A year later, on 1 January 1961, the Soviet Union followed in France’s footsteps. A new rouble was introduced, but its value was not one hundred, but ten old roubles.
At first sight this currency reform could hardly be motivated by inflation. The prices in roubles were not so high that dropping zeros was the obvious thing to do. Take a look at these postal rates in a few European countries on 31 December 1960, for instance. This is the rate for an ordinary inland letter in the lowest weight class.
To put it briefly, the postal rates of the Soviet Union were definitely not incongruous with those of the surrounding countries.
The real reason becomes clear when we compare the gold contents of the old and the new roubles. The old rouble contained 0.222168 grammes of gold; the new one 0.987412 grammes. Not ten times, but less than five times as much. The exchange rate of the dollar was officially determined at four old roubles; now it became 90 kopecks. The new rouble was a hidden devaluation.
On 1 January 1961 new coins of 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 15, 20 and 50 kopecks en of 1 rouble were put into circulation. The new banknotes came in denominations of 1, 3, 5, 10, 25, 50 and 100 roubles. The old banknotes and coins had to be exchanged for new ones after 1 January 1961.
A warning in advance
I do not collect Russia, nor the Soviet Union. I collect the Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. This does not mean I cannot write an article about the Soviet Union. After all the Baltic countries were a part of the Soviet Union, though involuntarily,2 between 1944 and 1991 as the Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. It does mean that all illustrations shown in this article are of Baltic origin. So if the reader asks: ‘Why don’t you show anything from Vladivostok?,’ my answer must be: ‘Because I don’t have it.’
What did the mail look like in 1960?
In the Soviet Union of 1960 most mail was sent in covers with imprinted stamps. Most covers were illustrated too. The imprinted stamp came in several denominations: 40 kopecks for a normal letter (the lion’s share of the covers); 60 kopecks for an inland airmail letter or an international letter; 1 rouble 60 kopecks for an international airmail letter. Besides there were postcards with imprinted stamps too. Their value was 25 kopecks. The cover or postcard was sold for somewhat more than the stamp’s face value though. There was a surcharge for the paper. At the counter a postcard cost 40 kopecks, a cover with an imprinted stamp of 40 kopecks cost 50 kopecks.
Postcards were considerably less popular in the Soviet Union than letters with imprinted stamps. Picture postcards were even more scarce. For that matter, a big part of those picture postcards had an imprinted stamp too. Covers and cards without an imprinted stamp, that had to be stamped by the sender, did exist, but they were only a fraction of the postal traffic.
Basically, the postal rates did not change when the new rouble was introduced. One zero was being dropped. Those rates that did not end in a zero were rounded up. Half kopecks just did not exist.
Two alterations were made however. The registration fee for an international letter was raised from 1 old rouble to 12 new kopecks. The second alteration relates to the difference between a postcard and a picture postcard. Before 01‑01‑1961 a picture postcard that did not carry an imprinted stamp had to be stamped as a letter, not as a postcard. The rate for an inland picture postcard was 40 (old) kopecks, like a letter, not 25 (old) kopecks, like a postcard. As from 01‑01‑1961 a picture postcard was treated like a postcard: inside the Soviet Union both cards cost 3 new kopecks.
Here are the basic ‘old’ and ‘new’ rates:
The old postal stationery after 1-1-61
The old covers and postcards that were still in the hands of the public could be used until 30 April 1961. In illustration 2 we see a cover with an imprinted stamp, used after 1-1-61; in illustration 3 a postcard.
■ Illustration 2: Letter from Saviena in Latvia to Rīga, 5 January 1961. At the back an arrival stamp of Rīga, 6 January 1961. The cover, devoted to Lithuanian country dances, dates from before the currency reform and has an imprinted stamp of 40 old kopecks
■ Illustration 3: Picture postcard with an imprinted stamp of 25 old kopecks, sent from Pürksi in Estonia to Koluvere, 6 March 1961. Arrival stamp of Koluvere, 9 March 1961. The front of the card shows an illustration devoted to 8 March (International Women's Day), but – as appears from the heading ПОЧТОВАЯ КАРТОЧКА – the card was meant as a postcard, not as a picture postcard
Revaluation of postal stationery
Of course the post offices still had a stock of covers and postcards on 1 January 1961. A part of that stock was revalued by an imprint like ‘From 1 January 1961 the value of the cover and the stamps is 5 kopecks’. An example is shown in illustration 4.
■ Illustration 4: Letter from Brakški, Latvia, to Rīga, 18 July 1962. At the back a transit stamp of the central post office in Rīga and arrival stamp Rīga 4, both from 19 July 1962. The imprint beside the imprinted stamp of 40 (old) kopecks means: ‘From 1 January 1961 the value of two covers with imprinted stamps is 9 kopecks’. Here the two covers cost 1 kopeck and the imprinted stamps 4 kopecks each. A late date for a revalued cover, by the way
Furthermore, at the beginning of January covers and postcards turned up where the text about the value of the postal stationery was printed instead of stamped. That text is invariably in the same colour as the imprinted stamp. The text must have been printed together with the rest of the stationery. Probably the printer produced two impressions of the stationery: one without the text, to be used before 1 January 1961, and a second one with the text, to be used after that date. In illustration 5 we see a revalued letter and in illustration 6 a revalued postcard.
