The denouement of Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov's Hero of Our Time, one of Russian literature's earliest classics, turns, more or less, on a piece of military outerwear. A cadet attracts a naïve young princess by appearing, enigmatically, in an enlisted man‘s great-coat. As soon as she sees him in a more elegant, but more predictable, officer’s uniform, she loses all interest, to the delight of his rival, who eventually kills him in a duel.
The plot’s a little more complicated than that, but never mind. The moral -- keep it simple, stupid -- holds as true for Russian military men today as it did in the nineteenth century. On December 15, Rossiskaya Gazeta reported that 250 Russian servicemen have been rushed to hospital for complaints ranging from flu to pneumonia. The reason? Their new designer uniforms left them exposed the elements. The mother of one soldier said that the lightweight uniforms made the men feel "naked" in the icy Arctic winds.
The Russian army's 100 million-ruble makeover started in 2007 with a very sensible observation: the uniforms then in service were godawful. Their designs dated back to 1994, which meant that little save insignia had changed since Soviet times. This meant they were eyesores -- queasy green and baggy with a knack for wrinkling. So miserably fitted to the human foot were the sapogi, or jackboots, that soldiers had to wear bulky foot wraps underneath. All ranks agreed it was time for a change, and that any change was bound to be good. Not to improve on that getup would have taken an idiot.
In the event, it took a genius -- a genius of a fashion designer named Valentin Yudashkin. Yudashkin, a Muscovite, began his career as one of Perestroika’s leading success stories. Opening his own design house in 1988, in his hometown , he soon earned sufficient cachet to win the honor of dressing Raisa Gorbachev. He had an extravagant streak -- in the late 1990s, he dressed his models like Faberge eggs, beads and all. Still, when Defense Minister Anatoly Sverdyukov issued a call for new designs, it was Yudashkin who won the bid: 85 designs, to be introduced to the units of all Russia’s armed forces over three years.
Not everyone was pleased with the selection. Russian fashion historian Alexander Vasilyev told UniformMarket News Magazine he thought hiring a fashion designer to design uniforms was "unjustified." He believed the task should go to "special people who serve in the army and understand what is needed and why."
"So far," he said, "I have the impression that the minister found out that one warehouse is nearly empty, and another has a surplus of fabric and that is the basis for the changes."
Yudashkin protested that he had, in fact, served in the army, and that he had consulted soldiers beforehand. "What is most important about the uniforms," Yudashkin told the Washington Post in 2008, "is that the fabrics and design are contemporary and that they are, first of all, understandable to today's youth who will join the army. I want them to feel comfortable."
Comfort, for Yudashkin, meant lighter fabrics and closer tailoring-- too close, it was feared, for the 30% of Russsia‘s officers that was overweight. Contemporary meant dashing new garments like fur berets and waisted wool coats for female soldiers, Top Gun-style bomber jackets for pilots and dress whites for naval officers.
If Yudashkin’s designs represented a leap forward, they were also meant to evoke a glorious past. By dressing soldiers in aquamarine with red trim -- and even more, by adorning honor guards with brass buttons and gold braid -- Yudashkin revived the look of the pre-revolutionary tsarist army. In fact, the new uniforms took the army back before the beginning of the First World War, when its predecessor issued simple tunics called gymnastyrki that impressed military historian John Keegan as "unexpectedly modern." Outfitted by Yudashkin, the army recalled a time when the Tsar was secure on his throne.
By winter of 2008, the Russian army’s new-old look was making news across the Western world. The adjective "sexy" appeared frequently, along with photos of gazelle-eyed models in the new Astrakhan fur berets. As the Aswan Dam did for Nasser and the Three Gorges Dam did for China’s current government, the Russian army’s togs offered proof that Putin was a player.
Then the bill came due . On May 1, the BBC reported that Russia’s credit crunch had put the project on hold. The budget would only suffice to outfit the men taking part in the upcoming Victory Day parade. Senator Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security, told Ekho Moskvy that the old uniforms "make it possible to distinguish [servicemen] from civilians." The rest, for him, was commentary.
But the uniforms got made and delivered -- somehow -- just in time to make the troops miserable. Russia being Russia, someone’s bound to swing for this, though whether it’ll be Yudashkin, Sverdyukov or someone else remains to be seen. In any case, we should be seeing plenty of elegant, aquamarine tunics for sale on the Old Arbat this spring.