Ukraine rocks the boat

Ukraine’s ‘Russian warship’ stamps are the hottest thing in stamp collecting since ever. And no wonder. Look how neatly they capture the heroic spirit of the defenders of Snake Island, whose fearless, obscene response to a menacing Russian warship became a worldwide sensation:

Ukraine 2022 Russian warship F and W rate stamps

The ‘F’ and ‘W’ represent specific postal rates. In English, Ukrposhta is referring to this issue as ‘Russian warship, go…!’ which abbreviates the full original quote. If you didn’t hear the radio message from the island to the warship, the rest of the quote also starts with a large capital F.

It’s sobering to learn that two other alphabetical postal rates will no longer appear on Ukrainian stamps, because the letters V and Z have become symbols of the Russian invasion.

The media and the message

These stamps are extraordinary both for their content and their context. In the past, stamps have been used to chest-beat, to stake territorial claims, to recall traumatic histories and to give heart to nations at times of war. But a stamp that just straight-up flips the bird at the enemy? This is new.

And it captures so much about this war. It’s a simplified portrayal of a specific encounter, but you don’t need an art degree to catch the symbolism. Ukraine faces a vastly more powerful adversary, and has been left to do so mostly by itself. And with the world’s support initially limited to half-hearted sanctions and hand-wringing, the raised finger probably reflects how Ukrainians are feeling about pretty much everyone right now. By the way, did you clock that the blue sea and the golden sand together produce a rendition of the Ukrainian flag?

It’s an evocative and effective image. Full credit to designer Boris Groh. His personal story is deeply connected to Ukraine’s misery – he was born in Yevpatoria in Crimea, and was forced to flee after the Russian occupation of the peninsula in 2014.

We should probably also credit Roman Grybov, the Ukrainian marine who told the Russians where to go. He somehow survived captivity, made it back to Kiev and was on hand at the launch. He signed a set of philatelic products which were later auctioned for charity. Read on to find out what they sold for.

Ukrposhta CEO Igor Smilyanski with Roman Grybov. Image via Ukrposhta
Image: Ukrposhta

This stamp is one of many examples of Ukraine’s astonishing media savvy during this war. You have to be impressed by the speed at which it seized on the psychological value of this viral moment. Ukrposhta launched a competition for the design; over 500 entries were received, and the top 20 were put to a vote at Ukrposhta’s Facebook page. You can see all of them here, but I’ve made a gallery of my favourites. Fair to say there’s a common theme. (I should issue a language warning for Ukrainian speakers, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing you haven’t heard on a regular basis lately.)

  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 19
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 13
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 10
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 5
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 12
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 15
  • Ukraine 2022 Russian warship stamp design entry 17

I feel a guilty sort of gratification to see the humble postage stamp alongside TikTok and Twitter in service of the most prominent cause of our day. The guilt is because philatelic vibes feel completely inappropriate when a thousand more urgent issues are at stake. It also taps into a discomfort I have felt about an unintended effect of this war’s darkly humorous side. How we outsiders have laughed at farmers’ tractors dragging away Russian military hardware, at the woman handing Russian soldiers the sunflower seeds so that their bodies might fertilise the soil, at the hapless Russian conscripts tricked by locals to give away their positions on dating apps. The memes, the videos full of invective, the trolling from official Ukrainian channels, it has almost become entertainment. Does the internet-friendly content make it easier for the wider world to sit back and watch the spectacle, and close our eyes to the reports we don’t want to see about the grimmer realities of the invasion? The recent evidence of the slaughter of civilians might awaken us to the true criminality of Putin’s actions.

And there’s a flipside to these concerns. I think of other conflicts, chiefly that in Syria, a nation close to my heart. How quickly the world lost interest. Maybe we’re only interested when there are funny videos.

Well, I can take some reassurance from the fact that Ukrainians themselves also felt the philatelic vibes. Following the release of the stamps, we witnessed extraordinary scenes like this:

It’s hard to believe, but people who are busy defending their country from actual invasion were finding the time (and braving missile attacks) to queue up at post offices to buy these stamps.

Some of those stamps will go on mail, some will be saved as mementos. Some might have already been destroyed. But the popularity of this issue shows that postage stamps, done right, retain enormous cultural value as an expression of nationhood, and how viscerally this design taps into Ukraine’s defiant mood.

Amid the launch of the stamps, a photo appeared on the Ukrainian President’s Instagram feed. Here he is, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, this comedian leader, expected by the aggressors to flee at the first shot; instead, he stands resolute, rallying his divided nation, pricking the world’s conscience to provide more support. Somehow he found a moment to big-up these stamps. It’s only maybe the best publicity that stamp collecting has had since the days of FDR.

