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The First Postal (ZIP) Code in the World

The use of mail sorting codes to expeditiously handle large volumes of mail is not a new idea. The first true postal codes date to the first half of the 20th century, and the first country to introduce them was Ukraine.

Setting Up the Index

Zip1A sophisticated, three-part postal code system (described as an “Index”) was first introduced in December of 1932. This program was not a brief experimental venture limited to a small region of the country, but instead was a fully supported governmental effort that extended to all corners of interwar Ukraine (then part of the USSR) until abruptly discontinued in 1939. Four different Ukrainian-language informational postal cards, all printed in 1932, announced the new Index program. Although their texts differed, the messages were similar. The cards are described below.

Zip2The 10-kopek, red postal card (no. 176) depicts a happy postal customer and a letter properly addressed with new postal codes. The text reads: “I received a letter quickly because the “Index” was indicated on the letter, that is, the conventional designation which was adopted by every populated area in Ukraine. Information at the post office!” Shown on the cachet mailing address is the Index 395 y 1 (for Zmiïv); the return address Index is 11 y 15 (in Kyiv).


Zip3A 3-kopek, blue postal card (no. 184) shows a postal bus and the message: “The conventional designation “Index,” which was adopted by every populated area in Ukraine, is by all means required to be written on each postal dispatch. This ensures correct and timely receipt of a letter!”. The example Indexes on the depicted card next to the bus are 101 y 15 (for Budko Sobichins) and 45 y 3 (for Stalino).


Zip4The third item is also a 3-kopek, blue card (no. 185) and presents a mailman with a packet of letters. The text reads: “The correct address on a letter guarantees timely delivery! Inform all and write on the addresses the conventional indications “Index” – this is the correct way to address a letter! Information at the post office!”


Zip5Finally, postal card no. 186, again 3-kopek and blue, displays an envelope with delivery and return addresses that each contain the new Index (for the cities of Olevsk and Kyiv, 101 y 1 and 11 y 15 respectively). The text reads: “A conventional indication “Index” has been assigned to every populated point in Ukraine. The presence of such a conventional designation on a letter guarantees correct sending and timely reception! Information at the post office!”


It was at post offices that a 268-page book was made available to patrons. Its lengthy title was self-explanatory: Listing of the Postal Establishments, Railway Stations, Towns, Villages, and Rural Councils of Ukraine With Their Designated Postal Codes. Published in 1932 in Kharkiv (the Ukrainian capital at the time), the volume was divided into two sections. The first half presented all the locales in Ukraine in alphabetical order followed by their new postal code. The second half listed all the postal codes of the country in sequence (starting with 1 y 1 and ending with 486 y 53) followed by the place name. So, either way one looked up some information, it could be readily tracked down.

How the Index Worked

Every Index was composed of a number-letter-number series. The central Cyrillic ‘y’ (pronounced “oo”, as in boot) of an Index designation stood for (Y)KPAIHA (Ukraine) and so immediately identified mails destined for this republic of the Soviet Union. The first number (the fore-number) designated the importance and size of a location. Numbers 1 to 10 were assigned to the capital city of Kharkiv (1 through 7 allocated to major district (raion) postal centers in the city, but 8 to 10 held in reserve).

Remaining two-digit numbers indicated other major cities. So, 11 to 20 specified Kyiv (11 to 14 allocated, remainder in reserve), 21 to 29 Odesa (five numbers allocated), 30 to 33 Mykolaiv (only 30 allocated), 34 to 39 Dnipropetrovsk (four numbers allocated), 40 to 44 Zaporizhia (all five numbers allocated), 45 to 48 Stalino (presently Donetsk, four numbers allocated), 49 to 51 Mariupil (one number allocated), and so on to 89 to 91 for Kherson (one number allocated). Numbers 92 to 100 were kept in reserve.

Three-digit fore-numbers indicated raions of lesser importance in the country. So, 101 stood for the Oliev district (in Zhytomyr province) and this district was subdivided into 39 smaller postal drop off and pick up points, mostly village post offices. These raion subdivisions were indicated by the hind-numbers of the postal Index. The Oliev subdivisions, therefore, ranged from 101 y 1 to 101 y 39.

Raion subdivisions could vary tremendously in number, from 130 in Kharkiv raion to just nine in Staro Kermenchyk raion. Usually, though, they ranged between 20 and 40 in number. In all, 440 raions are enumerated in the Listing, while 46 large-city raion number slots were set aside for future use (i.e., the raion fore-numbers go as high as 486). Over 25,000 unique raion subdivision receiving points are specified.

Examples of Use Postal

Index codes more frequently appeared on the bottom halves of canceling devices, but they can also be found across the the tops and sometimes on the side.

Zip6 Zip7 Zip8



In addition, the codes are frequently seen on registration cachets, both those indicated with the Latin ‘R’ (for registered) or Russian Cyrillic ‘3’ (for zakaznoe).

The Fate of the Index System

Zip9The Ukrainian Index system was suspended in the summer of 1939. The latest code described in the literature (22 y 1 from Odesa) dates to 25 June 1939 and the Index system most likely was discontinued at about this time. The abrupt cessation in use of the Index may have been for strategic reasons, since the rumblings and preparations for war increased as the year progressed. (The Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement, was signed on 23 August 1939.) Postal codes were apparently not assigned to any locales in Western Ukraine, which came under Soviet occupation in September of 1939.

An alternate reason for the abandonment of the system may have been the stepped up purges of the latter 1930s. Newly installed Communist Party replacements may have wished to demonstrate their loyalty by eliminating the postal code, which perhaps by that time was seen as a manifestation of latent Ukrainian nationalism.

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This article is expanded from a piece that first appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly Vol. 70 No. 5 (3 February 2002): 8.

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