wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Paul Fussell


The court of Nicholas II swarmed with uniform wearers, and even the youngest and tiniest students at the Imperial Ballet School wore dark blue uniforms with collar decorations of silver lyres. So ubiquitous was the uniformity impulse among civilians that aristocrats, bourgeoisie, and laboring classes alike favored quasi-military caps of black or dark blue material with shiny visors.

But it is to the military, naval, and diplomatic services that one must turn to appreciate the unique aspects of Russian uniform culture. Especially notable on Russian uniforms were extralarge shoulder boards proclaiming those two Slavic obsessions, tide and rank, by means of colorful stripes and stars of various sizes, and visor caps with outsized covers as big as ashcan lids. The shoulder boards were a favorite target of the Bolsheviks, who liked to indicate their attitudes and power by tearing the boards off the uniforms of officers they encountered. When they wanted to humiliate the czar upon his arrest in 1917, they stripped off his special, costly sovereign's shoulder boards, which signaled, as they had for generations, the sacred continuity of the autocracy. Nicholas's were adorned with the jeweled initials of his imperial predecessor, Czar Alexander in, just as the czarevitch's were with Nicholas's. He wrote in his diary, 'Shall not forget this beastliness.'

Shoulder boards were reintroduced by the Soviet army only in the Second World War. When not pursuing their trade in civilian disguise, secret intelligence officers of the NKVD and KGB wore uniforms in public, so powerful was their desire to show off. And so persistent is the popular association of the Russian official look with shoulder boards that the entrepreneurs founding a 'Russian' restaurant in New York City were careful to provide their 'Cossack' musicians with shoulder boards, together with fancy visor caps with red crowns. Indeed, before the USSR broke up, it retained the czarist sense that officers' uniforms should be extremely impressive, colorful if not gaudy. There's a similarity here to the fanciness of the Soviet subway stations' elegance, with their crystal chandeliers and elaborate ceramic work.

Uniforms worn by those of very high rank, like marshals of the army, consisted of an olive tunic with red piping around the cuffs and collar, collar insignia embroidered in gold bullion, and, on the shoulder boards, an immense single marshal's star. Each trouser leg had a wide red stripe. It was best if the chest, both sides, were covered not just with ribbons but with the whole medals. Marvin Lyons suggests one cause of all this showiness: most army officers were poor, and they tended to originate in remote, drab, unstylish places. 'To compensate, perhaps, Russian uniforms had a style and elegance which quite outshone those of foreign armies.' Despite the social-equality impulses of the Bolsheviks, this tendency was still visible during the Second World War, and may be taken to suggest acute psychological anxiety about not being valued sufficiently. A useful contrast would be the uniform style of, say, Douglas MacArthur, secure enough in his role to adhere to the understatement principle, wearing that filthy cap with no necktie. And no ribbons or medals.