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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Capitalism And Cat Stamps

Washington, 9 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The transition in Russia from communism toward a market economy has affected all aspects of life, including some in ways that few would have predicted in advance.

One such area is stamp collecting, a hobby that has been privatized and transformed in unexpected ways over the last decade. And changes in Russian philately thus reflect as in a drop of water the broader changes affecting the entire society.

Writing in the current issue of the special "collections" insert to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Andrei Strygin, one of Russia's leading stamp collectors and the editor of the Moscow journal "The World of Stamps," draws a sharp distinction between philately in Soviet times and stamp collecting now. But significantly, he strives to identify both what has been gained and what has been lost as a result of the changes between those two periods.

In late Soviet times, Strygin points out, communist officials promoted stamp collecting for ideological purposes. They spent a great deal of time and money organizing a massive network of philatelist clubs in schools and other institutions. Indeed, he says, these officials operated on the principle that the more stamps, the more collectors, the more organizations and exhibitions, the better.

That brought stamp collecting to the masses, Strygin points out, but not without some serious costs. On the one hand, the party apparatchiks -- the name given to full-time party bureaucrats -- who controlled Soviet philately often imposed their own views on things. Because they believed that dogs were worth memorializing but cats were not, they did not allow the printing of stamps with pictures of cats. As a result, he notes, the first domestic "cat stamps" did not appear until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And on the other hand, these same party officials, enjoying the support of the Communist Party Central Committee, cultivated collecting by theme or chronology but did little to promote an appreciation of the material value of stamps. Indeed, the very notion that old or rare stamps had a particular monetary value was more or less ignored. And that in turn meant that Soviet collectors often failed to get proper value for what they had in dealings with Western collectors.

But that situation has entirely changed, with both positive and negative consequences. Strygin notes that "the social-economic processes in the country in the 1990s shook organized philately to its foundations." The apparatchiks lost their support from the now "disbanded CPSU." And thousands of collectors deserted the field in the face of a falling standard of living and the rising price of stamps.

Very quickly, however, the apparatchiks of the past again found their feet. Such people -- and Strygin notes that they are to be found in every organization -- immediately changed their ideals and began "to sincerely propagate the values of 'market philately,' when collecting becomes an elite rather than a mass phenomenon and when the principle is if you have money, then purchase a rarity."

As Strygin notes, for those raised on the idea that stamp collecting should promote learning about other peoples and times, "the absurdity of such views, which today have risen to the level of the official line of organized philately [in Russia] cannot withstand any criticism."

For many collectors, Strygin says, this incomplete shift itself, one in which the apparatchiks of the Soviet past are now preaching a new line, has driven them from the field and created "a vacuum" in society all too often filled by such social pathologies as "a lack of spirituality, latent criminality, and drug use."

Strygin suggests that some may respond to him that the current situation is nothing more than one that reflects "the individuality of the members of society" and thus should be beyond criticism. But he suggests in conclusion that the changes in the values that animate stamp collecting -- a focus on price rather than on other things -- cannot fail to affect the way collectors will look at the rest of their lives as well.