject of zemstvo (local post) issues.  Initially published in 1925, J Barefoot Ltd of York, England reprinted it in 1988, and at the same time revised the layout.

The original work has separate pages of illustrations (printed onto higher quality paper than the text only pages) which makes it a little confusing and difficult to match up their catalog entries with the illustrations that might be two or three pages ahead or behind; Barefoot have gone to a great deal of time and trouble to "cut and paste" the illustrations so that they appear in the appropriate places in the text itself.  They have also converted the size of the publication from a small format (about 6x9" two column) to a "standard" A4/letter sized three column booklet.  They have also added some extra illustrations and replaced some of the poor quality original illustrations with better quality examples.

There are other books on zemstvo issues, but none at such an affordable price - Barefoot sell their reprint for 9 (about US$14 plus postage).  Other books go up to $500 in price!

After some introductory notes, Chuchin simply catalogs all known zemstvo issues (which is not the same thing as "all" issues - the very nature of how these stamps were issued means that appreciable numbers of issues probably escaped his categorisation) by issuing authority, and provides explanatory information to help distinguish them, illustrations, and some valuation data which Barefoot chose to reprint unchanged along with a paragraph of interpretive notes at the beginning - and as such it provides a very limited benchmark guide to values and rarity of the issues.  An interesting feature of Chuchin's pricing is that he prices interchangeably for either mint or used, "whichever is the more common", but fails to distinguish which is the more common, so one never knows what the basis of the already vague valuation is!

An omission is that the Chuchin catalog only considers adhesive stamps, not postal stationery in any form (of which there was quite an amount issued by the various zemstvo authorities).

The Barefoot edition totals 92 pages, each regular letter size (ie A4), softcover, and disappointingly bound with wrong sized plastic spiral binding (either the spiral diameter needs to be larger or the holes in the pages need to be closer to the edge of the sheets).  The quality of the reprint is poor - it looks to be little more than a photocopy (would I betray my years if I said "gestetner" copy) of a copy of the original.  Some of the text is only just legible, and many of the illustrations leave more to the imagination than they reveal.  However, such criticism has to viewed in the context of the fact that this is a reprint of an old work, and as such, the quality is necessarily limited right from the onset.  Furthermore, there is no other reasonably priced and reasonably comprehensive study of these issues, and so, limitations and all, it remains the publication of choice for those that don't have an indepth interest in the subject.  By the same token, Chuchin's numbering seems to be the standard cataloging used by most zemstvo collectors and traders, and, surprisingly, his valuation method has survived reasonably well to the present day as well.

To conclude, this is great value and a recommended addition to your library.

The Zemstvo Postage Stamps of Imperial Russia by Alex Artuchov

Vastly more zemstvo stamps were issued than "regular" stamps during the time frame that zemstvo stamps were in use.  Perhaps because of this, less is known about them than about most of the regular issues - a matter made worse by the lack of any central controlling authority governing the issuance of the zemstvos.  The Chuchin study reviewed above represented the first major attempt to try and codify what was known about this fascinating sub-field of Russian philately, and even then, at a time almost contemporaneous with the issue and use of these stamps, much was overlooked or incomplete.  There have been improved and more complete catalogs since that time, but none have really found their way into popular usage the way that the original Chuchin did, which is a matter of frustration to collectors because many times Chuchin completely fails to distinguish between sub-types of an issue, or indeed, overlooks some issues entirely.

