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Sunday, July 10, 2016
Happy Russian Mail Day!
For 20 years now Russians have been celebrating their mail service on the second Sunday in July (July 10 this year*), instead of on World Post Day (October 9), like the rest of the world.
Sure, Russia always likes to chart its own path, but in reality Day of Russian Mail, a tribute to at least eight centuries of mail delivery, is considerably more impressive than World Post Day, which this year marks merely the 140th anniversary of the founding of the Universal Postal Union.
Of course, eight centuries ago Russian mail delivery looked very different from today’s system. It was the Golden Horde’s idea to establish yam stations (a word of Turkish origin with no relation to the sweet potato) that functioned much like stations in England's stagecoach system. Before, a messenger carrying the personal message of any given ruler had to stop and wait for their horse to rest; now, locals had to provide horses and directions to the next station, which allowed for much clearer routes and faster service.
Under Peter the Great the mail started to look more familiar: the first organized mail service route was established to Archangelsk, mail could be sent to soldiers at war, and a separate government agency, the Yamskoy Prikaz, was established to oversee the yamschik drivers. St. Petersburg got its first central post office 300 years ago (1714), a few years after the country’s first central post office opened in Moscow. By the 1780’s, mail service had been merged with the yam system, and dedicated mail carriers appeared on city streets.
In 1844, 170 years ago, Russian mail switched to payment by weight instead of distance, which led to the introduction of stamps. One of Russians’ favorite stories to tell about the early postal service concerns the first stamp: the way it was told to me, the first design included an image of the reigning emperor, which caused a scandal. Canceling the stamp involved either stamping it or crossing it out – how could postal clerks be allowed to treat the emperor’s likeness with such disrespect! And this was why stamps didn’t catch on in Russia… The story is apocryphal, given that the first stamp (above, top), issued in 1857, did not feature an imperial portrait; however, the commemorative stamps issued for the 300th anniversary of Romanov rule (above, bottom) may have caused a bit of such outrage and given rise to this amusing anecdote.
Today, the Russian Post processes over 2 billion mail pieces per year, plus over 50 million parcels and 100 million money orders. These days, mail arrives by plane and by truck – gone is the era of yam stations and relay horses, but the modern service still continues a centuries-old tradition of delivering messages as best it can.
* The Russian Life calendar mistakenly labeled July 9th as this year’s Day of Russian Mail.