Chekist Chic

Some styles never die.

In the Soviet 1920s the leather jacket was the communist fashion statement.  It symbolized proletarian ruggedness, ideological fortitude, and the quintessential expression of revolutionary manliness.  The fact that few “proletarians” could avoid such a luxury was irrelevant. Cowhide was more an accoutrement for those who lacked the proletarian stock to acquire the image of a defender of the working masses.  Thus when the author V. F. Panova’s husband decided shed his intellectual lineage and “forge” himself into an “iron Bolshevik,” he strutted around in a leather jacket, “spoke with an echoing base” and “worked at a wild pace to add extra authenticity.

By the late 1930s, when most communists abandoned leather for wool suits, the jacket became the provenance of the secret police, the self-anointed embodiment of the Revolution.  Indeed, leather’s sleek shine went well with Felix Dzerzhinsky’s famous slogan that a good Chekist had “clean hands, a cool head, and a warm heart.”  That is to say, as the leather jacket served as a communist costume to mimic militancy, so did Dzerzhinsky’s slogan varnish the fact that in reality, Chekists had neither clean hands, cool heads, nor warm hearts.

This jaunt back into Soviet history is merely to note that some habits die hard, especially if they’re seared into tradition and memory. The leather jacket continues to have meaning for Russia’s security organs.  So much so that the Federal Protective Service (FSO), which serves as Presidential security and possesses a wide range of police powers, placed an order to purchase 120 black leather jackets for its high ranking officers, reports Zakupki-News, a site that monitors government officials’ outlandish spending. The cost for just 60 Chekist chic jackets is about 3 million rubles ($106,000).

The Cheka-GPU-NKVD redux wasn’t lost on readers.  One commenter on Zakupki-News wrote, “They still haven’t bought the Mausers?” in reference to the pistol used to execute “enemies of the people” in the 1930s.  Another quipped, “Or is so this they can standout among the People’s Front?”  Or another, “Ah, beautiful. Dirt to filth is a natural movement.”

The FSO’s extracurricular spending should come as no surprise.  In May, it allocated 336,000 rubles ($12,129) to purchase marble bathtubs.  And not just any marble tub.  They had to be “white marble,  1900 mm long, 900 mm wide, and 520 mm high.”  The tubs had to hold 310 liters of water.  When a journalist asked Mikhail Moksyakov, a rep from the FSO, whether the white marble tubs were for his apartment, he responded, “And why can’t we buy a bathtub?  Why does this interest you, exactly?

He has a point. Chekists need to bathe too. How else do you expect them to keep their hands clean?