Monday, September 3, 2018

Russian imperial post and the zemstvo issues

Scott #41 (
Russia issued its first stamps in 1857, and from then until 1913, all stamps issued by the imperial post followed a common pattern: the imperial coat of arms, consisting of the double-headed eagle, with a crown, scepter and orb, at the center, sometimes embossed, with a frame around it, the words Почтовая марка (Pochtovaya marka: "postage stamp").  Under the imperial eagle appeared crossed lightning bolts and post horns.  

The above stamp, Scott 41, first issued May 14, 1889, face value 4 kopecks, is typical of these issues.  Note the background pattern of intersecting lines, which was an anti-forgery device known as "burelage."
Tsar Alexander II.  Scott 89 (first issued Jan. 2, 1913)

Tsar Alexander II was a reform-minded ruler who is best known for his role in freeing the serfs.  Another reform of his was setting up semi-democratic local governments called "zemstvos" (Ru: земство) , from the Russian word zemlya meaning "land, territory."  

The imperial post typically ran only to the larger towns in any particular region, leaving the rural areas unserved.  For this reason, the zemstvos were authorized to set up their own local postal systems, and even issue their own stamps, provided those stamps did not appear to be copies of stamps issued by the imperial post.  

In the United States collectors often fall into a habit called "collecting to the catalog." This means they seek stamps listed in Scotts the premier North American stamp catalog.   Stamps that aren't listed aren't collected.  Except for the United States, Scott does not list local stamps, including zemstvo issues.

Not listing local issues is simply an editorial decision.  Local stamps were often fully authorized by government authorities and valid for postage and actually used on mail.  There over 3,000 zemstvo issues, so one can see the justification for the Scott decision to omit them.

A few of the zemstvo issues are shown below.  You can see what collectors might be missing by "collecting to the catalog."  With only a little study it is easy to read the few Russian words on the stamps.
Tikhvin, 1886 (from Ebay).

Vetluga (from Ebay)

Yelets (from Ebay)
The stamp below was issued by Kreis Wenden, a local government which was part of the Russian Livonia, a territory now divided between Latvia and Estonia.  The stamp is printed in the German language, Kries meaning literally "circle."  According to Wikipedia, German speakers constituted only 3.5% of the Wenden population; presumably they had disproportionate local power or influence (or both).

Wendon, 1880 issue (from Ebay).
As to Alexander II, his reforms went too far for the conservatives of Russian and not far enough for the radicals, and he was assassinated in 1881 by a radical group calling itself Народная воля (Narodnaya Volya: "People's Will").  His son, Alexander III, and his grandson, Nicholas II, took the assassination as a lesson that Russian needed an autocrat and no reform should be made.  

The Bolsheviks abolished the zemstvos and their postal systems after they assumed power in 1917, but a 2015 Russian stamp commemorating the zemstvo posts is a testament to how far the present Russian government has rejected (up to certain limits) the policies of the former Communist regime.



  1. Michael - really nice website, and your stamp pics and commentary are great! I like the clean look. Enjoy the journey, I will be checking regularly.

    Jim Jackson

    1. Thank you Jim. I don't have the skill to make it more complicated! :-)