by Ian Greenwood
21st of April 2015
Sometime in August 1944 the last German soldier was driven off Soviet soil. The new People’s Commissar for Communications, Konstantin Yakovlevich Sergeichuk, had been in post for only a couple of weeks, and already his in-tray was overflowing. His task was to replace every telephone wire, every overhead cable and every radio installation deliberately destroyed by the retreating enemy; and to re-establish the smooth running of telegraphic and postal communications throughout the Union. Meanwhile, by this time, the state printing factory, Goznak, would have made the 900-mile journey from their safe haven at Krasnomarsk, near Perm, westwards to Moscow. With Goznak (according to one source) travelled Head Artist Ivan Ivanovich Dubasov, unless (as another claims) he was already in Moscow to welcome them back.
The link between the People’s Commissar and the Goznak Head Artist has not been easy to establish. We do know, however, that Sergeichuk (right) gave some thought to what must have seemed, in those hectic days, one of his less urgent matters. Here he is, quoted a dozen years later:
Postage stamps have become, in the years of Soviet rule, miniature works of art that reflect the events of our epoch and that have commanded wide respect. Aside from their primary purpose – to be tokens of postage payment – the postage stamps of the USSR also fulfil the role of propagandist and agitator.
Dubasov, if not exactly an agitator, still had propagandist work to do. Now was the time to commemorate the heroic deeds of the Red Army as they pressed on to Berlin. The third set of ‘War Heroes’ featured such figures as prolific machine-gunner Nuradilov, brave fighter ace Safonov, and legendary female sniper Kovshova.
Soviet war heroes Khanpasha Nuradilov, who 'destroyed 920 fascists'; Boris Safonov, pilot who died protecting a PQ Arctic convoy; Natalya Kovshova, sniper, with her spotter Maria Polivanova.
There’s a similarity of design structure in the two landscape stamps, despite the fact that the sniper and her observer could not practically be portrayed doing their normal job – here they throw their last grenades at the German troops who were to overwhelm them.
In 1945, as the business of stamp design and production began to resume normal service, Dubasov still personally designed twenty of the 42 stamps issued. He would never approach this proportion in the years to come, as a new team of designers came to the fore, and his old colleague, the redoubtable V.V.Zavialov, returned to the fold after war absence. As for the narrative power of his wartime stamps, Dubasov soon abandoned the style; indeed, many of his post-war stamps challenge the assumption that all stamps are by definition designed. Photographs are cropped and well-known portraits or paintings reproduced, while imaginative exercises in original stamp design are generally absent.
This may not entirely have been a matter of personal inclination. Post-war Soviet cultural policy had entered a period of nationalism, isolationism and repression – the zhdanovshchina, named after its proponent, Party Secretary Andrei Zhdanov. Although initially directed at Russian literature, it soon spread to other areas of cultural life. For their part, stamps depicted safe, traditional and long-dead figures – not all of them, frankly, in the front line of Russian achievement. From 1945 until the final dismantling of Stalin’s legacy in 1956, precisely two stamps featured non-Russians (Victor Hugo in 1952 and Friedrich Schiller in 1955).
In the immediate post-war years, there is more creativity around the edges than in the main image. Here, a portrait of Gorky, a photograph of Moscow, and a painting by Levitan require little in the way of design'.
Zhdanov’s policy was popular with the ageing Stalin, whose paranoid, bullying style was resumed after the war, and again reached out (as it had done in the 1930s) to the Ministry of Communications. In 1947 a delegation to an International Conference in the USA was headed up by Sergeichuk’s deputy, A.D.Fortushenko. Someone did not like this man, words were whispered, and Fortushenko found himself in the dock on trumped-up charges of spying. Sergeichuk riskily went over the head of the feared Lavrenty Beria, calling in favours from Stalin himself. His deputy was spared the bullet and packed off to the gulag, but Sergeichuk had to resign.
Happily, this proved to be the last hiccup in the fortunes of the Communications Ministry to which Ivan Dubasov was ultimately answerable. Fortushenko was rehabilitated in 1953, Sergeichuk eventually returned to the Ministry, and his successor Nikolay Psurtsev remained in post throughout Dubasov’s long career, retiring in 1975. By then, the USSR’s stamp issuing policy had changed considerably.
