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Aquarius in a Loincloth: what worked for Hevelius decidedly did not for one Soviet postal official.

With the 30th anniversary this March of the Soviet Vega missions--a pair of spacecraft that investigated Venus before flying past Halley's Comet in March 1986--I'm reminded again of an amusing event in the former USSR in which I played an indirect role. The event speaks volumes about a bygone era when the Soviet Union was both a planet-exploring powerhouse yet also distinctly less progressive on the public morals front.

It concerns the depiction of Aquarius on a Soviet stamp--one that shows the zodiacal water-bearer quite untraditionally swathed in a kind of loincloth.

For almost 60 years I worked where I was born, in Moscow. In the last decade of my Muscovite life, fate chose to place me on the Artistic Advisory Board of the Ministry of Communications of the USSR. Arising during Gorbachev's perestroika, the AAB offered nonbinding advice concerning the artistic merits of postage stamps, envelopes, and the like being prepared for publication. Its members were primarily artists; as an astronomer and a philatelist, I was the black sheep of this council. In any case, from time to time during AAB meetings, I bore witness to many curious incidents with Soviet stamps. To wit:

In the early 1980s, artist Gherman Alexeyvich Komlev received an order for three stamps dedicated to the Vega project. The stamps came out at different times and were printed in standard sheets as well as in miniature sheets of eight. To design the margins for one of these miniature sheets, Komlev drew inspiration from Johannes Hevelius' 1690 star atlas--which, as many amateur astronomers know, depicts Aquarius with bare buttocks.

And so it came to pass that the exposed behind of Aquarius, as Komlev sketched it, landed on the desk of the head of the Directorate for the Production and Distribution of Instruments of Postal Revenue. This body gave final approval to all Soviet stamp projects.

Now, the chief of the Directorate at the time was ignorant of mythology and astronomy--or perhaps he simply knew the preferences of upper-level authorities. But without hesitation, he declared that it was utterly unacceptable to expose the delicate morality of the Soviet citizenry to a nude male figure, even a half-turned one, and promptly demanded that the artist alter the design.

To avoid changing the entire, largely approved composition, the hapless Komlev quickly slapped a loincloth onto Aquarius. And in precisely this way the ancient water-bearer saw the light of day in December 1984, on a Soviet minisheet of eight Vega stamps.

Twenty years later, in 2004, the postal service of the new Russia finally realized a proposal I'd first made in my AAB days of publishing 12 stamps with the signs of the zodiac. Among sources for artist Vladimir Beltyukov was once again Hevelius' star atlas. But this time no one in Russia commanded covering up Aquarius' backside. How times change!

Alexander Gurshtein is an astronomer and historian of science at Colorado Mesa University. A former president of the IAU Commission on History of Astronomy, he helped initiate the International Year of Astronomy (2009).

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Title Annotation:Focal Point; Johannes Hevelius
Author:Gurshtein, Alex
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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