The research and compilation and publication of what seems without a doubt to be the definitive study on zemstvos has fallen on the shoulders of a gentleman from Canada, Alex Artuchov, who started on his mission in the mid 1980s, at that time envisioning a series of four volumes plus a supplemental volume to be issued in two yearly intervals.  Volume 1 appeared in 1987, comprising a work of 222 pages of approx letter (8.5"x11") or A4 in size, perfect bound with light cardboard covers.  This covered the regions Akhtyrka through Byezhetsk.  It was followed by Volume 2 in 1990 (194 pages continuing on to Kologriv), Volume 3 in 1995 (196 pages through to Novouzensk) and Volume 4 in 1998 (192 pages to Sapozhok).  It now looks like there will be at least one and possibly two more volumes to complete the set, as well as the supplementary materials.  Alex advises that he has "already made a serious dent" in Volume 5 but isn't yet at the point of predicting its publication date.  :)

There is one comment that needs to be made.  As Artuchov acknowledges in his "Forward" to his first edition, the material he is publishing has been drawn extensively from previous sources, and in particular, he relies heavily on a German catalog published in 1932 by Carl Schmidt, and subsequently translated into English by Arthur Gold.

So what do we find in the 800 pages of material to date?  With a total projected size in the order of 1200 pages, the first very obvious thing is the astonishing increase in information over Chuchin's miserly 92 pages, although to be fair to Chuchin, Artuchov takes up generous amounts of space to provide clear and helpful diagrams and illustrations to explain issues like printing variations and sheet layouts, etc.  The research on each individual stamp is staggering - all the more so because many of the stamps are comparatively rare and so hard to obtain - in some cases there being less than 25 known examples remaining.  It is interesting to note (and Artuchov makes this point) that these vary rare examples still sell for comparatively low sums, which makes it possible to collect some exceedingly rare stamps at prices way below what one would normally pay for such rare treasures.  Wouldn't you love to have an example of a stamp for which there were known to be only ten or twenty copies in the entire world?  (While I'm thrilled to own a copy of Russia #1, I also am very aware of the fact that, while expensive, it is by no means rare - three million were printed and I'll guess that more than a thousand remain.)

Valuation data is, of course, very difficult, particularly for a work that is necessarily spread out over a 15+ year time period.  How to establish the same relativity in values in the last volume as in the first volume?  Artuchov compromised by publishing the valuations as shown in the Schmidt work, and then adding a conversion table to convert from the 1932 German Reichmark values shown in Schmidt to current (ie 1987) values.  Regrettably, the author's undertaking to regularly update this conversion table, published in Volume 1, seems to have been lost sight of in amongst all the other complexities of progressing the entire project, and once again, the buyer (or seller!) of zemstvo issues is largely left unassisted in terms of establishing current valuation information.

Artuchov has chosen to follow the numbering used in the Schmidt catalog, and, to add still further to the user-friendliness of the work, includes a table of comparison numbers between Schmidt and Chuchin.

Artuchov reprints an article from the British Society of Russian Philately as an introduction to his work.  This is a fascinating tale of the origins of the zemstvo postal system and includes a most amusing story of a stamp collector being visited by the Russian Police who became suspicious of why he wanted so many stamps!  Clearly, philately has not always been universally viewed as it currently is.  He has supplemented the original article with extra material including a very helpful map (didn't you always wonder where some of these strangely named places actually were!).

How can one criticise such an excellent offering?  With difficulty!  If one had to make some suggestions, however, they would probably revolve around the necessary compromises that have had to be adopted in producing these volumes.  It is very interesting to see the evolution of the formatting - Volume 1 was done on what appears to be a regular typewriter, as was Volume 2, albeit with a dot-matrix printed header page, and with the regrettable and mercifully short-lived introduction of "crossed zeros" to denote the digit zero.  Volume 3 appears to be laser printed and the type is now justified, and a similar format applies to volume 4.

The most notable weakness of the entire series revolves around the necessary budgetary constraints of such short run publishing, and that is the imperfect quality of the half-tone illustrations.  Indeed, the choice of non-coated paper to print onto means that the illustrations can never be excellent (due to "dot-gain"), although the reasons for this are understandable in the author's desire to produce a product that isn't priced out of the market.  The same pricing limitation almost certainly has prevented the inclusion of any color material, although clearly this is the type of field of publishing that could enormously benefit from high quality color images.  To also be fair, one should also explain that any important subtle differences between stamps are very clearly illustrated by way of special enlarged sections of the stamps, so even though the (approx same size) photo images are of poor quality, the key elements are very well illustrated.

