Cosmic Philately: Collecting the Universe

V–A–C Sreda online magazine continues its three-month programme devoted to space and its reflection in culture, art, and the utopian dreams of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

At the magazine’s request, Denis Sivkov, an anthropologist and researcher at the Centre for the Study of Cosmism, admin of “Countrymen and Earthmen” Telegram channel spoke with Artem Bondarevsky, General Director of GES-2 House of Culture and V–A–С Foundation, also a stamp collector, and with Rachel Hill, a Ph.D. candidate at the Science and Technology Studies Department at University College London and co-convener of the Centre for Outer Space Studies.

Denis, Artem, and Rachel discussed the origins of philately, how stamps reflect a state’s attitude to space, what happens when collisions between reality and fantasy take place, and why the dreams of the past so often turn out to be about the distant future.

Denis Sivkov: When I was a child in the late Soviet period, we used to collect bubblegum inserts—there were these pictures under bubblegum wrappers, of cars, for instance—and I used to have a collection. Could you tell me about your experience collecting?

Artem Bondarevsky: There’s a stereotype according to which people begin collecting stamps in childhood, though in fact, everything is very individual. My interest in philately came much later—when I was around twenty-five, I inherited a small collection from my grandfather. This collection was what gave rise to my initial interest—although today, the stamps I collect are completely different. When you hear the expression “small collection”, it’s worth keeping in mind that the value of a collection isn’t dependent on the number of stamps in it—even the smallest of albums can contain greater treasures than a hundred-thousand-dollar collection that is of interest only to its owner. My grandfather never really took to collecting seriously, he saw stamps as a hobby. And in the 1960s, the done thing in the Soviet Union was to collect used stamps, that is, stamps that have been through the post. With the exception of a few extremely rare cases, used stamps are ten to a hundred times less valuable than unused, “mint” stamps.

Rachel Hill: I didn’t collect stamps, but I can remember two collections, one was in a way imposed upon me. Each time I went to ballet class, my mam would buy me a toy, and I ended up having this whole army of small plastic toys. And the things I would collect myself would be anything relating to space, stars, galaxies, like images, little objects, anything I could find in relation to space. So I guess I’ve always had an investment in space and a relationship with space that was quite immediate and manifest in objects. I think collecting is a form of control. It’s a microcosm. It’s a microcosm for ordering and that might be part of the appeal. And I think collecting stamps is a classic example of collecting, curating, and ordering the world in a particular way.

D. S.: Rachel, do you remember your first encounter with a space stamp?

R. H.: Yes, it was a long time ago now, about fifteen years ago. I did a project in Belarus, in Minsk. And as a souvenir before I left, I bought some stamps that had depictions of cosmonauts on them. That was how I chose to remember my time in Minsk. That was probably my first intentional encounter with a space stamp.

D. S.: Artem, you spoke about the small collection you inherited from your grandfather. What were you most struck by when you first looked through the collection?

A. B.: First of all, I was struck by the variety. It’s important to note that stamps are not paintings, their primary function is quite utilitarian. When in 1840 the British teacher and inventor Sir Rowland Hill proposed the use of stamps, he was searching for a way of organising a transparent system of payment for postal items at the lowest possible cost to the sender. Sometime later, around the 1860s and the 1870s, people began to see postal stamps as opportunities to tell those who lived in other countries about their own, which explains the exponential growth in the variety of issued stamps. But, ultimately, philately remains the collection of signs of postal payments. Though it should also be said that not all stamps are necessarily postal—in Italy, for example, the payment of state duties continues to be confirmed through stamps to this day.

I also remember being struck by the many new things one learns through the studying and comparing of stamps of different countries which accompanies an interest in philately. Stamps are reflections of how a country sees itself, of what it sees as its future course, and of how it wants to present itself to other countries.

My grandfather’s album contained a number of Indian stamps, and they were so interesting to me that I decided to begin with them. Stamp collections can be divided into two main categories, chronological and thematic. Initially, I went down the first path, putting together a collection of the stamps of independent India, which ran from the first stamps issued at the end of the 1940s to those printed in 1985—I compiled a full collection covering this period. Afterwards, I decided to collect the stamps of Indian states. Under British colonial rule, many of these states had the right to print their own stamps. Within philatelic circles, these stamps are sometimes called “the ugliest”—local authorities would often print their stamps themselves, and it wasn’t always that the result could be called beautiful. Other states, however, had their stamps printed in Great Britain. However, I soon understood that it would be impossible for me to collect even half of the stamps from this period, too many of them are too rare.

