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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Politics Of Hats: Softheaded

There is an enormous fuss in British newspapers at the moment about Prime Minister John Major wearing a shapka made of real fur for his Moscow visit.

Animal rights campaigners, normally castigated as wild-eyed fanatics by Fleet Street but this time sought out by journalists, have cooperated by disgorging the ritual angry quotes with which the papers can continue to berate the beleaguered Major.

"Hatgate" is a storm in a fur hat, produced by a group of people who should be more concerned by what goes on inside Major's head than what he wears on it.

If there is any issue at all, it is surely this: Why is it that Western leaders feel obliged to sport the Russian national headgear when making winter visits here? When they go to Morocco they do not wear a fez. Nor do they stick a Stetson on their heads when deplaning in New York.

So why the shapka in Moscow? What is it that seizes leaders when they are coming in to land at Sheremetyevo and makes them reach into their overhead lockers and place $50 worth of fur on their heads?

Why do these men, who fancy themselves as the makers and breakers of history and are usually noted for determination, single-mindedness, even bloody-mindedness, feel obliged to change the sartorial habits of a lifetime?

What are they hoping to achieve? To pass for a native?

This hardly seems likely. But in their attention to headwear they may be saying more about their attitudes to this country than in all the fine words they commit to the public record while here.

The donning of another country's national costume might be seen as a sign of respect, a flaunting by the visiting leader of his awareness of local custom. But if this were the case, then the fez would be just as necessary during state visits as the shapka.

In the case of Russia, the ritual donning of the fur hat more likely harks back to ancient fears of a mighty empire, a place so powerful that it is symbolized by a ferocious creature covered in fur: the bear.

If this is so, then the hat is the equivalent of making a bow to power. Even President Bill Clinton, in his walkabout in Moscow last month, was careful to make this gesture, popping on a fur hat as he mingled with the crowds.

By singling out Russia as the place where they wear an unfamiliar item on their head, Western leaders tell us that this is a country with which they are still not at ease.

Is the reverse also true? If and when Boris Yeltsin makes a return visit to London, will he wear a bowler and carry a rolled umbrella? Highly unlikely.