October 18, 2013

Commander in Chief

“The Hunt for Red October” (1990), Paramount Pictures

If you followed my journey to Shanghai last year then you may remember the semi military command structure of my Trans-Mongolian train. As a recap, there are a pair of Chinese guards in each carriage and they report to a “Sergeant Major” who in turn works for the top man – who I imagine is the “Commander” of the train. I’m sure he has a better official title than this, but hopefully you get my drift.

Its all in the flaps! The C in C (left) and RSM (centre)..

On my first morning, as we pulled into a foggy Kirov station, I donned my gear and prepared to go out onto the platform for the first time. I had purchased a tourist issue Russian hat – known as an ushanka. I got it from a market in Moscow to keep me warm whilst I was on the train. As I left my compartment I was stopped by one of the Guards from my carriage (“Guard B” as I got to know him) who was keen to inspect my Russian headgear before we ventured out. He seemed impressed I had made the effort, but it was clearly an inferior product to his own Chinese railway version. They actually have several uniforms – a full dress uniform with greatcoat for international arrivals and then at other times they normally wear an ushanka together with a thick black leather jacket.

Never leave the train without a good hat when its -30 C outside!

I have realised the error of my ways and have therefore been looking for a good Ushanka for a while now. It is actually quite hard to find a proper military spec one (especially in Moscow), as everyone is selling either cheap tourist
copies or vintage military versions at a “special” price. I’m pleased to report that I have now found a specialist Russian supplier and have made a purchase online. However, I feel I also have to confess to you that there does seem to have been a little bit of rank “creep”.. My previous hat was for a humble soldier in the Red Army, but my new Ushanka has a badge for no less than a Soviet Army General!

The hat badge of a Soviet General

There is actually a practical reason for my new (self) promotion. There have always been a number of different grades and material used in the construction of the ushanka, even back in the Soviet era. The soldiers had hats made of pressed felt, and their commanders had better quality fur and sometimes leather. Today most of the tourist hats are made using synthetic fur. Whilst they are actually very comfy, they are not as warm and durable as the real thing, which is made from real leather and sheep fur (or sometimes rabbit fur). My new style of ushanka was of course made famous to capitalist film goers across the World in 1990 by Sir Sean Connery (with an unconvincing accent) as Captain Marko Ramius in “The Hunt for Red October”. In passing I think the badge he wears is just straight Soviet Navy. Officers in the Navy don’t seem to have a different ushanka badge to Seamen – its all in the sleeve and shoulder insignia – see this entry in Wikipedia So back to my new trip, I wonder what’s going to happen when I meet the “Commander in Chief” on the platform in Kirov this year? Lets hope he recognises my new status in the Russian military and extends me the courtesy of my superior rank!

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