By David Galloway
And I think the reality is that, for me, real fur is extraordinarily old
fashioned. I think you look old. Even if you’re 20 and you’ve got a real
fur coat, you just look like an old, unaware, unconscious being on the
planet. It’s not relevant, it’s not sexy, it’s not fashionable, and it’s not
If I tell you that this is a story about a coat, you might not think much of it. If I tell you it’s a story about a Russian coat, you might think of Nikolai Gogol, because you are erudite. But even if you are erudite, you might not know Gogol’s 1842 short story, “The Overcoat,” so I will digress for a moment.
It goes like this: a man who is very poor, working in a menial job (stop me if this gets too personal) saves and saves to buy a new coat to preserve himself against the 19th century St. Petersburg winter. Once he saves enough and buys it, he is in ecstasy—until it is stolen from him, which sends him to his grave.
Depressing? Depends on who you ask, and when you ask.
Contemporary critics took Gogol’s story at face value, called it commentary on the sad nature of the poor in Russia, and wept tears at the death of this pathetic little man.
Times change, opinions change. Gogol didn’t make it simple. To a century hungry for a more balanced picture of life—remember, most literature was by the entitled, for the entitled, and depicted the entitled—Gogol exposed a layer that had seldom been seen before. But certain details undercut that sympathetic portrait. Not the least that the poor man’s name is, by no particular stretch, akin to “Poop Poopovich” or “Shit Shitovich” or some combination that in English mimics the Russian phonetic resemblance to the word for crap. That is not the only detail which works against a sympathetic interpretation, but let’s not get bogged down.
I find that when I teach the story, as it is a crucial piece in any survey course, some laugh and some cry. There is a definite beachhead for the 19th century interpretation. Because here’s the thing: what Gogol doesn’t mock is the feeling of having saved for something and then enjoying it to its fullest. The hard work of economy (when humans are anything but economical, by nature), the scrimping, the letting other luxuries pass us by so we can save for the one we’ve designated as worth all the hardship.
Which brings us to the tulup.
It is important that you say this right. Not “tulip,” but tooLOOP. A tulup is a long sheepskin coat. Not quite in fashion. It reaches from your neck to mid-calf. It is usually beige-colored. It is very, very warm, since it is made by people who inhabit the stereotype of cold. Gogol’s hero would be perfectly satisfied with it. You feel like a beard should be required to wear it properly, since it’s a manly coat. I do not doubt there are women who wear them, but I have not seen these creatures. Most web pages selling tulups employ burly bearded men as models, set against log cabin walls. You get the idea.
It was my dream to own one. I can’t remember when I first had that dream. It probably arose from viewing a filmstrip or book about Russia, back when I was struggling with grammatical cases, noun agreement, and the threat of nuclear war. (The first two were more easily solved than the third.) This would be approximately middle school, or junior high as it was known in those days.
I assumed—wrongly, it turns out—that such a coat would be fantastically expensive. And so I tucked that idea away for a future time. Until I found, a quarter century later via the glory of the internet, a price or two. This changed everything. A military surplus store sold it to me for the reasonable sum of ninety-five dollars. This still amazes me. Especially as the rage these days amongst college students seems to be Canada Goose jackets, which retail for a hair under a thousand dollars and do not keep you warm. For that amount of money, you can fly round trip to Moscow, pick up your tulup, and fly back. If I had the money, I’d happily switch careers and be a tulup importer. Though I think there’s no real supply, since all the ones I’ve seen are military surplus from the 1980’s.
My tulup keeps me warm. I have taken it for spins in ridiculously cold weather just because it is so warm, because it envelops you in a cocoon of serenity that is enjoyable just on its own. But heaven forbid the temperature exceeds 25 Fahrenheit, or you will melt in that cocoon. It’s too warm for middling winter temperatures, even if they are technically below freezing. And should you make the mistake of putting it on, you will soon be lugging the coat, not wearing it, shrinking from the heat it is pushing into your skin, and regretting it.
The coat has a series of buttons and large straps that hook into them. These should be labeled by temperature. If no straps, and it’s swinging around you like a bathrobe, you probably should switch to a less-insulating coat. One strap is the minimum. Three straps means it’s getting pretty cold, and if you turn up the collar and apply all the straps, you might be on the night guard shift in Krasnoyarsk in January.
I’ve never gotten that far in the States. But one can dream.
This is not a coat to be worn onto a plane. It is approximately the size of a dead lion, sans head, though I don’t speak from experience, and if you make the mistake of wearing it into the aisle in coach class, you will never get it off without exiting the plane first. If you try to fold it up, you will realize that it is still the size of a lion when folded because it is of almost unnatural thickness, and you will find nowhere to put it. I had to buy a cheap zippered bag just to get it home, though fortunately those bags retail for less than five dollars at Belarusskaya train station. I pushed it onto the conveyor as checked baggage with a great deal of trepidation, wondering if I wasn’t kissing it goodbye, for who at JFK wouldn’t like a nice, Russian, sheepskin coat?
But now for the elephant in the room. Why bastard in a tulup? You know exactly why. Because even though it would not necessarily be labeled fur, and wouldn’t be found in a fur collection (which is much more expensive, even in Russia), that’s what we’re talking about. It’s an animal product. I can talk about how I wear it for the cold, which I do, or the fact that I don’t wear it for fashion, which I don’t, but those don’t matter to those for whom these things matter. The fact that it is not fashionable is most evident when my kids ask, “Are you really going to wear that thing?” if we are going out together. I submit that if they thought it fashionable, they would not remark so. But the simple fact is that Russians on the whole don’t get the problems with fur. They point to the thermometer and shrug, as if to say that anyone who’d choose ethics over survival is not to be relied upon—which is not a consideration that Stella McCartney mentions.