The artists, designers and engravers who created postage stamps were largely anonymous to a wider public. As the daughter of one of them writes: “They were not accepted into the Union of Artists of the USSR, they were rarely in newspapers, and due to the nature of production were not represented in exhibitions of works.” Engravers were not allowed to add their names (nor even minuscule initials or private signs) to what was deemed to be a team effort. Nor, of course, were postage stamps the only (or even main) aspect of their work. Banknote design, in particular, is more often highlighted in the rare references to these men and women, whose names also crop up on greetings card websites – but less so on the philatelic Internet. Many are known only by their initials – S.A.Pomansky, who became Head Artist on Dubasov’s retirement, E.S.Bulanova, the first woman to design a Russian stamp, V.V.Pimenov, E.N.Gundobin. Goznak, however, could feel like a family concern. Vasily Zavialov, by some way its most prolific artist, worked alongside his sons Alexander and Leo; the husband-and-wife team of Sharov and Sharova designed eight sets in the 1960s; Valentin Nikitin met and married his wife Tatiana, both engravers. Over all this, Ivan Ivanovich Dubasov presided benignly, “very clever and tactful, a model for us in life and in work. In the artists’ studio he encouraged a creative atmosphere and the desire to paint. Dubasov was primarily a wonderful draughtsman and taught everyone by example.”
Lydia Mayorova, artist-engraver whose memoir reveals much about working at Goznak with Ivan Dubasov; Vasily Zavialov, Goznak's most prolific designer, who covered Dubasov's absence in the 1930s, and was himself missing from records from 1938-1946.
So remembered Lydia Mayorova, one of a talented intake of engravers who worked at Goznak from the 1960s. Recess-printed stamps had been rare in the previous decade, their engravers often anonymous. The death of Stalin in March 1953 had prompted a period of uncertainty: a mere twenty-one stamps were produced in a year when successor politicians jockeyed for position, despatching the once-mighty Lavrenty Beria to summary death and no doubt forcing many others to guess which way the wind would blow. There was to be no repeat of 1924, when Dubasov was required to produce the mourning stamp for Lenin within 24 hours of the leader’s death. Mourning for Stalin, in the form of stamp issues, required judgment. When the first stamp came, a death anniversary single issue, it featured the traditional portrait (left). At the end of that year, Stalin reappeared as a young man in a two-stamp recess set (right). Dubasov was responsible for both, almost as if unwilling to delegate the job to anyone on his team. And that was it. As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, there were to be no more Stalin stamps.
The connection may be slender, but 1956 saw major changes both in the USSR and in the stamp-issuing policy for which Goznak was responsible. In the wider world it was Khrushchev’s 20th Party Congress speech which wiped away any lingering trace of Stalinism and heralded a new, more liberal, more internationalist Russia, confident in its opposition to the capitalist west, forging ahead with the space race in which, until the moon landings in 1969, it was to match, if not exceed, its ideological enemy. As for Soviet stamps, they doubled in annual numbers, on average releasing at least one set, or single issue, per week. In 1956 the Scotsman Burns and the Irishman Shaw featured on literary stamps; a year later the Englishmen Fielding (novelist) and Harvey (physician) joined them, and artists, composers and writers from all over the world followed suit (though American representation was initially confined to Franklin and Longfellow). Recess-printed stamps, the Rolls-Royce of production design, became a regular feature, with a new team of engravers contributing high-class work and offsetting, to some extent, the more routine productions of a country newly-dedicated to thematic stamp-collecting.
As stamp production increased, so Ivan Dubasov’s personal contributions became less frequent. A couple of distinguished three-stamp sets in 1958 are more properly the creations of veteran engraver S.Aferov (Lenin, left) and his pupil Tatiana Nikitina (Marx, right) than the Head Artist, their nominal designer. From then, until his retirement a dozen years later, Dubasov was to design only five further stamps, all portraits.
Perhaps Lydia Mayorova, the engraver, speaks for most collectors when towards the end of her life she wrote:
Stamps are not considered in books of art. No section dedicated to them can be found in a single consolidated work on the history of art: neither in the chapters on drawing nor in the chapters on arts and crafts. Stamps are a kind of miniature graphic; experience and practice has shown that both in artistic achievement, as well as in the mass of its distribution, they deserve more attention and evaluation as a significant phenomenon of artistic culture.
Such anonymity extends to designers. This is borne out rather well in a 1993 publication on the subject of World War II propaganda. Despite the fact that two pages are devoted to large colour reproductions of Soviet stamps – eighteen of them, the work of eight different designers (Dubasov is represented seven times) – beneath every one the author has written “Artist unknown”.
