Under the Red Star – Army Caps

Fakes and Replicas

Fake Soviet caps are not a major problem as yet, due to the fact that collecting Soviet militaria is still in its infancy (compared to WWII German memorabilia, for example). Large stocks of original Soviet items are also still around for reasonable prices. It is simply not cost-effective to produce fakes of the vast majority of these items. This is not to say some do not exist, but they are rare.

When you look at a cap you suspect for some reason may be a fake, keep in mind that a very large number of factories and private makers produced uniform caps in the USSR. Enlisted troops and junior officers typically wore items manufactured at Government uniform factories that were either issued to the troops or sold at military uniform stores (Voentorg). However, many senior officers and all general officers bought higher-quality caps from special military tailor shops. These did not have the official acceptance and control stamps their poorer cousins “usually” did (many authentic caps are missing these stamps as well, due to sloppy factory practices). But even these higher-grade caps almost always had a leather (or leatherette) maker’s label sewn on the inside lining of the cap indicating the manufacturer and the size (and sometimes its year of manufacture). The numerous sources of manufacture resulted in some natural variance in the appearance of the caps – although adherence to uniform regulations seems to have been generally good. Most differences in authentic caps are limited to the type and position of markings and in the material used for the linings and sweatbands of the caps. More variation existed in Navy and MORFLOT caps than others.

“Legitimate” Reproductions

Prior to 1991, some reproductions were made of common Soviet uniforms for the movie industry (Soviet movies usually drew on stocks of real uniforms items stored just for that purpose); for reenactment, for military recognition training, and museums. These were usually rather crude items, especially in the finishing details (cheap fabric, no markings on the inside and poor standards of stitching, for example). However, some high quality reproductions have come out of Hong Kong (such as the Border Guard uniforms made for the movie “Red Dawn”; sorry, no cap to show) and more recently, some very well made WWII replicas for the movie “Stalingrad”.

Shown below are a couple caps used in a German movie in the 1980’s. The fabric was polyester rather than wool/cotton – only the cockades and buttons are authentic. The chinstraps were originally German as well. (I replaced one with gold Soviet cords)

Russian-made reproductions also exist of some older uniform items. These are manufactured primarily for in-country reenactments and parades (an ever-growing market). A large number of replica Budyenniy cloth helmets, Tsarist visor caps, and military overcoats (as well as some swords) have nevertheless been exported and offered for sale in the West. Most of the ones I have seen have been correctly identified as reproductions, but the potential for fraud is high.

UPDATE Recently a number of new replica caps have been appearing for sale. These all seem to come out of Ukraine and thus far all sellers I’ve dealt with have honestly stated them for what they are: “museum quality reproductions”. I have seen NKVD caps (pic coming), border guard, cavalry and others. Suffice to say – you are going to see these everywhere soon and they will pose a problem for the novice or average collector. All caps seem to replicate WWII or earlier era caps – square visor, small crown, red star cockade. Identifying features of all the replicas I’ve seen include leather visors (instead of fiberboard), a different style sweat band, later period red stars, and no internal production markings. The fabric and quality of construction is excellent – as good as the original. Buttons and chinstraps are usually real as well – just from modern stocks. If you see ANY Soviet visor caps with leather visors – take a good long look at them. Some later Generals’ caps and naval caps were made with them, but very few others were. I believe I have an “authentic” one in my Border Guard section – but it is well marked and the visor is of higher quality than these replicas. By all means buy them – but buy them as replicas to “hold a place” in your collection, not as originals. End of UPDATE

Non Regulation but Authentic

The armor officer’s parade cap shown here represents a non-regulation cap that was probably produced on consignment by a small tailor shop for an officer that wanted a more substantial cap than provided by the Voyentorg. It is quite well made, with regulation fabric, buttons, emblem & chinstrap. However, it is clearly custom made, using non-regulation visor and lining materials, a slightly non-regulation style, and no markings at all – even though it has a blank leather maker’s label sewn onto the inside top. Non-regulation examples such as this are comparatively rare except for the Navy and Merchant Marine (MORFLOT) – where they are more commonly found.

