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Stamp of Independence

Russia says no, but Tuvans stick to their project

By Kathy Lally
Moscow Bureau of the Sun --- KYZYL, Russia

In 1936, not long after it acquired an alphabet, the Republic of Tuva began printing sheet after sheet of postage stamps.

It flooded the stamp world with exotic triangular and diamond-shaped stamps depicting nomadic horsemen galloping across the steppe and camels racing locomotives, though neither then nor now has Tuva actually had any trains.

Stamp dealers say it has never really had any stamps, either.

They are more labels than stamps, because the stamps were never meant to be used with mail: they were printed only for sale to collectors.

But for Tuva, which has more sheep than people (300,000), stamps are the future: Tuva is planning to issue stamps again --- for the first time since 1944, when Tuva was annexed by the Soviet Union --- and thereby achieve a measure of independence.

``We did it more for political reasons than financial,'' says Kaadyr-ool Bicheldey, chairman of Tuva's parliament.

``You can take it as Eastern diplomacy, when you don't go straight and beat your head on the wall but quietly make yourself independent,'' he said.

Tuva has already printed several new series of stamps. Only one problem remains: Russia, of which Tuva is a part, has refused to allow them to be used as postage.

For Tuvans, too much is at stake to back down.

``The stamps will present our republic to the world,'' says Sherig-ool Oorzhak, the president of Tuva. ``Many people even in Russia have no idea where Tuva is.''

``And if we make some money from them, that wouldn't be so bad.''

Tuva had its new stamps printed in Austria, since the government knew Russia would never do it. There's a green triangular stamp depicting native wrestlers. A yellow triangular stamp depicts a camel (this time without a locomotive).

Mr. Bicheldey says Tuvan officials had discussed the stamps with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who didn't object.

``Maybe from the political point of view they had to agree,'' Mr. Bicheldey said, ``but the Ministry of Communications knows better what it means for us to have our own stamps, and they refused.''

Mr. Bicheldey speculated that perhaps the two Russian politicians also understood, told the Tuvans one thing and then told the ministry to do nothing.

To avoid direct confrontation, Mr. Bicheldey said, the Tuvan parliament plans to pass a law making the stamps legal postage only in the territory of Tuva.

Then it will begin selling them.

Sadly, the stamp world won't care.

``They're just advertising,'' said Svetlana N. Shilkina, head of a Russian stamp agency, ``like a label for a box of matches.''

Return to Friends of Tuva Newsletter Number 12.