Khalatov’s Hat.

Occasionally I feel guilty about neglecting what is, after all, part of this blog’s name, but now I have an occasion to remedy that failing. I’m reading Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (a very generous gift from an LH reader); it’s over a thousand pages long, because it combines several strands of narration into one book, and one of those strands is a collective biography of some of the people who wound up living in what has become known as the House on the Embankment since Yuri Trifonov’s novel of that name (published in 1976). One of those people was Artemy Khalatov (Russian Wikipedia article), described thus on pp. 383-4:

One of Koltsov’s closest collaborators and head of the Association of State Book and Magazine Publishers (OGIZ), moved into a large, six-room apartment on the seventh floor of Entryway 12 (four floors below Rozengolts). […] Khalatov (thirty-five at the time of the move) was famous among the Bolsheviks for his long curly hair, full beard, and Astrakhan hat, which he rarely took off. Before being put in charge of nationalizing and centralizing the publishing industry, he supervised rationing in War Communism Moscow, chaired the Commission for the Improvement of Scholars’ Living Conditions, founded the State Puppet Theater, and, as head of People’s Nutrition (“Down with kitchen slavery! Long live communal food consumption!”), inspired Yuri Olesha’s Envy.

(I wrote about Envy here.) And then, on pp. 457-8, Slezkine quotes this passage from the memoirs of Ivan Gronsky, editor of Izvestia (and another resident of the House), about a Politburo meeting on August 5, 1931:

On the agenda was the work of OGIZ. The presenter was Khalatov. He entered the room and stood, not where he was supposed to, but at the other end of the table, closer to Stalin. Just as Khalatov was about to begin, Stalin suddenly asked:

“Why are you wearing a hat?”

Khalatov looked lost.

“But you know I always wear this hat.”

“It shows a lack of respect for the Politburo! Take off your hat!”

“But, Iosif Vissarionovich, why?”

I had never seen Stalin in such a state. Usually he was polite and spoke softly, but now he was absolutely furious. Khalatov still did not remove his ill-fated hat. Stalin jumped up and ran out of the room. We all began to reason with Khalatov in semi-facetious terms: “Artem, don’t be silly. . .” Khalatov relented, and began his report. Stalin came back, sat down, and raised his hand. Molotov, as usual, said: “Comrade Stalin has the floor.”

The General Secretary’s brief intervention can be summarized as follows: “The political situation in the country has changed, but we have not drawn the appropriate conclusions. It seems to me that OGIZ should be split up. I propose taking five publishing houses out of OGIZ.”

The proposal was accepted. Khalatov left the meeting as a nobody.

Wearing hats indoors can be dangerous! And note that in 1931 it was still possible to think you could get away with arguing with Iosif Vissarionovich. (If you’re curious, here’s an image of Khalatov in his hat.) But he did not in fact leave the meeting as a nobody; Slezkine concludes the passage by saying “He continued to live in the House of Government and to wear his hat.”


  1. He continued to live in the House of Government

    Not for long. He was executed during the Great Purge.

    The name Khalatov (both in Russian and Armenian) means khalat (the word unknown to our host’s spellchecker and which GT wants to translate bathrobe).

    The hat in question is, of course, papakha, which many male inhabitants of Caucasus (including Cossacs) were very reluctant to take off in public, no matter the circumstances. Astrakhan hat, as I understand, is what it’s often called in English.

    I will totally go on the wild speculation here and suggest that Khalatov viewed Stalin as another local (Caucasian) boy who made it good in Moscow, but is essentially his equal.

  2. Highly unlikely. Stalin was born in 1878, Khalatov in 1896.

    In Caucasus, such age difference precludes any notion of equality.

  3. Khalatov remained a member of the nomenklatura up until his arrest in 1937 (regardless of his personal brush-up with Stalin, he was at risk for decimation as an “old Bolshevik”). He was a senior offical at the railway ministry (1932-35), then the chairman of the all-Union Society of Inventors (1935-37).