No one in our family ever owned fur. Fur was a thing sold in that Mano Swartz store with blue awnings in Towson, which has now closed and moved, though it is not something I kept track of until I sat down to ruminate on the tulup. Fur was stories of red paint being tossed at people. Fur was exclusive, out of range, and very, very rich. But we know that ninety-five dollars is not particularly rich, not for a coat. Not if you are in the Canada Goose market.
I don’t think I’ve ever cared about a coat the way I care about this one. Sure, I could have had nicer coats, but that seemed a luxury when money was at a premium. For twenty years I relied on a wool coat I got in England as a student. I found it at the Oxfam shop for ten pounds, less than $15 back then. And that coat lasted. It had a steel lining, or at least that’s what the label said. Even today, it’s in pretty good shape. My most recent coat I bought at a Steve & Barry’s that was going out of business in the Pyramid mall. Total charge: twelve dollars. It’s inadequate for most conditions, as I found when I wore it to Pskov in the winter. I was staying with a couple of teachers, and I remarked, as I was dressing to go out into the cold, that the wool hat which my wife had knitted for me was quite suited for the Russian winter. “But your coat is not,” the woman of the house informed me in her little-girl voice. I had to agree. Wool it might be, but that’s not enough. Not for the Russian winter.
See, I’ve drifted far from ethics. There’s a very good reason for this. Almost no engagement of ethics will let me wear my coat. And I want to wear my coat.
Though it does make me stand out in the States. My neighbor, who is Bosnian, spotted me on the walking path near home because of the tulup. He knows me, of course, but from half a mile away he could tell that the coat was not from the US. It’s a foreign coat, for foreign people. Walking around, I see the side-eye looks. I’m not immune even in Russia. The priest in Vladimirskoye, where we went to learn about mythical Lake Svetloyar, smiled and recalled that he wore such a coat when he served in the Army’s border guards. And one day I was standing in the Moscow metro, waiting for a train, when a passing young man—also known as a random stranger—threw me a thumbs up and a grin as he said, “Classic tulup!” in Russian.
When I was standing at the Vernisazh souvenir market, waiting for students who promised to be back in a minute but were very late because they were buying nesting dolls, the tulup transformed me into a security guard. I did nothing to foster this illusion—no fur ushanka cap, just the brown wool one my wife knitted for me, and no rifle. I was standing there by the gate, very warm, and people started coming up to me. Not foreign tourists—Russians, asking questions in Russian. “Is this or that store open?” “Where is the restroom?” and so on. About five or six in twenty-minutes time. Despite the fact that I don’t look Russian, my hat was not Russian, and so on. I took it in stride, directed them properly, told them where to buy the hot mead, and so on. Just doing my civic duty, as it were. Since I was standing near the gate, I probably could have charged admission and no one would have blinked. Because my coat made me somebody.
I had a conversation about coats with my friend, Lena, on the train from Semyonovo to Nizhny Novgorod. She herself was wearing a fur coat at the time, but not one, she pointed out with some distaste, that she’d be wearing to the Old New Year’s party she was attending that same evening. “This is my expedition fur,” she said, and I marveled that an academic of modest means could still have (at least) two fur coats. I asked whether she still had the wolf-fur coat she had worn some years ago when we were in Smolensk, and she shook her head with a sort of I can’t believe you even asked look. “Your coat is your passport,” she said, and I reflected on the profundity of that statement. In a country where winter lasts quite a long time, I can see how your outerwear—as the garment everyone sees first and often—might be so significant. It speaks to who you are. It is, whether you like it or not, a call-sign to your identity.
But no one, I offered to Lena, wears a tulup, despite the fact that it is a Russian coat. “Only tourists,” she said with a smile. And while Lena may be right, more than one Russian asked me where I got it, just as our expedition assistant, Artyom, did, thinking to pick one up for his father in Bryansk. And my students reported that at the bar they visited in Moscow, the bouncer on duty was sporting a fine tulup indistinguishable from my own. But let’s end with a flourish: none other than Vladimir Putin wore a tulup on national television before he dunked his head in the icy water for the feast of Epiphany this past January.
So maybe mostly tourists, and a few random Russians. I didn’t argue the point, because Lena added, in a way which made me oddly proud, “but it fits your personality.” I am not sure what my personality is, but as long as it fits my coat, I can live with that. I have sold my soul for a Russian coat, just like Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich (if you follow a certain interpretation that views his purchase as a Faustian bargain). So I will live with the issues: it shedding little specks at times, its fundamental incompatibility with commercial airplanes, its tendency to draw looks.
In this outfit, I’m warm. Bring on climate change’s heady winters that no denier can comprehend. Not only am I warm, I shall be warm, regardless of what weather heads my way.
Which, if you study it carefully, may be the actual reason for a coat.
David Galloway turned to writing to fund his Russian dumpling habit, which takes him on sour cream-fueled binges to the motherland every year or so. Hanging with the babushkas, he assembles the impressions from his visits into a class, and a few people take it. Currently a professor of Russian at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, he grew up in suburban Maryland north of Baltimore. When he surfaces from fits of imagination, he usually finds himself in upstate New York, which is an excellent place to be.