Ukraine's first stamps


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19 April 2022
These five Ukrainian stamps have suddenly acquired great historical significance: they were the first ones to be issued by an independent Ukraine, in 1918. In this stamp guide, Chris West explores the stamp history of this proud nation.

Ukrainian nationality goes back to the 9th century, when Kyiv became the capital of an expanding empire founded by Vikings.

By the 10th century, this empire covered much of modern Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Poland and Russia. Its most famous ruler was Prince Volodymyr the Great, who converted to Christianity in 988.

The tryzub (trident) featured on the 10, 20 and 40 shahiv stamps illustrated here was his emblem. His son Yaroslav built the St Sophia cathedral that (at time of writing) still stands in Kyiv.

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As all empires do, the Kievan one fell apart. The arrival of the Mongols administered the death-blow. When they departed, the lands of Ukraine fell first under Polish domination, then that of a new nation to its north-east, Russia.

The 19th century saw a rise in nationalism around Europe, and Ukraine was no exception, led by ‘Kozbar’ (bard) Taras Shevchenko. Shevchenko was imprisoned by the Russian Tsar Nicholas I – partly because of his Ukrainian nationalism, but also because the poet viciously satirized the Tsar’s wife.

Stamps for an independent Ukraine

Fast forward to 1917 and the collapse of the old Russian empire. On the 17 March of that year, a collection of politicians, artists, entrepreneurs and soldiers formed the Central Council (Rada) of Ukraine in Kyiv. On the 22 January of the following year, Ukraine officially declared itself independent.

Issuing stamps is one of the first things that new nations do.

The five above came out in July of that year. The two lower-value ones were designed by Antin Sereda, and the three higher ones by Heorhiy Narbut. 

The 20 shahiv stamp shows both Prince Volodymyr’s tryzub and a peasant with corn-stalks in his hat: a reminder that Ukraine is a massive producer of wheat. The wheat theme continues into the 30 shahiv, which features Ceres, the Roman Goddess of agriculture and motherhood. The stamps, which are imperforate, were printed in sheets of 100.

The new republic did not last long. It was swallowed up by Russia in 1922.

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Soviet Union 

Initially, Stalin encouraged outlying parts of his new Soviet Union to celebrate local identity, but he soon became afraid of the strong sense of independent nationhood in some of them (like Ukraine), and reversed the policy. In the 1930s, he launched a murderous campaign against Ukraine’s peasants that led to a massive famine, known as the Holodomor (which in Ukrainian means ‘murder by hunger’). Estimates of the death toll range from 3.5 to 7 million.

The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991.

Independent again

On the 24 August of that year, Ukraine declared itself independent once more.

Since then, its politics have been a struggle between those who want to keep close ties with Russia and those who look to Europe for inspiration. A look at voting patterns shows that people in the far east of the country fall into the former camp, and most of the rest into the latter.

And now, of course, Ukraine has been invaded. Like many bullies, Russia’s President Putin underrated the pride and stout-heartedness of his intended victims. He also claimed that Ukraine was not a proper country: these stamps, over a century old, give the lie to that.