Ukraine Tridents 1918


The Ukrainian People’s Republic came into being when the Russian Empire collapsed in early, 1917. The Ukrainian Rada (Parliament) under the leadership of Mykhailo Hrushevsky created a defacto government with the idea that they would rejoin a new Russian confederation. In the Third Universal of the Rada in November, 1917, the name Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic was mentioned for the first time. In the Fourth Universal in January, 1918, the country was declared to be independent for the first time in history. Then the Bolsheviks sent their forces in the first invasion. To counter this, the Rada gave its blessing to the entrance of the German army in February, 1918. The Germans threw out the Bolsheviks but then looted the country for food to supply Germany, which was suffering under the British war blockade. The Germans put in charge Pavlo Skoropadskyi, a Russian officer who brought his buddies into the government. He became the Hetman (headman) and his rule is called the Hetmanate.

It was in the Hetmanate that the trident stamps were put out. Skoropadskyi is given some good marks for his time but the Ukrainians detested him. When World War I ended, the German army left with their Hetman, and the Directorate composed of Ukrainians replaced the Hetmanate. The Bolsheviks invaded for the second time but were thrown out by Anton Denekin’s Russian White army, which was making the major move of the Russian Civil War. After Denekin’s bid failed, his army retreated to the Crimea under Pyotr Wrangel, who eventually evacuated his troops to Turkey and the Greek Isles. The Bolsevik’s third invasion was the final one and Ukraine became part of Soviet Russia. The Directorate held for a while in Podelia in the west but fled to Poland and then abroad. It became the Ukrainian government-in-exile and it remained in existence for seven decades until the Soviet Union fell, when it gave its blessing to the new Ukrainian government.

The name of the Ukrainian People’s Republic loosely covers the Rada autonomy, the German invasion, the Hetmanate and the Directorate, with the trident stamps ironically coming out under the German occupation. Although the brief time of the first independent Ukraine is foldly remembered, it is ironic that the Soviets themselves helped to fashion Ukrainian self-awareness over the decades by naming the area the Ukrainian Republic of the U. S. S. R.

Ukraine had a large population for the time. The populations of the main cities were: Odessa 420,000, Kiev 400,000, Kharkiv (pronounced har-kiv)  380,000, Katerynoslav 230,000 and Poltava 100,000. This suggests that hundreds of thousands of stamps printed for a common denomination might be reasonable.



Left: This is the chaotic timeline of the Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic covering the autonomous Rada period, the German army entrance, the Hetmanate and the Directorate. It took the Bolsheviks three tries at invasion before it stuck.

Right: When Russia dropped out of the War, the German army kept going, taking the rest of the Baltic countries plus Ukraine and Belarus. It was under German occupation that the trident stamps were issued. Forty-one German divisions are listed for the Eastern operation, and they were not available for the final attack in the West.

Here are the postal districts of 1918 Ukraine as usaually defined. Podelia was a truncated district because its earlier capital Kishinev had been captured.

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The post office of the Hetmanate needed to shut out Russian Empire stamps, because the ruble had plunged In Russia. In the summer of 1918, they ordered newly designed stamps from the West but they did not come in time. Instead, they had each postal district put overprints of the Ukrainian trident, the thousand-year-old symbol, in a hurry over existing Russian Empire stamps. Each postal district apparently selected its own style and they were all different.

The stamps were issued in a time of turmoil with the Bolshevik army threatening. The printers and post offices made deals with speculators, all using the official plates. But I feel all these stamps represented something important: the idea of the new country. They represent history, not just how things were mailed.

A reputation of forgeries hangs over the tridents with a vague feeling of pride. The website of the Ukrainian Philatelic and Numismatic Society says: “The study of trident overprints is the largest and most active field of Ukrainian philately. It is hindered, however, by the number of forged overprints.” Val Zabijaka, past president of the Society, says: “Since the basic stamps are very common and inexpensive, many speculators were engaged in creating forgeries and probably still are. Many of them are excellent and difficult.” Unfortunately, at present, the Society does not have a trident expertizer to help out.