■ Illustration 5: Letter from Roja in Latvia to Rīga, 27 January 1961. At the back arrival stamp of the central post office in Rīga, 28 January 1961. The text beside the imprinted stamp of 40 (old) kopecks means: ‘From 1 January 1961 the value of the letter plus stamps is 5 kopecks’. This should be translated as: one kopeck for the cover and four kopecks for the postage. The text underneath the picture: ‘See you in the new year’
■ Illustration 6: Picture postcard with an imprinted stamp of 25 old kopecks, sent from Vilnius, Lithuania, to Baldone, Latvia, 23 March 1961. Two arrival stamps of Baldone: 24 and 25 March 1961. The front side shows a still life with flowers, but the card falls within the Soviet definition of a postcard nonetheless. Beside the imprinted stamp a text in a box tells us: ‘From 1 January 1961 the value of the card plus stamps is 4 kopecks’. In this case: one kopeck for the postcard and three kopecks for the postage
New postal stationery
That’s not everything. The Soviet Union was a bulk consumer of paper and issued hundreds of new stamps and postal stationery every year. So in the very first days after 1 January 1961 new covers with imprinted stamps in new kopecks made an appearance. Illustration 7 shows a letter with an imprinted stamp valid for an inland letter; illustration 8 a letter with an imprinted stamp valid for an international airmail letter.
■ Illustration 7: Letter from Sauka in Latvia to Rīga, 16 January 1961. At the back arrival stamp of the central post office in Rīga, 17 January 1961.This is a new cover, with an imprinted stamp of 4 new kopecks, available at the counters after 1 January 1961. Needless to say, the appeal ‘Exterminate the wolves’ on this cover is not wholly in accordance with present-day views on nature conservancy
■ Illustration 8: Registered airmail letter from Rīga to Hamburg, 23 September 1961. Cover with an imprinted stamp valid for an international airmail letter, with additional postage stamps for the registration fee. Registration label ‘R.S.S. de LETTONIE’, purpose-made for international mail. The name of the post office is handwritten. The ‘Международное’ stamp (meaning ‘International’) was used from 1950 until 1968 to mark mail from and to foreign countries
Stamping envelopes was a comparatively rare phenomenon in the Soviet Union. When it happened, the postage stamp was often an additional franking beside an imprinted stamp, for instance to turn a normal letter into a registered one. But of course mixed frankings of old and new stamps did occur between 1 January and 30 April 1961. Illustration 9 is a beautiful example.
■ Illustration 9: Registered letter from Baldone in Latvia to Schaffhausen (Switzerland), 15 January 1961. Blank registration label for international mail, the place-name handwritten, airmail label and stamps ‘Recommandé’ (‘registered’) and ‘Международное’ (‘international’).
Arrived in Schaffhausen on 18 January 1961 and on 19 January provided with a label ‘departed without leaving forwarding address’ in German, French and Italian. A stamp on the back shows the letter has returned in Baldone on 25 January 1961.
The rate for an international registered airmail letter was 28 kopecks. Here we see old stamps at the value of 1 rouble 90 kopecks = 19 new kopecks and one new stamp of 10 kopecks. Together 29 new kopecks. The sender paid one kopeck too much
Of course some people were still in possession of postage stamps and postal stationery in old kopecks on 30 April 1961. If they tried to use them, the addressee had to pay postage due. Before 1961 the minimum postage due fee was one rouble. Now it became 10 kopecks.
The Soviet postal authorities decided they would be obliging during the first months after the currency reform. The addressee of an underfranked letter only had to pay the postage due, without a fine.
I do not know at what date this decree expired. On account of the items I have seen I presume: half a year. So from 1 July 1961 at least 10 kopecks had to be paid.
Illustration 10 shows that the postal clerks were not only obliging to people who had underfranked, but also to people who had not franked at all. Illustration 11 is an example of an underfranked letter where the addressee only had to pay what the sender should have paid. The letter of illustration 12 has been sent at a moment the postal clerks had stopped being obliging. On 30 August the addressee had to pay a minimum fee, just like he did in the days of yore.
■ Illustration 10: Letter without a stamp, locally sent in Rīga, 27 January 1961. Machine cancellation with slogan ‘Name and address – house number – residence – postal district’. A postage clerk has stamped a postage due marking ДОПЛАТИТЬ РИГА (‘Postage Due Rīga’). At first he filled in ‘10 kopecks’ with a red pencil. Then he thought again, took a black pencil and wrote ‘4 kopecks’ across the 10 kopecks. For the moment the postal clerks were obliging and charged the postage due rate only, without a fine. Normally the addressee should have paid 10 kopecks; now he got away with 4 kopecks
■ Illustration 11: Letter from Matkule to Rīga, probably sent on 5 May 1961. Instead of a departure stamp the postage clerk put a postage due marking ДОПЛАТИТЬ МАТКУЛЕ (‘Postage Due Matkule’) on the letter. The cover with an imprinted stamp of 40 old kopecks had not been revalued by an imprint and consequently had become invalid after 1 April. The postal clerk had some doubts whether he should not charge the official minimum fee of 10 kopecks, but decided for 4 kopecks. At the back arrival stamp of the central post office in Rīga, 6 May 1961
■ Illustration 12: Letter from Dedovsk near Moscow to Rīga, 30 August 1961. The imprinted stamp of 40 old kopecks was invalid after 1 April; so the post office in Rīga stamped a postage due marking ДОПЛАТИТЪ РИГА. The postal clerks had stopped being obliging now and charged the minimum fee of 10 kopecks. At the back arrival stamp Rīga-9 of 2 September 1961