By Arciom Arašonak
Translation: Jim Dingley
Communal dwellings for the working class, building no. 6. Second-floor flat. The large living room is full of cardboard boxes that once held bananas. My friend Max carries another one in, puts it on the round table and takes books and stamp stockbooks out of it.
He says, “The tenant in the flat next door died. His daughter has given me his library. It’s taken three days to move it all over here. Have a look and see if there’s anything that interests you.” Then he disappears into the kitchen.
I open up one of the stockbooks – USSR stamps from 1974: several 2×2 blocks of stamps with paintings, several sheets of stamps devoted to nature conservation, the history of aviation construction and the October Revolution. In the same year the Post Office issued a stamp to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the city of Viciebsk, but it isn’t in the album. It’s a collection of odds and ends: postcards and various forms of proof of payment for postage from Soviet Mongolia, Hungary and Bulgaria. In a separate envelope there are Romanian stamps with a face value of 2 lei bearing a portrait of Ceauşescu.
A cheerful voice comes from the kitchen: “Would you believe it, they even let me have a copy of The Tribes of the World. With Illustrations!”
The air is filled with the aroma of coffee. Underneath the grey cover of the album I discover a little piece of paper bearing the words ‘“Estonian Paper Industry combine”, 7.50 roubles’, and an empty envelope addressed to a Michail Jefimovič in the village of Klooga near Tallinn. The postmark is dated 25.01.1979.
A few moments later Max appears, he places a metal tray bearing a coffee pot, sweets, biscuits and nuts on the table, pours the coffee into fine china cups, picks up a little book in a green cover and begins to talk:
“The Tribes of the Earth was published in three volumes in 1863-64 by the printing firm owned by the author, Dr M. Khan.” Max opens the old volume up. “My neighbour managed to get hold of only the second volume. The book gives an idea of the culture and way of life of the peoples of America and Africa. Several pages and the endpapers are missing. Beneath the portrait of a woman some unknown person has written in pencil in a sort of Polish ‘old whore’… However, the most interesting thing about the old book is that it somehow found its way to Markaŭščyna in the south-west part of Viciebsk from the Ivan Turgenev Russian Library in Paris! The Library was actually destroyed in the Second World War. In October 1940 the Library’s books, as well as the pictures, busts and portraits which it held, were removed to an unknown location. After the war an examination of the library stamps revealed that some of the books had ended up in the National Library of Belarus and the Presidential Library. In my copy the Library stamp also gives the address ‘9 rue du Val-de-Grâce; this means that it must have become part of the Library’s holdings between 1917 and 1936, because in 1937 the Library moved to the Rue de la Bûcherie. It’s not known where volumes one and three are. By the way, in 1875 Dr Khan’s publishing house put out Siemiantoŭski’s Ethnographical Survey of the Vitebsk Government…”
Max and I drink coffee, he shows me the third volume of the 1912 edition of Leo Tolstoy’s works with vignettes of the bookbinder’s craft by the master illustrator Paleolog and the Odesa bookshop ‚Labour‘ on Deribasov Street; there is an inscription on the title page: ‚To Hanna from Kuzma‘. Suddenly there’s a ring at the door.
“It’s the police,” says Max with a calm smile. “They came yesterday too. For a prophylactic conversation. I’m not going to open the door… For me books and philatelic collections are documents – documents of lost empires, objects of research, but for them they are merely the result of processing secondary cellulose fibres; that way they create tons of propaganda newspapers, police reports and a host of other official documents required by law. The time is going to come when history will dispatch the majority of documents produced today to the archives, but even so many of them with be transformed into a motley mulch to be spread around the young maple trees planted along the avenues of liberty.
The Belarusian language featured on postmarks after the Viciebsk and Mahilioŭ regions had once again been incorporated into the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. A series of cancelled postage stamps issued in 1930 and marking the 10th anniversary of the First Mounted Army has been preserved. The 10-copeck stamp bears a postmark in thick black ink – ‘MINSK-MIENSK, 21.8.1930; the 5-copeck stamp was cancelled with a circular postmark – ‘(?).5.1930, POLACAK’. After the Second World War the postal service in Polack, then an administrative regional сentre, used a new bilingual postmark with fine lines: there is a 2-rouble stamp issued to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Vitus Bering, cancelled with a clearly delineated, relief postmark – ‘Polock-Polack, 22(?).5.1945’. During the war the postal service did not stop, but I have never come across any items posted between 22.06.41 and 1944. The first items I know of for sure after that period are a postcard dated 02.05.1944, sent from Częstochowa to the sawmill next to Talačyn station, and a postcard sent from Oranienburg to the village of Viarcinskija in the Pastavy district. On this particular card, in addition to the postmark of the postal service in the East German town, there is in the very middle of the card a circular mark bearing the letters ‘Aa’ in a violet colour. There is a mystery attached to a card with Mayday greetings sent from the Field Post Office 35652/34. In the lower left corner we find the coat of arms of the USSR and the words ‘Passed by the military censor. 27805’. The card, measuring 10x15cm, found its way to ‘Viciebsk, Western Railway, Goods Office, Valiańcina Rahoŭskaja’. In the right-hand top corner is a postmark in black; around it are the words ‘Field Post’. The date is illegible. There is another stamp with a five-pointed star in the lower left quarter of the card bearing the date 2.5.1944(?). The year is questionable, as the Germans were still in Viciebsk on 2 May 1944. The second number 4 is probably an imperfectly printed number 6. It is unfortunate that the writer of the card did not include the date in the message.
The Belarus postal service grew in importance once again in 2020, when political prisoners were awaiting letters and greetings postcards. Whether or not the letters bore the date of writing, the postmarks will serve as reliable evidence of the date in the calendar of our history.