Under British colonial rule, many of these states had the right to print their own stamps. Within philatelic society, these stamps are sometimes considered “the ugliest”—local authorities would often print their stamps themselves, and it wasn’t always that the result could be called beautiful. Other states, on the contrary, had their stamps printed in Great Britain. However, I soon understood that it would be impossible for me to collect even half of the stamps from this period, too many of them are too rare.

I moved on to building chronological collections of the stamps of Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, but soon decided to settle on a particular theme. And that theme was elephants. I thought then that I would soon have a complete collection of postal stamps depicting elephants, but the task proved impossible—you could dedicate your whole life to it. It seems worth noting here that the sheer variety of printed stamps means any thematic collection will inevitably broaden a collector’s outlook.

D. S.: I’d like to return to collecting postage stamps as a phenomenon. When did the phenomenon arise and what has changed since then?

A. B.: People were already intentionally collecting stamps in the 1850s. Among them were prominent collectors. The British royal family is probably the most well-known philatelic dynasty in the world. It’s an acknowledged fact that George V (then still the Prince of Wales) would sometimes visit philatelic auctions in Holland incognito in order to supplement the family collection.

In terms of changes, I would note that the first collectors principally collected used stamps, which largely accounts for why it’s so difficult to find mint stamps from the nineteenth century today. Take, for example, the first stamp in history, the famous Penny Black. Millions of these stamps were printed, but finding a mint stamp today is practically impossible. If a Penny Black taken from an envelope is worth around two hundred or three hundred dollars, a mint Penny Black is worth a hundred times more. Why are unused stamps so highly valued? As another collector put it to me: “If I have the opportunity to acquire a beautiful item that is also unused, that is naturally the one I will choose to acquire.”

Some philatelists collect envelopes that have gone through the post—that is, they collect valuable objects that comprise stamps, along with envelopes and postmarks. Let’s say someone is looking for envelopes sent from India to Great Britain. Quite remarkable stories take place in precisely this area of philately. The most valuable philatelic object in the world is the so-called “Dawson Cover,” an envelope sent from Hawaii to New York by a certain Dawson at the end of the nineteenth century. Two very expensive (by today’s prices) Hawaiian state stamps were placed on its cover. Two very expensive United States stamps were then also placed on the envelope, and this envelope, with its well-preserved postmarks and expensive stamps, became an extremely valuable object, or, as philatelists would put it, a “cover.”

Although philately is not so popular in Russia today, I don’t think it’s right to talk of its death. Like any hobby, the collecting of stamps experiences various degrees of popularity. For example, at the start of the 1990s in Moscow, it was possible to buy a full collection of the stamps of the People’s Republic of China on Novy Arbat for twenty thousand dollars— now the same collection would cost millions. And all this because a “philatelic boom” took place in China in the 2000s—hundreds of thousands of young people now collect stamps there. And a more or less similar situation can be observed in India today. In future, I think a rise in philatelic interest could be seen in Russia.

D. S.: Rachel, could you tell us about how space stamps are exhibited in foreign museums?

R. H.: Stamps are intriguing because they’re so small and intimate, and they have this relationship with the body. There’s a tactility to them. And this makes it a great thing to collect personally. But putting stamps on display in a museum is a different challenge. Because they’re so delicate, and they’re competing with so many other, larger objects—what the historian of science Simon Schaffer has called “charismatic megafauna,” —you really have to struggle to direct the viewer’s attention towards them.

I think you’re actually more likely to find stamps in online collections—before our conversation, I was looking at a stamp in the National Air and Space Museum’s collection. It’s a stamp representing the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In the case of this particular stamp, and with stamps in general, how a stamp gets into a collection is often as interesting as the stamp itself. This particular stamp was apparently given to the Smithsonian by a military attaché to the Soviet Embassy in Washington in the late 1970s. I find it very interesting that this stamp was presented as a small gift, with an obvious diplomatic overtone—this was characteristic of detente in general, when space infrastructure was used as a form of diplomacy. So that’s an example of how stamps are displayed and interpreted in museum collections online.

