Exclusive: from Kyiv, Ukraine
Amid the images of destruction inflicted by continued Russian attacks on a sovereign nation, Ukrainian television showed far less grim pictures this week. People were smiling — generally very happy to be queuing up in the streets again.
Thousands of eager locals stood since the very early hours at post offices around the country to collect a very precious commodity in the afternoon: stamps. They’re limited to two sets of six, and two special envelopes.
So great has the demand been that in the capital Kyiv they’re being advised to come back for a third day, on Friday.
The country’s Postal Chief is Igor Smelyansky, a genial man oozing enthusiasm, whose father and mother are Jews from Odessa. He believes his stamps are playing a vital role in raising the fighting spirit of his embattled nation.
His original stamp was based on a radio signal reportedly sent at the start of this war to a Russian warship, rejecting its demand for a small group of Ukrainian marines defending a strategic island in the Black Sea to surrender. A marine radioed back: “Russian warship go f–k yourself!” The indelicate phrase, and its message of defiance, went viral across Ukraine and beyond.
Smelyansky had the brainwave to create a stamp rejoicing in the Ukrainian marines’ defiance in the face of impossible odds. Two days after that stamp was issued, the Russians’ biggest Black Sea ship sank.
Smelyansky, who spent years in New York’s Wall Street arranging company mergers before returning to Ukraine, has now put on sale a new witty propaganda brainchild: new stamps reflecting the ship’s demise.
“I feel there’s some eerie spiritual power from our stamps that helped the ship go down – or at least predicted it.”
One of the two new stamps showing the ill-fated ship, now carries a one-word statement in English: ‘Done!’
That new stamp was officially put on sale to the public –with a million printed and four million to follow — on May 23. Beforehand, in a filmed ceremony inside the presidential bunker, Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky signed and franked the stamp, alongside Smelyansky and the Navy chief.
“Not just because of our special stamps, the Russians would love to bomb my Post Office HQ right here, “said Smelyansky. “We’re just opposite Independence Square, where pro-Russian leaders were toppled in 2004 and 2013.”
He says he also kept the place where the stamps would be printed a closely guarded secret, to prevent Russian missile or rocket attacks on it.
Smelyansky set aside a number of first editions to auction online – though the auction crashed after a few minutes. He thinks the Russians flooded the sale to disrupt it.
“The money we now raise will go to rebuilding schools that the Russians have destroyed in their so-called special military operation,” Smelyansky told me. “And to help animals left alone in areas where their owners were forced to flee or died in Russian attacks.”
On the day of the new stamps’ release, long queues of people determined to get their hands on a maximum of 12 stamps and three special envelopes. Each envelope was then stamped with a tilting ship in black, or with the name of an occupied part of Ukraine – like Crimea, as if it were posted from there. Even when a warning siren sounded in some locations, “most refused to ‘abandon ship’ to rush to shelters or basements,” Smelyansky said.
In the queue I joined there was pushing and shoving and raised voices from some who believed they should get priority. But in general people were thrilled – especially when after 7 pm Smelyansky himself came out from the Post Office and signed his name personally on each envelope thrust towards him. The signing lasted a full three hours, while his military bodyguard was getting more and more nervous.
Finally back in his office, Smelyansky told me he has personally driven an orange-and-white postal van into previously Russian-occupied and Russian-terrorised towns like Bucha and Irpin.
“One woman there who recognised me demanded: ‘Please get me my pension’. Two days later, it was delivered. That’s what makes it all so worthwhile for me – the impact I can have on people’s lives in an otherwise dire situation.”
All over the country letters and parcels are arriving – and pensions are being picked up at Post Offices — despite wartime roadblocks and Russian attacks. “It gives people a vital lifeline, and even a letter brings a feeling that people have not been forgotten – a sense of stability, as far as it can be,” Smelyansky said.
His vans have even managed to cross into Russian-occupied territory. Over a hundred post offices were, he said, open in the city of Kherson, a Russian-held port in the south. But the Russians were not allowing letter and parcels in and out – though mainly they did allow supplies of money to pay people their pensions.
Early on in the war one of his clearly marked blue-and-yellow vans was struck by a Russian rocket, killing two of his employees. Yet he still himself drives a van to dangerous spots – last weekend he was close to the Russian frontlines inside eastern Ukraine.
Where now? Smelyansky says he had been planning to make millions of postage stamps showing Vladimir Putin in chains or being dragged away by Ukrainian police, or worse – in the hope that this would somehow bring about or at least predict the Russian leader’s destruction – “just as the Moskva sank, perhaps by some eerie coincidence, two days after we issued the first stamp, could we sink Putin by showing him on a stamp, being dragged away in chains?”
However Smelyansky was astonished that the 650 thousand people who voted for the next big stamp idea rejected the Putin demise as the theme – giving far more votes to featuring a new media-star: a de-mining dog called Patron.
Smelyansky says he has taken some decision in trying to revitalise the state institution that made people “hate me – because I’ve done away with some local post offices and introduced many mobile post offices. Now people are writing to me saying the used to hate me, but they can see how these mobile post offices are giving remote or bombed areas a new lease of life.”
One activity that Smelyansky says brought him most satisfaction was, he says, to get dog kennels and dog clothing delivered from hard-pressed Kharkiv to the UK and USA. “So I helped keep six families in work – and that’s replicated all over Ukraine.”
Another satisfying success was when, in Russian-occupied southern Ukraine, they sneaked money to a bakery, which gave the cash from sales of bread to the local post office officials, who transformed the money into vitally needed pension payments.
“My mother and both her parents were top doctors in Odessa, and of course, like many Jewish parents, they had wanted me to become a doctor too. I hope now though they can forgive me for my ‘failure’. I’m also doing some lifesaving work. All I long for now is a holiday with my wife and teenage kids – on a beach somewhere, when this war is over.”
He says most Ukrainian Jews during the Communist era were ‘agnostic’, including his Jewish parents. “I remain agnostic,” he declares, even though his non-Jewish wife is a believer. “I respect genuine religion, but not fake hypocrites who go to church like Putin.
“Anyway,” he quips, “I’ve delegated religion – to my wife.”
Smelyansky says he has had several close shaves in life — the biggest in the USA. When working there he declined to return to a job offered to him by Cantor FitzGerald on the 101st floor of the World Trade Centre – just two months before the 9-11 attacks killed everyone in that office. ” All you can do is your best, and accept your fate,” he added.
Interview over, I slipped back to my hotel miles away, having to break the 11pm curfew. Smelyansky stayed on in his office – no doubt devising new ways to stamp his unconventional mark on Ukraine’s war effort.