Despite the fear barrier, I don’t think the forgery problem is all that bad, because many genuine stamps were likely issued because of Ukraine’s size. It was, and is, a big country.

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Four people have cataloged the tridents over fifty years: Seichter, Roberts, Bulat and Bylen. Roberts stands apart because he included the most material, including how to tell genuine from forgeries. I have come to greatly appreciate the meticulous drawings in Roberts, which were done by Ian Baillie, also a collector and author of note. Baillie did magnified drawings without computers, and these are our basis of knowing today what is genuine. Bulat studied a wide range of denominations and his catalog is the one of choice today. Bylen can be useful for looking up unusual color overprints.

Roberts used a presentation where he showed pictures of genuine and then forged stamps, along with brief comments. This approach, doubled down on by Ray Ceresa, has never been helpful to me. So I have tried to define what is genuine and then show the deviations that are likely to be forgeries. For stamps like Kiev II and Kharkiv I, I find that some stamps on the edge get moved back and forth as I reconsider them. If I am uncertain as to these twilight stamps, is it possible that the old-timers may not have been certain, either?

Genuine is defined here as being made using the original plates or hand-stamp, presumably by the postal authorities, whether they are making side-deals or not. A forgery is an overprint made not using the original plates, probably by a non-postal person in his garage. A fake is a complete copy of a stamp, done outside of postal authority, which requires a plant with professional equipment. A reprint means a later printing with the original plates, which is singled out as being special for some historical reason.

Next we have to classify the types of tridents by their design, which is easier than it first seems. Below, I sort by how distinctive the shapes are, starting with the distinctive and moving toward the similar.

I have arranged the types above according to my perceptions of the ease of distinguishing the design. The listed length is of the tadpole central spike from the top tail tip to the bottom of the head.  The sizes are calibrated to the stamp heights as discussed under “Tools”. The horizontal lines under some tadpole heads are artifacts of the drawings.

Katerynoslav I, Kiev I and Kharkiv I all look similar at first glance. Katerynoslav I, howver, has a robust and wide look all its own. The other two look daintier, but consider the nose. Kiev I has a blunt nose with the center bar not reaching the nose. Kharkiv I has a pointed nose with the bar reaching the end of the nose.

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This is my estimated availability of the trident types on the open market, based on Scott catalog, eBay and dealer advertising. The most common is Kiev II, which is set at 100. All others are referenced to this. This refers to what you see, not whether it is genuine. Podelia-other than type 1a comprises many types.


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All the other varieties besides Odessa I, II and III and Kiev III were stamped by hand. I think that hand-stamping was probably more efficient than we think, given low-paid manpower. Most of the time would have been spent setting the sheet in position, cleaning the plate and re-inking. Assume one a minute for a single hand-stamp, which leads in 8 hours to 480 stamps. With many employees and 3 to 5 impressions on a single hand-stamp, we could get up to thousands in one day. If it continued over many months, it could easily go to hundreds of thousands.

I wonder why catalogs show cancelled stamps with the same values as mint, which are in far greater quantities. They probably think the cancellations were done to order for collectors and were not for postage. Indeed, truly cancelled envelopes are rare.

Left: This is what I usually get for a canceled stamp- just a smudge, but it’s probably from a real letter.

2nd: This probably-real partial cancellation at least shows Cyrillic letters.

3rd: This Ebay cancellation is just too-well centered to be true but the letters are Cyrillic. An expert in cancellations would have to take it to the next step.

4th to right: These beautiful Ebay offerings have cancellations all in Latin script and are totally bogus.

This is an interesting example of a steel plate wearing out. No, not the Kharkiv overprint, but the basic genuine, typographed Russian Empire stamp. Look at the red-brown curtains on either side of the central oval. At the left, the printing is crisp, in the center it is somewhat blurred and at the right, the design smears out.