Ukraine 2022 Russian warship Volodimir Zelenskyy Instagram post
Beware the sharks

The stamps don’t just appeal to Ukrainians. They are a global hit, and the issue sold out as locals scrambled to meet global demand. I just checked recent Ebay sales. Individual stamps are going for about $100 US. You’ll struggle to find six-stamp sheetlets for less than $400. A first-day cover just sold for $1,300. And that charity lot signed by Roman the marine? The hammer fell at about $165,000 US.

Amid the excitement, I feel for Ukrainian collectors who might not have been able to obtain the stamps at their release. Not everyone in Ukraine had the luxury of clear skies and freedom. How unpleasantly ironic it would be if you couldn’t get your hands on this stamp because you were suffering the most at the hands of the invaders.

This worldwide demand is great PR for Ukraine, and maybe even a small win for its economy. But watch out! A hard-to-get product selling at inflated prices, with many willing buyers who are probably not regular stamp collectors, and almost everyone motivated more by heart than head: forgers and scammers will be flocking to this market like Russian tanks to a bogged-down convoy. Be careful when buying online.

Here’s a tip that might help. The stamps carry small credits to Boris Groh, written in the Latin alphabet. On the W stamp, it appears beside ‘Україна’; on the F stamp, it’s just to the right of the soldier’s hip. I might be wrong (and please tell me if I am), but it seems to me that on the issued stamps, the credit is in all-capital letters. However, in publicity images, those credits appeared in a slightly larger ‘Title Case’.

Ukraine 2022 Russian warship credit comparison
Top row: the issued stamps (I think). Bottom row: promotional images.

So if you’re offered stamps that show the Title Case credits, you might be dealing with someone who doesn’t actually possess those stamps. It’s not an immediate case-closed, because a lot of genuine sellers are borrowing the publicity images for their listings. I suggest you ask for a photo of the actual lot before you buy.

What Volodimir did next

If you do manage to get your hands on this material, the good news is that Ukrposhta has already ruled out printing further copies, so your investment won’t be diluted. And anyway, the stamps are now redundant, after what Ukraine did just days after issuing this stamp, by which of course I mean IT BLEW UP THE FREAKIN’ SHIP.

As you’re probably aware, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, the vessel at the heart of this story, now lies at the bottom of the Black Sea. (Ukraine has already ‘registered’ the wreck as having ‘underwater cultural heritage’. You guys.)

This marks a new development in contrived philatelic scarcity. Step 1: Release stamp. Step 2: Blow up thing on stamp.

I’m not one to take pleasure in the deaths of servicepeople. But serving in your nation’s military is one thing. Being a party to the killing of innocent civilians in flagrant contravention of the Geneva convention is really another. You get what’s yours.

The sinking of the Moskva must have been a huge psychological boost to the weary Ukrainians, and it no doubt contributed to the huge popularity of the Russian Warship stamp sheetlets. Not long afterwards, parodies of the stamp began to appear on social media, depicting the Moskva in various states of Titanic-like distress. But when I checked Ukrposhta’s Facebook page last weekend, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I noticed a NEWER sheetlet:

Ukraine 2022 Russian Warship DONE W sheetlet

There are two stamps here. One is a Cinderella (not a real postage stamp) depicting the original image with a mock handstamp saying ‘DONE!’ Interestingly, this is in English, maybe with an eye on the foreign collector market. But there’s also a new W-rate postage stamp, showing the original design, minus the ship. (Well, it’s there. You just can’t see it under the water.) The date of the sinking is also shown.

This cheek inspired me to create a little animation, which you might have seen on my social media channels. Let me save you the trouble:

Once again, the Ukrainians have captured the moment. The defiance, the audacity, the dark humour… one more small chapter in the tiny philatelic corner of this appalling, fascinating, terrible war.

This sheetlet has an announced run of five million copies. Don’t miss the boat. Ukrposhta’s website can be found here. At time of writing, the online shop is unavailable due a DDOS attack in the wake of the warship stamp release. I guess Russia’s brave and fearless leader must feel increasingly like he has been licked.

Please consider supporting the people of Ukraine
in ways other than buying their stamps.
A few options can be found here.

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© Philatelic product images remain the copyright of issuing postal administrations and successor authorities

3 thoughts on “Ukraine rocks the boat

Add yours

  1. Great article, Punk! You capture perfectly the discomfort of ‘social media during war.’ I’ve felt that way about the subject a lot – are we diluting the gravity of the situation with all of our memes and ‘grams or helping spread awareness? Probably a bit of both. Love these stamps though, the issue feels truly iconic. Keep up the great work! – Lisa from Stampcat.

    Liked by 1 person

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