Looking to the future, is it too much to hope for that the author may also create an electronic form of his work, either on CDrom or on the Internet.  Either approach would allow for much higher quality imagery, and easy interactive updates, and also a much lower underlying cost of materials to publish.  Considering it as an ongoing project, there is a lot of opportunity to build up a growing image bank of stamps to fully exemplify each variant and type discussed, and also to update and add to the valuation data on a regular basis too.  There's a lot of tree that has gone into the 800 pages of material so far, and the thought of updating and reprinting new volumes is a scary one in the extreme.

There is another potential benefit to electronic publishing as well.  The projected six (or seven) final volumes are quite a large resource, and working through it from one part to another to quickly find material can be a slow process.  To reduce this all to a few hot linked mouse clicks would make a tremendous difference, and, for those of you like me who are starting to find that 3400 sq ft of house just isn't enough to hold all the "stuff" that has been accumulated over the years, any opportunity to compress material into a more compact form is also to be welcomed.  Yes, I know that there are many advantages to the printed page as well, and I don't want to sidetrack the review of these excellent books into a discussion on electronic vs traditional publishing other than to record that with modern publishing methods, creating an electronic image really takes very little extra time when creating a regular image anyway, and that there are measurable improvements in both end-user convenience and hopefully end-user cost as well with a regularly updated electronic form.  This also then provides a convenient solution to the age-old problem of any historical researcher - "do I publish incomplete data now, or do I keep on waiting and waiting until I have "perfect" data at some vastly distant time?".

With such a wealth of minute detail offered about every zemstvo issue, one feels also that sometimes the author might risk losing shape of the forest by virtue of being surrounded by the trees.  Artuchov endeavours to provide some interesting overview on each section, including a hand-drawn coat of arms for the district, and a paragraph or two of description about the district, its population, etc.  It would be good to see more of this type of material, and in particular, comments comparing and contrasting some of the various issues with other issues of nearby districts.  I'd like to know more about things such as whether there were any regional patterns, commonalities, etc, who the designers were (and what other stamps they designed), and also print run data.  Some of this information is occasionally given, and probably the balance has been lost.  It seems to me that this would be an ideal database application, with all the gaps in information being open and available for subsequent updating if/when it ever came available, and of course, another argument in favor of some sort of electronic publishing (and even interactive format, allowing readers to interactively supply missing/incomplete data and to comment on current data).  There was a fascinating section in the introduction about how some districts copied designs from other countries, and I turned to several of the regions to find out more about this, but no additional information was available.  I feel that adding some of this more "human" type information sometimes helps digest the more scholarly data that is so richly presented.

To summarise, these moderately priced books represent a staggering amount of research and input, and enable us, the ordinary readers, to gain an appreciation of what was once an exceedingly complex and ill-documented aspect of Russian philately.  Most highly recommended, and apologies for any comments above that might be construed as churlish criticism - I stand in awe of the man and his commitment over such a period for bringing to us all such a wonderful record, and wish only to encourage his continued labor of love!  Some specialists have critically commented that his work to date comprises little original study and is mainly a compilation from existing sources, and I suspect that Artuchov would accept such comments as being fair.  We understand that the final volumes of the series will present more original writing, covering aspects of the zemstvo postal system, forgeries, hopefully some color illustrations, and (best of all) a simplified summary volume.

Whatever the underlying percentage of original authorship compared to editing and collating, the fact remains that for the ordinary English reader, the benefits of his compilation are outstanding, and whether his role is more fundamentally as editor or original writer, we should be grateful to him for presenting such a polished final product.

The books are available from the author for US$30/volume.