    Khlevniuk’s Master of the House is a good source on Stalin’s relationship with the Bolshevik elite in the early and mid-1930s, when Stalin was on his way to semi-divinity but not quite there yet.

  4. David Marjanović says

    unknown to our host’s spellchecker

    That’s your browser’s spellchecker, which you can switch off if you like. Websites don’t have spellcheckers.

  5. Not for long. He was executed during the Great Purge.

    As were a large number of the building’s inhabitants; that’s what Part Five of the book (“The Last Judgment”) is about. But it will be a while before I get there.

  6. This triggers a memory of being read the riot act by my colleagues at a certain Russian VUZ in the 90s when I was slow to doff my shapka one winter’s day. I gathered that wearing one’s hat indoors was “not the done thing” in Russia, if not quite so dire a faux pas as whistling indoors.

    Trifonov’s Дом на набережной is quite good. I’ve always meant to go back and read more of him.

  7. SFReader, I think you are right. He would be mindful of the age difference even if foolhardy enough to forget the gap in their formal status.

    David Marjanović, thanks! I will try to teach this unwashed browser a few real words.

  8. David Marjanović says

    I gathered that wearing one’s hat indoors was “not the done thing” in Russia, if not quite so dire a faux pas as whistling indoors.

    Not limited to Russia. In the Middle Ages, keeping your helmet on indoors conveyed the message that you thought you were going to need it to keep your skull in one piece, which in turn meant that you considered your host an enemy. This is why, so many centuries later, teachers got upset every day because someone had kept his baseball cap on in class. *headdesk* Several teachers were also against whistling; I never figured out why.

  9. Lars (the original one) says

    Websites don’t have spellcheckers.

    Define ‘have’. They can certainly replace the browser¨s spellcheck with an Ecmascript version that brings wonderful new weirdness to your attempts at productivity by interacting idiosyncratically with language and locale settings and shortcut keys. A script tag and 21 bytes of own code is all it takes.

    The Hattery doesn’t, for which all sing praises to Songdog.

  10. WP says that whistling indoors is superstitiously thought to cause people to lose money, or in the case of the theatre, to mess up their lines.

  11. Fellow Caucasus lads? One was Georgian, another Armenian. Nuff said.

  12. David Marjanović says

    […] Ecmascript […]

    Ah. Looks like I’m blissfully unaware of half the horrors of the Internet.

  13. hat indoors

    In a Catholic church, men take off their hats but women cover their heads. When I was a child, my sisters and I had hats which we only wore to go to church. By the time we were teen-agers we wore square scarves. Depending on the country these rules are not necessarily strictly enforced, but in many places women are advised to carry a scarf with them to wear if they want to visit churches, even outside of services.

  14. hat indoors … In a Catholic church…

    It comes directly from St.Paul. Thus, it has a status on par with loving thee neighbor.

  15. David Marjanović says

    women cover their heads

    No longer. By now it’s a distinctively Orthodox thing.

    Do cover your shoulders if you visit a church in Italy, though.

  16. No longer. By now it’s a distinctively Orthodox thing.

    Unless you’re visiting the Pope, apparently.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Oh yes.

  18. In a Catholic church, men take off their hats but women cover their heads.

    This is also what I was taught in school to be customary in Protestant Norway. The female part of the deal felt strange and old-fashioned to us, but it was observed by many. It may still be observed by some older women, for all I know. At least when wearing national costumes (as Norwegians do for occasions like weddings and confirmations), women keep their headscarves or bonnets on in church, But it’s about formality as well as gender. My impression is that men and women alike take their baseball caps off when entering a church.

  19. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Women’s head-covering practice in churches ultimately comes from Paul, Corinthians 11:1-16, as interpreted by Tertullian, On the veiling of virgins. The actual social practice in first-century Corinth is notoriously obscure however.

Speak Your Mind