D. S.: Can the beauty of a stamp be measured? Do general—perhaps aesthetic—criteria exist?

A. B.: A multitude of criteria exist, though they can, to my mind, be divided into two types.

Criteria of the first type are objective and related to the private aesthetic inclinations of the collector. I have a rule—if I like a particular stamp and it fits in terms of theme, then I try to acquire it. This said, contemporary stamps, by which I mean stamps released after 2005, don’t interest me at all, I don’t like the methods by which they are printed. My collection of elephant stamps features a number of remarkably printed specimens—Bhutanese paper stamps with silk embellishments, Ivorian stamps with gold and silver plating.

On the other hand, objective, professional criteria can also be distinguished: the position of the image in relation to the centre of the stamp, the perforation, the condition of the gum, as well as the methods of printing and overprint used. I often buy “stocks” on internet auctions— these are unassembled stamp collections that can sometimes contain true rarities. This was how I was lucky enough to acquire a stamp from the RSFSR with an inverted overprint, that is, with an additional text printed above the main image using the lithographic method. Such stamps are extremely rare and worth thousands of times more than stamps with a conventionally printed overprint.

Some philatelists take a special interest in stamps that were printed with errors—the background moved, the centre shifted, the perforation missed. If you collect only “standard” specimens, then very soon the moment comes when you reach a ceiling—the only stamps missing from your collection are the extremely “difficult” ones. By also collecting erroneous stamps, you can “prolong the pleasure”—and deepen your study of and immersion in the culture of a particular country.

D. S.: Rachel, could you talk to us about examples of how objects of material culture like stamps reflect the relationship of a state to the cosmos?

R. H.: Part of the reason space stamps are really interesting is that they turn space into a place, to borrow Lisa Messeri’s formulation. Stamps turn space into something that’s graspable, literally, and they also help by providing a mode of visualisation—through these visual depictions, people are able to get some understanding of what’s happening in the space domain, even though it’s not immediately accessible to them. But what’s interesting, and I go into this in the article that inspired you to talk to me—the one on the 1963 stamp celebrating Valentina Tershkova as the first woman in space—is the way in which space stamps, and in the case of that particular stamp, the depiction of the Vostok-6 spacecraft, represent this collision of reality and fantasy—a collision that was inevitable, because this was secret technology at the time, which couldn’t be directly represented.

There’s this story about Sergei Korolev—who had a very nuanced awareness of the soft power exercised in the display of objects, but also of the obvious need to maintain secrecy—and of this stamp’s representation of technology that captures this tension between display and secrecy. It’s an example of how when you visualise something, you can disguise as much as reveal. The representation of Vostok-6 in the Tereshkova stamp was based, as far as I was able to understand, off of Korolev’s engineers’ imaginary reinterpretation of Vostok-6, the same imaginary reinterpretation that was then shown in public displays in places like the Tushino Airfield in Moscow. And Asif Siddiqi, an amazing space historian, one of my favourites, writes about one of these shows—in a chapter entitled “Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture” Siddiqi includes an archival image from Tushino that was presented to the United States Senate. This image demonstrates how publically displayed space technology was taken back to the United States as a source of potential intelligence on Soviet space technology. In the British context, Soviet space stamps were used as the basis for models of Vostok-6—one such model is currently on permanent display at the Science Museum in London. So stamps are this really fascinating example of how secret technology is reimagined and then openly displayed, and how people try to use these displays to understand secret technology and how it operates and so on.

A. B.: As I mentioned previously, you inevitably become immersed in the culture of the country of the stamps you’re collecting. Postal stamps allow you to trace less obvious connections between the internal politics of a state and how it seeks to represent itself, they allow you to discover interesting historical facts. Philatelic curiosity draws you in even further than historical textbooks. Considering the theme of space in philately, for example, one might recall the representation of satellites in stamps.

India released its first satellite and became a space power in 1980, but a stamp commemorating this event was only released in July of 1981. Why did it take so long? Of course, in any country, a number of bureaucratic processes have to be gone through before a stamp can be printed. There’s always a fear of failure in such important undertakings—and in this instance, the state postal service, India Post, likely put the issuing of the stamp into the long-term plan in order to avoid a misstep.

