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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hats Off to Military Haberdashery

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The Russian military has gone through many changes, but one tradition will always live on: hats.

"Don’t salute with an uncovered head" is a phrase known to anyone who has served in the army. Before saluting, an army officer of any rank must have a furazhka, or cap, firmly planted on his shaven head.

Those hats, from those worn by tsarist police to the blue models on the heads of gulag officers, are also a colorful ready-to-wear guide to the history of the army.

"Hats are a part of the military fashion traditions that were born years ago," said Ilya Kuzmichyov, an Interior troops major and curator of an exhibition of military headgear that is on display at the Interior Ministry Museum through Sunday.

The exhibit is a testament to the historical pride of the Interior troops — the powerful enforcement arm of the Interior Ministry, which along with paratroopers and border guards comprise the elite of the country’s military corps.

Although the Soviets took steps to distance themselves sartorially from their tsarist-era predecessors, relatively little changed about the way the state police dressed themselves after 1917.

Take for example the trademark garb of the Cheka, the secret police branch founded in 1917 and headed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. Their leather caps and jackets were lifted nearly unchanged from the uniforms of Romanov-era army drivers.

Even the first Bolshevik-era military hat, a woolen, helmet-like cap with a sharp peak and ear flaps — known commonly as a budyonnovka, after legendary Soviet Commander Semyon Budyonny — was a carbon copy of the hats worn by Russian soldiers.

During Stalinist times, the budyonnovka and Cossack-style fur kubanka gave way full-time to the furazhka, a brimmed cap similar to the hats worn by Western police officers.

Together with the return of military epaulets, the predominance of the furazhka was merely seen as a throwback to tsarist-era military traditions.

As the Soviet armed forces grew, however, so did the dimensions of the furazhka.

"Before the furazhka was useful in combat operations, but after it became more of an artistic device," said Kuzmichyov, who added that the hat also became bigger during the days of Defense Minister Andrei Grechko, a short man who wore high-heeled shoes and a large furazhka to look "more solid."

While the larger-than-life furazhka was always the butt of jokes during Soviet times, the military berets worn by paratroopers and Interior troops commanded greater respect.

The Interior Ministry even held special competitions for conscripts to win the honor of wearing its prized red berets.

Nowadays, however, the uniform has lost its significance for most of the soldiers, Kuzmichyov admits. "Before, they would put it on before they went home, but now they feel that it’s not a good idea."

The low morale in the Russian army is only one side of the problem. The other is economics. "The army is strangled politically and economically, and now they want to strip it bare," said a recent article in the Defense Ministry magazine Orientir, citing an order that allots soldiers only one military cap per year.

For some military enthusiasts, even the look of the Stalinist-era uniforms — with their jodhpur-like pants and shirts with the red rhombus symbolizing the officer’s rank — look more prosperous than today’s drab uniforms.

"They were more beautiful and colorful," said Anton Shalito, a chairman of the Red Army Club, who arrived at the doors of the museum dressed ? la Commander Sergei Kotov, the hero of Nikita Mikhalkov’s "Burnt by the Sun."

"Today everything is just painted in one green color."

The Interior Ministry Museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is 10 rubles. 9A Krasnokazarmennaya Ulitsa. Metro Baumanskaya. Tel. 361-8588.