Postage stamps and postal history of Tannu Tuva
The postage stamps of Tannu Tuva form one of philately's curious byways, featuring quirky and colorful stamps, many of questionable validity, issued by an obscure country which held special fascination for young stamp collectors in the middle of the twentieth century.
Tannu Tuva was a region in central Asia between Russia and Mongolia, which in 1921, under Russian instigation, became the Tuvan People's Republic. A treaty between the Soviet Union and the Mongolian People's Republic in 1926 affirmed the country’s independence, although no other countries formally recognized it. In 1944, it was annexed to the Soviet Union as part of the Tuvan Autonomous Oblast and in 1961 became the Tuva Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Its successor since 1992, the Tuvan Republic, is a member of the Russian Federation.
The first Tuvan stamps were issued in 1926. The first series depicted the Buddhist wheel of life with Mongolian writing and numerals only. Beginning in 1927, Tannu Tuva issued a series of color stamps with local scenes or a map of the country. These stamps were issued in several shapes, including rectangles, triangles and diamonds, and bore text in Mongolian and the words "TOUVA" and "postage".
From 1934 to 1936, Tuva issued about 100 different postage stamps with exotic images of Tuvan life, including horse racing, nomadic battle scenes, and domestic animals including camels and oxen. These large format stamps came in a variety of shapes including diamonds, and were widely sold to collectors in canceled to order form.
According to one source, these stamps were the brainchild of Bela Sekula, a promoter of philatelic "rarities", who in 1934 convinced the Tuvan and Soviet authorities to manufacture exotic stamps to sell to collectors. They were in fact "designed in Moscow, printed in Moscow, franked in Moscow and sold abroad by a Moscow state trading firm to earn hard currency for Moscow." Nor were all the images on the stamps accurate representations of Tuvan life. One of the stamps, for example, depicted a camel racing a locomotive along Tuva's non-existent railway. In fact, there is still no railway in Tuva. Another stamp showed a large airship with a man on horseback below, reflecting Soviet enthusiasm for airships between the World Wars. There is no evidence that an airship visited Tuva at that time.
The standing of the Tannu Tuva stamps has been controversial with some catalogues formerly not listing Tuvan stamps, however, all the major catalogues now include the stamps while noting the existence of many cancelled to order stamps. Philatelists contend that early Tuvan stamps did see limited postal use and covers do exist. Philatelic literature such as "The Postal History and Stamps of Tuva" by S.M. Blekhman also confirms non-philatelic commercial use of the stamps.
Notwithstanding their questionable origins, these exotic stamps were popular with young collectors during the middle of the twentieth century. This is documented, for example, in Tuva or Bust!, Richard Feynman's Last Journey by Ralph Leighton (W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), where childhood memories of the colorful stamps of Tannu Tuva inspired Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and the author on a quest, first to contact someone in Tuva, and then to actually visit the country. Feynman died before achieving his goal, but Leighton ultimately reached Tuva. Leighton and Feynman's efforts rekindled an interest in Tuva and its stamps, which now are the subject of numerous websites.
Since the 1990s, numerous labels purporting to be postage stamps of Tuva have appeared on the market. They have depicted a variety of unlikely Tuvan subjects, such as Bart Simpson, the Teletubbies and Led Zeppelin, and are all illegal stamps apparently intended to deceive collectors.
While the status of many Tuvan postage stamps is disputed, a number of revenue stamps were issued for Tuva in 1926, whose status is not in doubt.
References and sources
- Scott Postage Stamp Catalogue, Tannu Tuva, nos. 1-38.
- The World at War, Tannu Tuva 1911-1944
- Friends of Tuva, "Tuva Hopes Philately Will Get It Everywhere"
- Stanley Phillips, Philatelic Magazine Vol. 39, p. 197 (Mar. 5, 1937)
- "The Tuvan 'Zeps': Fact or Fantasy?" by Gwyn Williams in Gibbons Stamp Monthly, Vol. 44, No. 3, August 2013, pp. 64-68.
- "Philately's Ugliest Ducklings: Rehabilitating the 1934-36 Issues of Tannu Tuva" by James Negus at TTCS. Originally published in The Philatelic Journal, July-September 1960.
- O'Brien, Miles. "Popularity of late physicist revived on Internet", CNN, October 10, 1996. Accessed January 29, 2009.
- "The Recent Stamps of Tuva" by Les Winick at TTCS. Originally published in The Philatelic Exporter, February 1999.
- Blekhman, Samuel (Eng. trans. by Ron Hogg). (1997) The Postal History and Stamps of Tuva. Woodbridge, VA: Scientific Consulting Services Int.
- Mirr, Albert J. (1995) Tannu Tuva Catalog. Tannu Tuva Collectors Society Inc.
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