This story can be interestingly compared to the Soviet experience. The launch of the world’s first artificial Earth satellite took place on October 4, 1957, and by October 7, two stamps related to space had been released in the Soviet Union, though neither was explicitly related to the event. The first stamp commemorated the International Geophysical Year, and depicted a flying rocket, the second stamp featured a portrait of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—1957 also marked the centenary of the birth of this pioneer of astronautics.

A month later, a stamp that explicitly commemorated the Sputnik 1 had been issued. From these facts, one can deduce the Soviet government’s philatelic approach to the event—naturally, the country’s leadership feared failure, and they accordingly played it safe by issuing stamps that were not explicitly related to the launch of the satellite, but these stamps, in their turn, raised interest in this significant event (it’s worth nothing here that plans to the issue a stamp explicitly commemorating the launch of Sputnik 1 were put in place long before the launch).

D. S.: Space was one of the main themes of Soviet philately. Why do you think this was the case?

R. H.: That’s a good question. I think when I look at space stamps, what I find really interesting is how the future and the history of technology is being communicated with a general domestic audience, and with an international audience—, because of the habit stamps have of wandering around. And I suppose what’s so bewitching about stamps is that they’re so every day, they’re so normal, but they were also, at a certain time, a key mode of communication, a small unit of currency that was a mode of transport and travel.

A. B.: I think that people are always interested in collecting things that require the study of a large number of facts. For example, I know people who collect stamps with images of mushrooms. The world of mushrooms is vast, and there is a correspondingly vast variety of stamps representing them. When you collect stamps related to space, you learn more about the conquest of interstellar space. And space, of course, is a dream. After all, the exploration of other planets is a universal, important task for humanity. And this is precisely why space-themed stamps are so popular. They give you a dream. Besides, stamps are pieces of a country’s history—cosmic ambitions are of great importance to any country. And a very obvious connection emerges from this: if we have aspirations to go into space or achieve successes in this field, then we will print stamps on a space theme.

D. S.: Images of space on stamps are often imbued with the idée fixe of utopia. Does an alternative version of humanity’s cosmic future exist?

R. H.: I like that you insist on utopia when you talk about space. I think that people sometimes underestimate the importance of utopia. I think that it’s actually very important to hold on to the idea. I think—here’s my hot take— that there’s a habit of thinking about utopianism as an escapist indulgence of the bourgeoisie. But actually, I think it’s bourgeois to believe that utopianism isn’t necessary.

I think that counter-imaginaries around space are really important. I always think about this amazing lecture given by the American writer and literary critic Ursula Le Guin, in which she said something like the capitalism we live under seems inevitable—but then so did the divine right of kings, that any human power can be resisted by human beings.

I’m really interested in representations of futurity and technology, in what they mean and what they do. And I think they have quite a reality-constituting effect sometimes. What I mean by this is that I think we understand that images of the future are hopes for or anticipations of the future. But I also think you can reverse the direction, that images of the future can help create particular versions of the present. And I think that images, particularly space stamps, are an example of how a government-controlled visual mode can try and craft a particular kind of future in the present. I often think about a quote from George Orwell’s 1984—“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” And I think we can develop this thought and add that those in control of the present control the future, which might seem obvious. But then I also think that those in control of the future control the present. So I think we should take very seriously the way in which futures are depicted and presented to us.

D. S.: I remember a very popular sample of space stamps created by the painter Andrei Sokolov and the cosmonaut Alexei Leonov. Among them were some lunar stamps depicting the Soviet future on the Moon. What was their meaning? What sort of control is exercised in this case?

R. H.: Well, it’s definitely priming an expectation in everyone—“this is the direction we’re working towards.” And, okay, so the Soviets didn’t actually land a cosmonaut on the Moon, though they certainly did have a number of successes in relation to lunar exploration. But you could say that even if the future depicted in the image on the stamp wasn’t achieved, the path towards that depicted future was still achieved, if you follow me. So there’s a sense in which even if the depicted future is not realised, components that lead to that future are realised in the attempt to get there.

