Smithsonian’s rare Russian stamps preserve history

Коллекция марок Российской империи в Национальном почтовом музее Смитсоновского института в Вашингтоне - одна из самых полных в мире (Courtesy photo)

One of the world’s greatest collections of stamps from Imperial Russia is in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum in Washington.

“With varieties not known to exist within any other museum stamp collection in the world, these exceptional stamps reflect the culture and history of pre-revolutionary Russia,” the museum says.

The whereabouts of the collection, consisting of some 14,000 stamps issued in czarist Russia between 1857 and the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, were a mystery until the past decade. It includes many one-of-a-kind pieces acquired from notable collectors, such as Agathon Fabergé, a philatelist and son of Peter Carl Fabergé, of the House of Fabergé.

Four Russian stamps (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Rare block of four of the 1857 10-kopek first stamp issue of Russia, originally from the Fabergé collection. (Courtesy photo)

The collection was formed from the 1920s to the 1940s by George H. Kaestlin, a Russian émigré living in England. Only a few of his fellow philatelists at the time knew that Kaestlin was assembling a collection of this magnitude. Kaestlin left instructions that his collection be kept intact, and in 1984 his niece donated the collection to the Smithsonian.

Embossed stamp (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Only five examples are known of the 1857 6-kopek “Tiflis Provisional” embossed stamp. (Courtesy photo)

Many years would pass, due to the backlog of processing and cataloging philatelic donations at the Smithsonian, before the collection was rediscovered in 2011, following a query by State Department staffers working on U.S.-Russian cultural relations.

Heraldic drawings on envelope (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Preliminary drawings of various designs for the St. Petersburg City Post stamped envelope, originally in the Fabergé collection. (Courtesy photo)
Red Russian stamp (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, various European powers, including Russia, maintained their own post offices in the Ottoman Empire by authority of treaties. This stamp, printed in red as a test color, was eventually issued in blue in 1863 for mailing parcels at the Russian post offices in the Levant. (Courtesy photo)

The zemstvo stamps

In 1862, Czar Alexander II created a system of local assemblies called zemstvos, or “land councils,”  to allow rural communities greater autonomy. The imperial mail system did not serve these areas, so many zemstvos began their own courier services, and started to issue their own stamps.

Eventually, more than 150 zemstvos issued stamps. The Kaestlin collection’s holding of Zemstvo stamps is one of the best ever assembled, containing many rare items. Here are a few:

Two Russian stamps (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
Shlisselburg (near St. Petersburg) issued the first zemstvo stamp in 1865. (Courtesy photo)
Blue Russian stamp (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
1869 3-kopek stamp of Kotel’nich (Kirov oblast, along the route of the Trans-Siberian Railway). One of only two known examples in used condition. (Courtesy photo)
Green and yellow Russian stamp (Courtesy of Smithsonian National Postal Museum)
1907 2-kopek stamp from Chistopol (Tatarstan). One of two known examples in mint condition. (Courtesy photo)

All images are courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum / G. H. Kaestlin Specialized Collection of Russian Imperial and Zemstvo Stamps (Acc. No. 1984.1026).