FOCUS ON PHILATELY
by Ingert Kuzych
Ukraine's 1923 Famine relief issue
While Ukraine's Great Famine of 1933 (Holodomor) quite rightly received extensive commemorative coverage last year, a prior famine in Ukraine is often overlooked. Amazingly, this earlier tragedy has never been denied by the Soviets and it was even commemorated by a 1923 semi-postal_1_ stamp issue prepared to raise funds for the unfortunate victims.
The 1921-1922 famine was brought on by crop failure and by sociopolitical conditions following World War I. Because of drought, only 35 percent of the normal harvest was obtained in 1921. The southern areas of Ukraine were particularly hard hit. The calamity was even greater in Russian areas, particularly in the southern Volga region. An unusually heavy tax in kind was exacted from Ukraine in 1922 and this further exacerbated the situation. Up to 1 million people died of famine and many thousands more of related epidemic diseases.
The Soviet government organized a relief program, but focused most of its - and the world's - attention on the Russian Volga areas. In Ukraine, most of the relief work was carried out by civic and cooperative organizations.
One of the methods by which the Soviet government sought to raise funds for relief was the creation of a special famine semi-postal stamp issue, with the surcharge designated for hunger alleviation. This four-stamp set (Figure 1) was the only one that ever indicated that it was produced by the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (USRR).
About the stamps
Although already ordered in mid-1922 when the effects of the famine were still prominent, various obstructions and delays (see box) prevented its release until June 25, 1923. The stamps - produced at the State Printery in Berlin, Germany - were distributed in nine Ukrainian cities and towns (Bakhmut, Chernihiv, Katerynoslav, Kharkiv, Kyiv, Odesa, Poltava, Vinnytsia and Zhytomyr), as well as in Moscow and Petrograd.
The four stamps of this set were sent to post offices in panes of 25 each (5 by 5). Imperforate varieties of all four values are known, but collectors should beware of trimmed perforate specimens made to resemble imperforates. A regular set of these stamps retails for about $1.50 mint or $8 used; an imperforate set can fetch about $120 mint or $160 used. A small percentage of the stamps were printed on paper that was watermarked. These, too, go for about $120 for a mint set, while a used set will fetch about $180.
One value, the 20 + 20-karbovantsi stamp, is known watermarked and imperforate (Figure 2). This particular specimen is one of Ukraine's rarest (only four panes [100 stamps] were apparently produced) and commands a price of $1,500. Specimen_2_ or "zrazok" overprinted stamps were also prepared, using either black, red or green ink (Figure 3). A set of such marked stamps goes for about $100.
Three of the stamps portray subjects that deal with the alleviation of hunger. Below are the official stamp descriptions adapted from an article in the May-June 1923 issue of Sovetsii Filatelist. The 10 + 10-karbovantsi value, in blue and black, depicts the specter of death. Presented is Ukraine, wearing a Red Army soldier's cap, shielding a peasant youth with one arm while removing hunger's scythe with the other. The 90 + 30-karbovantsi stamp, in brown and black, shows the struggle of a peasant with death. The peasant is represented as drawing death's scythe out of its bony hands. The 150 + 50-karbovantsi high-value stamp, in red-brown and black, pictures allegorical Ukraine distributing bread. Represented as a young peasant maiden in national costume, Ukraine offers bread to a hungry woman and child with her left hand, while holding a ripe sheaf of wheat with the right.
The fourth stamp in the set - 20 + 20-karbovantsi, violet-brown and orange - presents a very popular Ukrainian topic, the national bard Taras Shevchenko. The official description refers to him as the "national revolutionary poet." Amazingly, all of these stamps were in circulation for only three weeks; their recall occurred on July 15. These would be the last Ukrainian stamps issued by any Ukrainian government for almost seven decades (until 1992).
By the time the Famine Issue stamps were finally ready in 1923, there really was no more famine and the Soviet ruble had declined to the point where a new currency was introduced. The new ruble was equal to 100 rubles/karbovantsi of 1922. This new situation made the 1923 Famine Issue stamps practically useless for postage - the high value 150 + 50-karbovantsi value saw far more use than any of the three lower values - and somewhat of an embarrassment for the government. Nevertheless, since the hard currency to have them printed abroad had been spent, it was decided to put them into circulation for a short period of time.
Because of their drop in value and their limited time in circulation, famine issue stamps are not that easy to locate on cover. (These circumstances also explain why used specimens are worth more than mint ones.) The final two illustrations depict usage on mail sent abroad. Figure 4 shows a unique unfolded cover franked with four Famine Issue stamps and sent from Poltava (July 4, 1923) to Buenos Aires, Argentina (arrival cancel August 17, 1923). The famine stamps' 70-karbovantsi value at this time would only have covered 0.7 rubles of the 10 ruble foreign rate. So 9.3 rubles worth of stamps must have appeared on this letter, but they were clipped off by an over-zealous collector.
The spectacular cover in Figure 5 carries three imperforate strips of three famine issue stamps and an imperforate pair and single of the 90 + 30-karbovantsi value. Mailed from Kharkiv to Berlin on July 13, 1923, this item has an additional 1.9 rubles worth of stamps and an arrival cancel on the reverse.
Ingert Kuzych may be contacted at P.O. Box 3, Springfield, VA 22150 or at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Semi-postal stamps are postage stamps with a surcharge added to gather funds toward some designated cause. An example is the recent US "Heroes" stamp whose surcharge went to the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. [Back to Text]
2. The Universal Postal Union formerly required member nations to send samples of all stamps they released into service to the International Bureau in Switzerland. Member nations received these specimens as samples of what stamps were valid for postage. Many of these stamps were overprinted "Specimen" or marked in some way. [Back to Text]
Submittals from a stamp design competition
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 4, 2004, No. 1, Vol. LXXII
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