Cherished for over a century, the legendary Russian hats now aren’t quite as hot as they are warm.
I almost never buy souvenirs, but if I do, they are usually something that I’d have a practical purpose for. That was the case when purchasing my Ushanka in Russia. In preparation for the New York City winter, I bought a my fur hat, which has proven to be an astute purchase.
What is a Ushanka?
The iconic Russian hat, the ushanka, is a national symbol. Ushanka, or Ушанка in the Cyrillic alphabet translates to “earflaps”, at least according to Google Translate. Worn by Russians for centuries, ushankas were once used by Soviet soldiers, and nowadays by the older generation of Russians, armies, police forces, postmen, neophiles and pragmatic people who want their heads to stay warm.
Ushanka are primarily associated with Soviet rule, according to Wikipedia. Strangely enough while walking around New York City in my ushanka, I noticed that NYPD officers wear similar winter hats.
Ushankas can cover the head, back of the neck, sides of the face and chin, making them much warmer than most beanies. Depending on how cold it is outside, they can be worn either with the ear flaps up or down.
The fur hats are usually made of sheepskin, mink fur, or rabbit fur. The prices for ushankas can range greatly, depending on the quality and the type of fur used. You can find cheap ones made of faux-fur for under $20 and some ushankas on the more expensive side, like this mink one for $800.
In tourist gift shops all over Russia, you can find ushankas. Most are low quality and non-traditional, such as this neon orange one which I tried on.
I passed on the neon orange hat, and eventually came across a hat vendor in an outdoor market in Moscow. The atmosphere of the outdoor market reminded me of somewhere out of South America. I had previously bought a Chullo in a similar market in Bolivia.
Vendors called out to us in what ever language they assumed we understood: Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and finally English. I guess they don’t understand the concept of an Asian American, although it was amazing how they could speak so many languages, albeit brokenly.
The hat vendor had a rack full of ushankas, meticulously organized by fur type. He was middle aged and looked to be around 5’6” with a thick accent. He was darker skinned than most Muscovites and according to our tour guide, probably from Central Asia.
While trying on a few ushankas, the vendor tried to convince me to buy a mink hat. He explained how rabbit fur would fall out and how mink was warmer, more durable and even fire resistant, not that I’d ever need it to be fire repellent.
I wanted a white ushanka, but apparently those are only for women. 🙁
Eventually I narrowed my options down to 2 hats, a grey rabbit fur ushanka and a black mink fur ushanka. The mink was about USD $40 more than the rabbit one and in the end, I took the vendor’s advice and chose the more expensive one. After some intense bargaining, I handed over USD $80 and got my mink ushanka with both parties satisfied.
I guess the vendor was right about mink fur being really warm, because according to Wikipedia:
Mink fur ushankas are widely used in Arctic region of Russia, keeping ears and chin safe even in the “deep frost” (−40 to −70 degrees C).
I kind of wanted my ushanka to have the Soviet hammer and sickle, or at least a star, just to give the hat a bit more Russian flare, but it turns out that usually it is the cheap touristy hats that have those insignias.
It turned out that my hat was quite traditional and pretty high quality.
You can get a ushanka here on Amazon.com.
Are Ushankas Dying Out?
Ushankas seem to be the baseball caps of Russia – except that they seem to be dying out.
When our tour guide in Mongolia saw me wearing my Ushanka, he let out a subdued laugh, then said “Only my grandfather wears one of those.”
Even when wearing the ushanka in Moscow, I had a group of school kids laugh at me, I guess I’m more Russian than they are. Prior to going to Russia, I assumed everyone wore them. I guess the ‘new generation’ has deemed ushankas a novelty item.
A few years ago, even the Russian Army has decided to stop using the fur caps according to GlobalSecurity.org.
It’s a shame to see this iconic and historical yet practical hat die out. At least I’ll keep the legacy going here in New York City.
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.