Many casual observers and armchair historians have noted with surprise how rapidly the former Soviet Union disintegrated into many pieces at the beginning of the 1990s. What they often fail to notice, however, is that the USSR arose from just as many small pieces. This sad fact has had its advantages for the philatelist, for a great many unusual issues appeared before the Soviet Union took on the shape and character that Lenin and Stalin gave it. One of the more unusual slices of the Russian philatelic pie of interest to the Scandinavia collector is Ingria, or North Ingermanland, as it is more commonly known to English speakers.
Peter the Great founded a new capital for his Russian Empire in 1703 at St. Petersburg, gaining a new window to Europe through the Baltic. The area was inhabited by industrious woodcutters, farmers, and fishermen of Finnish extraction. These “Ingrians,” though few in number, chafed under 200 years of Tsarist rule, never losing their sense of being a separate group with more affinity to Finland than to Russia. There were still 500,000 of them in St. Petersburg and environs in the 1910s.
The February, 1917, revolution gave the long-suffering Ingrians their chance for a different destiny. The Kerenski government, which had few friends among the local Russian population, encouraged the Finnish-speaking Ingrians along the path to autonomy. A few of the more militant Ingrians even proposed the creation of an independent state around the Gulf of Finland that would link the Finns of Helsinki with the Estonians and leave Russian-speaking St. Petersburg (or Petrograd) as an autonomous entity within Ingermanland.
After the Bolsheviks took power in November, 1917, they also encouraged the Ingrians, but only momentarily. Within a few months, Lenin and Trotsky changed course, abandoning the Ingrian liberals. Thousands of them fled across the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki where they organized a small anti-Soviet army linked to Marshal Mannerheim’s nationalist movement.
Late in 1919, a mixed Finnish-Ingrian force pressed south along the isthmus that separates the Gulf of Finland from Lake Ladoga, and eventually seized several villages, the most important of which was Kirjasalo. There, an Ingrian National People’s Committee established a government with the objective of seeking unification with Finland. This proposal was not especially well-received by Mannerheim, who had other problems. He recommended that the Ingrians seek some sort of autonomy within Russia.
The politics of the interim government of North Ingermanland was complicated by a multitude of volatile (and violent) factions – Finnish nationalists, Russian Reds and Whites, Estonians and Karelian nationalists, and some foreign interventionists, mainly British. It is no surprise that Ingrians had little sense of which direction to turn after being spumed by the Finnish government.
Stamps to Attract Collectors
This is where North Ingermanland’s philatelic option was born. The Ingrian military commander, Colonel Elfengren, used his influence with the National People’s Committee to sponsor the printing of a series of postage stamps for his new “country.” The Finns offered assistance so long as the new stamps followed accepted mailing practices outlined by the Universal Postal Union (UPU).
The stamps were printed at Viborg in Finland and were officially intended to ease postal communication between the Ingrian troops at the front and their families in Finland. There was also another rationale. Elfengren was not only in a desperate military situation, but also in a difficult financial condition. He raised money from the world’s philatelists that eventually made up 65 percent of the operating budget of the National People’s Committee in Kirjasalo.
Colonel Elfengren and his Ingrian soldiers
The first issue was designed by Frans Kamara, a Finnish lieutenant who had learned his drawing skills at St. Petersburg before the war. The issue resembled the Finnish stamps of 1918, but whereas the latter bore the rampant Finnish lion, these Ingrian stamps bore a highly stylized coat of arms representing the River Narva on the border between Estonia and Russia. The currency used was the Finnish mark and the inscription read “Pohjois Inkeri,” meaning Ingrian posts.
Approximately 500 sets of sample North Ingermanland stamps, overprinted “Mali,” were sent to post offices throughout Finland. Postal employees attached the stamps to pieces of paper with a headline text in Finnish and Swedish reading: “The Northern Inkeri stamp samples.” The Finnish post office said all mail from the disputed area was to be handled in accord with Finnish regulations.
The first issues had seven values: 5, 10, 25, and 50 pennia; and 1, 5, and 10 marrka. Two hundred thousand of the pennia values with 1,000 to 10,000 of the marrka values were printed. There were a number of plate flaws and other printing errors. The higher values are rare and command handsome prices at auction.
Colonel Elfengren received 9,000 sets of the pennia values and another 2,500 1-markka stamps in lieu of salary. He later sold his entire philatelic holdings to foreign buyers, mostly in the Netherlands.
Finland’s post office distributed notices in Finnish and Swedish in August, 1920 showing all of the “second series” stamps. This demonstrated Finland’s recognition of the stamps from North Ingermanland.
Philatelic Mailings Predominate
To provide cancels, a steel marker was ordered from the Sundstrom company in Helsinki. It was a bridge cancel bearing a circular date stamp with Kirjasalo in block letters. The first stamps mailed were canceled in black ink on March 21, 1920.
