Russian warship On February 25, 2022, a menacing message echoed from a loudspeaker aboard a missile cruiser ship: “I am a Russian warship,” the voice announced in Russian. It was a warning of imminent attack to a group of Ukrainian guards stationed at a military base on Snake Island, an island 186 miles west of Crimea, off the coast of Ukraine in the Black Sea. “I suggest you lay down your arms and surrender.” What happened next made headlines across the world: “Well, this is it, should I tell him to go fuck himself?” one of the Ukrainian guards whispered to his colleague. “Just in case,” she responded.
A pause. “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”
Feared dead, the guards were captured, then freed, in a prisoner exchange later, but the act of bravery became something of a mantra of Ukraine’s resistance. Precisely two weeks later, the Ukrainian Postal Service, known as Ukrposhta, released a postage stamp depicting a Ukrainian soldier giving an approaching ship the middle finger.
The now-iconic stamp, designed by Ukrainian artist Boris Groh, was born out of a public contest that Ukrposhta had run on its Facebook page. Since then, Ukrposhta has released more than 30 postage stamps designed by a mix of amateur and professional artists. The last one, to be released tomorrow, marks the one-year anniversary of Russia invading Ukraine and features a stamp-sized version of a mural Banksy painted in the city of Borodyanka. The illustration is accompanied by six Cyrillic letters that stand as a not-so-veiled shorthand for “Putin, go fuck yourself.”
Over the past year, Ukrposhta’s stamp collection has grown into a surprisingly effective time capsule of the war. “[Ukrainians] collect it as a history, and it has now become a symbol of our fight for freedom,” Ukrposhta’s CEO, Igor Smelyansky, tells me via email. Ukrposhta sold about 15 million stamps last year—or six times more than in 2021. By May 2022, after an outpouring of demand, they opened an online store and made the stamps available on local marketplace websites, and then on eBay and Amazon.
There’s a reason the stamps have struck a chord with so many people, and that’s because, for better or worse, they have become miniature tokens of the war Russia has waged on Ukraine. Like wartime posters, but significantly smaller, they provide a fascinating visual record of Ukrainian history. For example, when the world’s largest plane, known as the Mriya, was destroyed by Russian missiles, Ukrposhta released a stamp depicting a dreamy little girl flying on bird wings, next to the Mriya. The colorful drawing was made by an 11-year-old girl named Sofiika Kravchuk, who had previously won a competition titled “What is Ukraine for me?” Smelyansky says his team had originally planned to print Kravchuk’s drawing on a postage envelope, but when Russia destroyed the Mriya, the drawing took on new meaning.
Several months later, a blast destroyed the Crimea Bridge that linked Russia to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014. So naturally, Ukrposhta released a stamp portraying a couple that looks an awful lot like Titanic’s ill-fated duo of Jack and Rose, perched at the very edge of the collapsed bridge—a humorous design choice that Smelyansky says has helped keep people’s spirits alive. And when Ukrainians recaptured the city of Kherson, which Russia had claimed nine months prior, Ukrposhta released a stamp depicting a soldier in a field of watermelons—a symbol of the region—holding out a slice next to the words “Kherson is Ukraine.”
Many of these stamps were actually released before the actual events occurred, leading some to believe that the Ukrainian government knew the Moskva would sink, or that the Crimea Bridge would collapse, but on this, Smelyansky declined to comment any further.
The stamps tell an overarching story of resilience. Spend enough time poring over the collection, and you might gain an insight, however limited, into how Ukrainian citizens perceive themselves. This makes the stamps one of the world’s tiniest branding canvases. “They reflect current events, they reflect main heroes, and certainly help people around the world better understand who we are. Understand that despite life and death situations every day, we can fight for our freedom with humor and dedication,” says Smelyansky. “These stamps, being sold and sent around the world help to spread the word about this war and what we stand for.”