After spending four hours in a queue, Viktor Fyodorovich showed off his shiny new purchase. “I’m 63 years old. I’ve never felt so much pride before in our nation. It’s a symbol of our courage and steadfastness,” he said.
Fyodorovich was the proud owner of two sheets of stamps, 16 in total. Available from Kyiv’s central post office, the stamps show a Ukrainian soldier giving the finger to the flagship Russian cruiser Moskva. On the sheet’s perforated margin is the phrase that has become a rallying slogan for Ukrainians in their underdog battle against Moscow: “Russian warship, go …!” The “fuck yourself” is tactfully omitted.
The words were spoken by Roman Hrybov when the warship’s crew asked him and his fellow border guards on Snake Island, south of the port of Odesa, to surrender in the early hours of Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The phrase has since gone global. Last week the national postal service, Ukrposhta, released the design as a special commemorative stamp.
“People are in love with it. It reflects the mood around the world towards Russia,” said Igor Smelyansky, Ukrposhta’s director general. Scuffles broke out when one desperate woman tried to force her way into the high-ceilinged neo-classical postal building in Kyiv’s independence square.
Smelyansky came up with the idea of a stamp in the early days of the war. He asked the public for suggestions. A shortlist of 50 designs were put to a vote, with the warship the triumphant winner. “It was democratic, just like Ukraine,” he said. “Even when air raid sirens sound, people refuse to leave their place in the line.”
The postal service printed a million warship stamps. Seven hundred thousand are on sale across Ukraine, Smelyansky said, with 200,000 reserved for territories currently occupied by Russian troops, including Crimea. Another 100,000 will be sold online from Thursday, he said, including to buyers abroad.
For now, the only way to get hold of a sheet is to join the back of the Kyiv queue. On Tuesday it was several thousand people long. Smeylansky emerged from his office mid-morning and reassured those waiting outside that there were enough to go around – 70,000 on sale that day, limited to 16 per person.
Several people asked him for selfies. Others applauded and shouted “Slava Ukraini” (glory to Ukraine). Meanwhile, Smelyansky’s phone rang continuously with requests from VIPs. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, posed with the stamp and covers last week, telling his citizens on Instagram: “Everyone has to get it.”
Smeylansky said he would not reprint the stamp once it sold out, despite its success. He showed off designs for a successor stamp. One featured Ukrainian police dragging away Vladimir Putin, above the words “War criminal arrested”. Another depicted a burning Kremlin and a demonic-looking Red Square.
The director general pointed out wryly that the original stamp was published the day before two Ukrainian anti-ship missiles smashed into the Moskva. It sank in the Black Sea. “We should win this war. We will win it,” he said. “The Russians don’t know what they are fighting for. Their bullshit keeps changing, from denazification to freeing the Donbas.”
Smelyansky has also produced a “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” T-shirt, which will soon go on general sale. He gave one to the Guardian to pass on to Boris Johnson in Downing Street, together with two sheets of stamps and a signed cover and note. It read: “Thank you UK for standing with Ukraine.”
Natalii Tkachenko said she managed to buy stamps on the first day they were released. “It’s a symbol, a message. It reflects our inner patriotism,” she said, wrapping up a parcel. “I was born here. I live in this country. They want to destroy us. I’m not going to surrender. My husband is not going to surrender.”
The stamp’s colourful message was appropriate, she added, since diplomacy had failed to prevent the Kremlin from starting an unprovoked and devastating war. “The stamp is a bit of a paper. But take a look at the queue. It may be small but it’s powerful. Just like Ukraine,” she said.
Fyodorovich, meanwhile, said he had bought the stamps for a friend in Kharkiv, who was unable to get them himself because the city was under remorseless enemy shelling. What did he think of Russia’s president? “Putin is mad,” he said. He clarified: “No, correct that. Better to say he’s a bad worm.”