Much, of course, remains genuinely unknown. A couple of recent articles in popular Russian magazines which enthuse about Ivan Dubasov and mention interesting moments in his long career entirely omit the ‘blank’ period in the 1930s when he contributes no stamp designs for five years. They do not comment on the conditions of the war years, much less the precise relationship between the Head Artist at Goznak and those above him in the hierarchy, right up to the ill-fated People’s Commissars of the 1930s, or the two Ministers of the post-war period. It’s possible that we might learn more from Ronald Cohn and Jesse Russell’s book Ivan Ivanovich Dubasov, but unfortunately the book is (a) ‘unavailable’, (b) in Russian, and (c) may in fact be about a nineteenth-century educator of exactly the same name.
One of this writer’s favourite Dubasov stamps is his notably unfussy Lenin design, made in 1965. It is classically simple, its carefully modulated colours and roman typeface balancing the left-facing bust of the Union’s founder. It shows no more than is necessary, as if putting behind him forever the ornately-decorated borders of the previous decade, or the sloganeering action-pieces of the decade before that. It even incorporates an understated trompe-l’oeil, the right-hand element of the design offset slightly above the left. Set beside his iconic ‘shadow’ Lenin of 1924, it is as if the Head Artist has come full circle.
Dubasov, Lenin 1965 Dubasov, Lenin 1924
In 1966 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decreed that topical (thematic) stamp-collecting was the correct way forward, an order that will have made its way down via Communications Minister Psurtsev to DIEZPO (the Directorate for Publication and Forwarding Postage Stamps), whose Editorial Artistic Committee will have begun their commissions. Within a year Sports and Pastimes appeared, followed by Fur-bearing Animals and Space Fantasies, then Paintings and Horse-Breeding. One wonders what the evidently traditional Ivan Dubasov made of all this. Certainly he designed none of the sets. His final work, in 1970, was a gold-embossed commemoration of the October Revolution (right), less restrained than the 1965 Lenin, but also released as a miniature sheet, perhaps as a personal tribute to the Head Artist himself.
At the end of many long-serving careers it is not always exhaustion or waning powers that prompts the final decision to go: as likely is the feeling that the world is changing into a less easy-going, less civilised place. Lydia Mayorova remembers fondly that, under Dubasov, “once a month we were given a free, so-called ‘creative day’ for drawing. We had to prepare for this day, and then discuss together a new drawing or watercolour. Ivan Dubasov would very tactfully, but accurately and with humour, evaluate each new piece of work. Looking at my old pictures, I still remember some of his observations and comments...”. But it was not to last, and these creative days were eventually cancelled “to save money”. After his retirement in 1971 “new, tougher rules for artists were introduced, such as ‘productivity of labour’, etc.”.
That sardonic etc.... really, some things never change.
Stanley Gibbons Europe 3 Stamp Catalogue, Q-Z, 3rd ed., Stanley Gibbons 1978. (A more recent SG catalogue, Part 10, Russia, 5th ed., 1999, has minor renumbering and some spelling variants, but otherwise supplies the same information for the period under review.)
Beevor, Antony, Stalingrad, Penguin 1999
Calvocoressi, Peter & Wint, Guy, Total War: Causes and Courses of the Second World War, Pelican 1974
Conquest, Robert, The Great Terror, rev. ed., Pelican 1971
Mawdsley, Evan, Thunder in the East: The Nazi-Soviet War 1941-1945, Bloomsbury 2011
Sebag-Montefiore, Simon, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Phoenix 2004
PROPAGANDA, ART AND DESIGN
Altman, Dennis, Paper Ambassadors: the Politics of Stamps, Angus Robertson 1991
Bohm-Duchen, Monica, Art and the Second World War, Princeton University Press 2013
Britt, David (ed.), Art and Power: Europe Under the Dictators 1930-1945, Hayward Gallery 1996 (exhibition catalogue)
Child, Jack, Miniature Messages: the Semiotics and Politics of Latin American Postage Stamps, Duke University Press 2008
Dobrenko, Evgeny, “The art of social navigation: the cultural topography of the Stalin era”, in Dobrenko & Naiman (eds.), The Landscape of Stalinism, U. of Washington Press, 2003
Finlay, William, An Illustrated History of Stamp Design, Peter Lowe 1974
Rhodes, Anthony, Propaganda, The Art of Persuasion: World War II, Magna Books 1993