Not surprisingly, a large proportion of North Ingermanland’s mailings were philatelic in character. Most letters from Kirjasalo had more postage on them than necessary, but are decidedly attractive as a consequence. Most letters were addressed to Finland, although a large number also found their way to dealers in Western Europe. These latter pieces evidently arrived at their destinations in due course without any postage due charges, indicating that North Ingermanland stamps were recognized in international mails.
The Ingrians themselves wanted to open post offices in two other villages – Korkeamaki and Kohtakjya – but this never occurred. The Kirjasalo post office remained the only office, handling some 50-60 pieces of mail daily, not including the large volume of business mail generated by Elfengren’s regiment.
Ironically, the Kirjasalo post office was not in North Ingermanland itself but at the Rautu railroad station on the Finnish side of the border (see map). There the work of postal employees would not be disturbed by ongoing hostilities between Whites and Reds.
The first issue was soon sold out and a second series ordered in June, 1920. These issues, also printed in Viborg, were designed by Gustav Niemeyer of Germany, who favored agricultural motifs in two colors. The first known canceled cover is dated August 8, 1920.
The print quality of these stamps is quite good and there are far fewer errors. Unlike the first issue, they are distinct in color and design from Finnish stamps of the period. Perforations, however, were often miserable. The Ingrian coat of arms again appears on the 10-penni stamp. The 30-penni shows a peasant with a scythe working in a field; the 50-penni shows a farmer and horse plowing a field; the 80-penni shows a maid milking a cow. The 1-marrka shows potatoes being harvested. The disturbing image of a Lutheran church in flames is shown on the 5-marrka stamp. The high-value 10-marrka stamp is more peaceful, depicting two seated men, each playing a Finnish zither (known as the kantele). One sheet of the 1-marrka was printed with an inverted center. This may have been done deliberately to attract collectors; if so, it certainly succeeded if the Scott catalog value of $1,000 for a genuine mint copy is any measure. Fakes now abound.
Overprints Aid Refugees
The efforts of Elfengren and other Ingrian leaders ultimately failed with Elfengren being executed in Moscow for “high treason” in 1927. With the destruction of White armies in Siberia and south of the Volga, the Reds were in position to direct their full military force against the Poles,
Ukrainians, and the Finns. Mannerheim opted out of the fight at this juncture, signing a peace treaty with the Soviet Union on October 14, Through terms of this agreement, the Finns retained control of the western areas of Ingermanland but all of North Ingermanland was ceded to Russia. North Ingermanland’s stamps were withdrawn in December, having never been formally recognized by the UPU.
In a letter of November 30, 1920, the National People’s Committee at Kirjasalo approached the Finnish Interior Ministry with a request to sell much of what was left of North Ingermanland’s second issue, this time overprinted with “Inkerin Hyvaksi,” (For Ingria). On a few issues overprinted in black, smeared ink did appear though they never had any postal value. Instead, the revenue from their sale supposedly helped Ingrian refugees displaced by the peace treaty. These aid stamps are scarce today, even though some 26,000 of various values were evidently prepared for the philatelic market.
Nineteen years later, Soviet troops invaded Finland through this same region, driving westward toward Helsinki in the so-called Winter War. By this time, many of the remaining Ingrians had either fled to Finland or had disappeared into Stalin’s gulag. A few joined the Germans during the siege of Leningrad. For the sins of this small group, the Russians made the remaining Ingrians pay very heavily. They dispersed what was left of the Finnish-speaking population into Siberia and Central Asia.
By 1997, Russian geographers estimated that of 70,000 people, only 1 percent of the population of St. Petersburg oblast, were of Ingrian descent. The remainder disappeared into history. A few nationalists in Estonia and Finland disputed these statistics and managed to create an Ingrian presence in the so-called Unrepresented Nations and People Organization, which seeks to establish political rights for world minorities. It is unclear if these Ingrians really represent anyone in today’s world, but at least they have their own flag and history.
As for North Ingermanland stamps, most used issues have been canceled to order and most covers were overfranked as an enticement to collectors. In addition, many fakes still circulate today.
Counterfeits of the first issues came out during the late 1920s, evidently of Danish origin. They lack the proper 1114×1114 perforations. The second issues were extensively forged in Britain later and printed on white paper, not yellowish as the originals. The colors of the forgeries also tend to be brighter than genuine issues. More forgeries appear to have surfaced in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s and are commonly available today. Neither the genuine issues nor the counterfeits are known with watermarks.
Whether genuine or forgery, the stamps of North Ingria continue to be highly regarded in philatelic circles as among the most unusual in an era of curious revolutionary issues.
By Thomas Whigham
(Illustrations provided by Andrew Andersen and Roger Quinby)
Originally published in The Posthorn, February / 2006
(Editor s Note: The author is professor of history at the University of Georgia. This article is adapted from a paper presented to the Athens Philatelic Society, Athens, GA, May 13, 2003. Illustrations courtesy of Roger Quinby and Allen Andersen. The illustration shown on the front cover is inscribed on the back: ‘‘Finnish war banner and the Inkeri red, blue, and yellow flag are the national symbols of deliverance of the Inkeri tribes from a century of bondage. ”)