Higgins & Gage - World Postal Stationery Catalog Section 15 (Reunion to Ryukyu Islands)

I obtained a copy of this catalog (which I'll refer to as H&G) from Classic Philatelics in Huntington Beach, CA.  The catalog is published in loose sheet form, with sheets being each 5.5" x 8.5" (ie half a regular letter sheet or approx A5) in size, and printed in black on both sides.  The pages are printed in two columns, with each column being fairly narrow - just over 2" (50mm).  This poses a practical problem with the illustrations - many times they are either, of necessity, reduced so much in size as to lose a lot of their detail (and to make it very difficult to read the printing on the pieces), or alternatively, only a very small section of the total piece is illustrated (again making it impossible to read the entire text), a strategy which doesn't always assist in identification.  In a few rare cases, illustrations span both columns, but still remain very inadequate.  The quality of the images is generally poor.

Information appears to have been printed originally using a typewriter (in Letter Gothic) and there is no formatting such as bold, italics, or even underlines, to assist make it a more visually friendly work.

This publication was described as a second edition, printed in 1979, of the original 1970 publication, and I was a bit worried that the "R" section would not have what was, back then, known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics within it.  However, I was assured that the USSR was actually to be found in the "R" section, and, sure enough, there it was - a confusing and rare example of a publication that chose to ignore the fact that for the 50 years prior to its issue, that Russia had been known not as Russia but as the USSR!  This did not give me a very positive feeling about what to expect.  :)

The catalog when it arrived comprised 62 pages of listings and illustrations of various forms of postal stationery, issued variously by Imperial Russia and by the Soviet Union.  Sadly, nothing more recent than 1969 was listed anywhere, making it a rather massive 31 years out of date!  It did come with a separate 1982 price supplement, which provided updated (if one can use that term in the context of something that is now nearly twenty years old!) pricing information for the material it lists, and it also provided some more information about some Pleskau (Pskof) occupation issues, but it continues to appear that, in terms of postal stationery, nothing has happened worthy of note since 1969!  Their published prices certainly increased tremendously between the 1970/79 publication date and the 1982 update, and one wishes that more up to date data has been compiled and published since that time.

Within each country section there are potentially as many as 34 sub sections for different types of postal stationery, ranging from the obvious such as envelopes and post cards through to the definitely arcane such as radio lottery cards, pneumatic post, and telephone forms.  Plainly H&G cover a very broad field, with some areas somewhat removed from the focus of most philatelists.  Items are given a catalog number that comprises a one or two letter prefix to identify which sub section the item belongs to, and then a sequential number to identify it within that subsection.

One interesting eccentricity is that when describing perforations on pieces, the authors choose to count not the number of perfs in 20mm (the normal standard for stamps everywhere in the world) but intead the number of perfs in 30mm.  I can't start to guess why they alone decided to use a nonstandard measuring system; fortunately conversion is fairly easy - reduce their numbers by one third to get normal perf counts, or increase normal perf counts by half to get a H&G value.

Generously, the authors grant permission for collectors and dealers to use their numbering system, and say "it would be to the advantage of collector and dealer alike if one standard numbering system were adopted".  Amen to that!  What a shame that the stamp catalog companies don't have a similar fair policy....  And it is fair to say that the authors have succeeded in this desire to establish a standard numbering system.  These catalogs are generally considered to be the definitive reference work on the subject of postal stationery, and while it is not without its limitations, it is undoubtedly the best available catalog that is generally available - one can consider one's glass "half full" rather than "half empty" upon acquisition of a copy of this catalog.

The cost of this item was $13.50.  Is it worth it?  Well, probably yes.  While it has a lot of limitations, it is also much better than nothing at all, and for the collector of Postal Stationery, probably is an essential item to include on the bookshelf.  And $13.50 isn't an outrageously high price to pay compared to what many other publications charge these days, either.  But I'd much rather pay twice as much - and willingly would do so - for a more up to date, more complete, better laid out version of this catalog!



This page last modified on May 15, 2010