Scott, David, European Stamp Design: A Semiotic Approach to Designing Messages, Academy Editions 1995
Welch, David, Propaganda and Persuasion, British Library 2013 (exhibition catalogue)
Zaman, Zbynek, Selling the War: Art and Propaganda in World War II, Orbis Publishing 1978
http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki (for entries of most Russian figures named in text)
http://sputniknews.com/voiceofrussia/radio_broadcast/2248959/55844892/ (for Red Army field post details)
www.chistylist.ru/stihotvorenie/lozungi-rifmy/mayakovskii-v-v (for the Mayakovsky poem)
www.computer-museum.ru/connect/sergeichuk (for S.K.Sergeichuk article, “Last People’s Commissar, First Minister”)
www.kitapi.de/products/reading-epub/product-id/2350078/title/Rodion%2BShchedrin.html (for Rodion Shchedrin, Autobiographical Memories)
www.marxists.org/archive/gorky-maxim/1901/misc/x01 (for the translation of “Song of the Stormy Petrel”)
www.peoples.ru/art/painter/dubasov/ (for Nikolai Rozhkov article, “The Person Who Drew Money”)
www.straipsniai.It/en/Philately/page/8013 (for “A History of Russian Philately Part 3”, wartime details)
www.symvolika.org (for Galina Anisimova, Secret Soviet Artists: Lydia Fedorovna Mayorova.)
www.trud.ru/article/04-05-2006/103647_sekretnyj_xudozhnik_goznaka.html (for Spyridon Lesnov article, “The Secret Artist of Goznak”)
Quotations from Russian-language websites have been converted via a search-engine automatic translator into what I hope is serviceable English, but latitude must be allowed: there is much room for error in such a method.
“The death of Lenin...” Rozhkov (www.peoples), in a breathless piece of popular hagiography, claims that the Lenin mourning stamp was commissioned and completed literally overnight.
“To celebrate the fifth anniversary...” The story of Dubasov’s entry into a design competition which he ultimately won, pocketing a billion roubles with which he bought his wife a pair of boots, appears in Rozhkov but is supported by references on other websites. The model for the “under-dressed” stone-carver was a neighbour of Dubasov’s.
“...one of the most famous works of Russian art...” A Malevich black square was exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery, Adventures of the Black Square exhibition, Jan.-Apr. 2015, prompting this writer’s comparison.
“In October 1941 an eight-year-old boy...” Details from Shchedrin’s autobiography at www.kitapi.de.
“What instructions (if any)...” Rozhkov states that “during the Great Patriotic War Dubasov was evacuated along with the entire Goznak economy to Perm”.
“This public lionisation of fallen heroes...” Captain Gastello’s March can be heard on www.youtube.com/watch?v=EIBPrWB-fEA
“But even then the tide was beginning to turn...” Halder quote in Beevor (1999) ch.4.
“Sometime in August 1944...” A generalisation, but Mawdsley (2011) broadly agrees, while Calvocoressi and Wint (1974) remind us that German troops remained in Courland until the general capitulation – a fact philatelists well know.
“With Goznak (according to one source)...” Rozhkov (above). Conversely, wikipedia.ru states that “During the Great Patriotic War Dubasov remained in Moscow, while his family was evacuated to Krasnokamsk”.
“We do know, however, ...” Sergeichuk on stamps quoted in Dobrenko (2003).
“Zhdanov’s policy was popular with the ageing Stalin...” The Sergeichuk-Fortushenko story is related by the former’s son at www.computer-museum cited above.
“As the daughter of one of them writes...” Galina Anisimova, daughter of Lydia Mayorova, in the www.symvolika article cited above. This is actually an introduction to a much longer extract from her mother’s memoir.
“Engravers were not allowed to add their names...” Lydia Mayorova, the major source for Dubasov’s later career and frequently cited in this article.
“... an order that will have made it way down... to DIEZPO...” wikipedia.ru has an informative, if brief, note on the line of command from the Minister of Communications to the printers, Goznak. However it does not specify a link between the Head of Goznak and the Head Artist, or what role (if any) the latter played in DIEZPO’s procedure.
“In 1966 the Communist Party of the Soviet Union...” in filatelist.ru. The Soviet ban on cat stamps as too trivial features in this article.
“... a 1993 publication on the subject of World War II propaganda...” Rhodes (1993).
“It’s possible that we might learn more...” This book is mentioned on Amazon’s website as having been published in January 2012.