When looking at Soviet space stamps, I think one of the really interesting components—I mean, they’re all endlessly fascinating—but one of them is a depiction of a space worker. So, what does labour in space look like? And what should we expect from it? I think if you have in mind this juxtaposition between the solitary gaze of a single astronomer and this kind of more communal access to space, then Soviet space stamps are interesting because of this real striving to represent—and I’m using the term space worker here, because I think it’s important to reinforce the idea of labour, and of how much the cosmonautic body is a labouring body—I think there’s this real attempt to show that these cosmonauts who have gone into space are also real people with accessible stories.

And the Tereshkova stamp is also a good example of this, an attempt to say, “Look, here is our ideal proletarian hero going into space”, an attempt to say that it’s not the single privileged gaze of the astronomer that is engaging with space, but this idealised proletarian subject that’s going into space. And I think there’s a tension in the representation of the cosmonaut as both a heroic ideal and an identifiable proletarian worker. This is a tension Slava Gerovitch writes about in Soviet Space Mythologies, and something I think you also see performed in the stamps of the time.

A. B.: The 1967 series of stamps by Alexei Leonov and Andrei Sokolov is quite revealing as regards the space theme in Soviet philately. The point is that works by Sokolov and Leonov immediately ended up in the stamps not just of one country, but of four. Besides the series that came out in the Soviet Union in 1967, from the 1970s to the 1990s, stamps featuring works by Sokolov and Leonov were issued in Cuba, Sierra Leone, and the Emirate of Fujairah. Stamps with images of their works continued to be issued in the Soviet Union right up until 1990.

Inevitably, there were some curious incidents. One of the stamps from the 1967 series depicts “selenodesists”—specialists studying the surface of the Moon prior to beginning construction. The caption accompanying the image ran: “Earthrise.” Given there is no such thing as an “Earthrise”, the postal service workers who had been tasked with the printing of these stamps thought that this must have been a mistake, and set a so-called “sticker” over the original annotation that read “The Earth Rises”. But as it later turned out, the authors of the original annotation were absolutely right, given that you really do see the “Earthrise” from the Moon. Certain catalogues note that stamps without this “sticker” exist—I’ll admit I haven’t seen any myself, but I know for certain that specimens can be found where both annotations are visible.

D. S.: In conclusion, I’d like to ask the both of you how it’s possible to depict an entire universe on a small paper rectangle?

R. H.: At either extreme of a polarity, things seem to join back together again—which is why I think the gigantic and the miniature can sometimes be well-matched. I think part of what the stamp is doing, and what space and Soviet space stamps are doing more generally, is trying to understand what the outer space environment is—how do we approach it? How do we represent it? How do we capture a fragment of the inconceivable and put it into a unit of production that is accessible to all?

Sometimes using the miniature to represent the massive is more successful than using something that’s quite big or scaled up. You’re dealing with this sublimity of scales, which can be elicited by a tiny thing or a big thing. Both are in some way ungraspable, it’s beyond our ability to fully access them—so in that way, perhaps, they seem to reside together.

I like the idea of a space stamp because it’s so contradictory. A part of what these stamps are trying to depict is the humanisation of space. They’re trying to say that humans will inhabit the outer space environment and should inhabit the outer space environment. And doing that is not just about these huge ambitious projects. It’s also about being able to translate space into everyday things.

One of my favourite science fiction novels is Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon. It was published in 1937, after the Great Debate, when the two astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis got together on a public forum. Shapley argued that the universe is only as big as what we can see, that the Andromeda spiral is part of the Milky Way, and that that’s all of the Universe, while Curtis argued that no, the Andromeda spiral is a different galaxy, the Universe is much bigger than we think. In 1924, Edwin Hubble proved that Curtis was right—the Andromeda spiral is actually a different galaxy, and the Universe is a lot bigger than we think. I believe Star Maker is a potent example of how literature attempts to represent this new understanding of the Universe and its scale.

A. B.: Answering this question, I’d like to return to the previous theme. It’s important to understand that Sokolov and Leonov did not create their works especially for stamps—their works were adapted. Invariably, their paintings were run through with the spirit of dreams of space—such dreams adapt to all surfaces, and small paper rectangles are no exception.

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