Book review: ‘Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries’ by Bjorn Berge

A philatelic tour of forgotten nations that would make an ideal gift for armchair travellers.

I could hardly believe my eyes: the compact hardback that I saw on the counter inside Stanfords bookshop in London was like an old dream materialised in a book form. Just like Bjorn Berge, its author, I was a passionate stamp collector in my childhood and youth. The collection of several thousand stamps from over a hundred countries that I inherited from my great-grandfather contained some real gems. I was extremely proud of it, probably even too proud, for I kept showing it to everyone. As a result, it was simply stolen from me in 1980s Moscow by a corrupt Communist Party official.

I mourn that loss every day until now and getting hold of ‘Nowherelands: An Atlas of Vanished Countries 1840-1975’ (Thames & Hudson, £16.95, ISBN 978050051990) by Bjorn Berge, himself a passionate collector of stamps, “from every country and every regime that has ever been active...” with many of those lovingly reproduced on its pages, was like getting at least part of my old collection back.

Just like Berge’s, my albums carried a number of stamps from ghost states; countries that didn’t exist any longer. It was largely due to that youthful philatelic passion of mine that I eventually became a travel writer with a special interest in little known geopolitical curiosities – disputed borders, enclaves, mini-states and such like – and wrote several books about them.

“More than a thousand regimes throughout history issued stamps,” notes Berge in his foreword. It was of course impossible to cover them all in the book, yet ‘Nowherelands’ consists of 50 chapters, each describing a no-longer-existing state; its history, culture, at times even its cuisine, with some local recipes reproduced. Importantly, each chapter includes eye-witness accounts of travellers and a list of recommended further reading.

I am proud to say that some of the former countries described by Berge were familiar to me and not only from my old stamp collection. For example, I have an in-depth knowledge of, and an unending affection for, Van Diemen’s Land, now called Tasmania – the former ‘secondary’ Gulag of the British Empire, where convicts from the Australian mainland were sent for offences committed when already in exile.

I have heard and read about Eastern Karelia, and about South Russia – a short-lived 1919-20 formation, presided over by General Denikin. I knew of South Russia’s contemporary and neighbour, the mini-state of Batum – an oasis of quiet and plentiful life in 1918-1920 amid the turmoil of the Russian Civil War – from the books of my literary mentor Konstantin Paustovsky, who had not just visited Batum (now a city in Georgia), but lived there, too.

A special page in my collection was reserved for Tannu Tuva, a country for which I could only boast one stamp, but it was probably the most valuable I ever had. Tannu Tuva, now an autonomous ‘Tuvinskaya Republic’ inside Russia (and formerly inside the USSR), was (and still is) a Buddhist mini nation of 100,000 people with strong nomadic and shamanistic traditions, best known perhaps for its unique art of throat singing. In 1921-44, it was an independent country issuing its own stamps, now extremely rare and hard to find.

E&T readers would be interested to know that in the 1980s, Tuva was visited by the Nobel Prize-winning US physicist Richard Feynman, a genius, a compulsive traveller, an eccentric and an amateur percussionist. An illustrious professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology and one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Feynman was also a devoted stamp collector. It was stamps that triggered his desire to travel to Tannu Tuva in what became his life’s last journey. That trip was later described by his friend and travel companion Ralph Leighton in his fascinating book ‘Tuva or Bust’, which I can recommend unreservedly (as Berge himself does in the end of his Tannu Tuva chapter), but probably not as strongly as ‘Nowherelands’ – an armchair traveller’s ideal Christmas gift!

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