Targeting Collectors

Although the vast majority of reproductions were never designed to stand up to close inspection and pose little threat to the observant, there are a limited number of “high-end” reproductions out there specifically targeting the collector. Most of the best come out of Ukraine, cheaper ones can also come from Asia or are locally modified. I know of both General and Marshal of the Soviet Union (MSU) caps in this category. I have only seen pictures of these, so cannot comment in great detail as to the quality of their manufacture, but the following observations seem to hold true. First – fake “General’s” caps often have lower grade officer’s cockades (rather than the all-gold background authentic one). This is the first thing I look for when inspecting a general-officer cap! The quality of the gold wreath embroidery on the band is also often poor – done in gold silk or cotton thread (rather than metallic thread) and in an incorrect pattern. Clearly some of these fakes actually started out as normal officers’ caps with embroidery added locally. They often also do not have the proper buttons – which is another good (but not indisputable) way of detecting a falsified cap. A General or Marshal’s cap should have buttons with the Great Seal of the USSR on them, rather than the normal Red Star with hammer and sickle button. (BTW: the same holds true for Admiral and lesser Navy ranks – admiral’s have a unique button design, while all other ranks use a plain anchor on their buttons). Remember too: Generals’ and Admirals’ caps almost always have an upgraded interior, different than other ranks’ caps, usually with real leather sweatbands and silk lining material.

A MSU reproduction cap I saw offered for sale was in a higher class – befitting its higher rank, I suppose. Fortunately, the seller identified it as a reproduction, or it would have been difficult to tell from the picture alone. It was a 1945-type wave-green parade cap, with very elaborate embroidery on the red band and with a 1940’s style general’s cockade. Overall, it looked great! I would have bought it even identified as a repro myself, had the owner asked a bit less for it. The only indication of its “fake” status from the exterior view was that the wave-green fabric looked like polyester – rather than the wool blend it should have been. A little too close-weaved and shiny. The interior of the cap would have been the best place to look for “repro” indications, but that was not available to me. If anyone has additional information on this cap, let me know.

Despite these instances, the threat posed by fake General or Admiral caps remains rather low. There are enough authentic caps of this type out there to meet most of the demand. Most frauds are modifications of existing lesser rank caps, and thus a collector looking at the interior and embroidery can easily detect them. On the other hand, the threat from fake MSU caps is high. Authentic MSU caps are quite rare and expensive – running easily $300-700! A good reproduction might be costly to produce – lots of hand embroidery involved – but the high selling price could still result in a tidy profit for some East European or Asian tailor. These are also likely to have some care taken with the interior details – so be careful. Can’t help you out much more than that until I examine one personally.

Not a Fake, but not Soviet Made Either

Before we leave the topic of fakes entirely, we should also discuss the issue of post-1991 Russian (or Ukrainian or Belorus or – you get the idea) manufacture of Soviet-style items. This situation has some elements in common to the post WWII production of Nazi items in Austria. Are items fakes if they are assembled using the same materials, identical methods, and in the same factories as the “originals”, just because they were made “after-the-fact” (post 1991)? Many former Soviet military clothing factories and independent uniform tailors continued to produce their products after 1991. Shown here is the inside of an Army cap made in Kiev, Ukraine in the mid 90’s. Note the odd white sweatband and the clear plastic diamond holding a cloth manufacturer’s tag – neither of which were used on Soviet era military caps. Some of this continued production reflected the slow pace of national uniform reform. In fact, most uniform items and emblems used by the Soviet Army remained in use by the new Russian Army and other former Soviet republics for the first few years, and so continued to be manufactured. Although the Russian Army and its uniform manufacturers had pretty well transitioned to their own look by 1995, I believe a few tailor shops and small factories continue to produce small numbers of high-demand Soviet collector items (such as General/Admiral pieces). Since many of these items are not date-marked (correctly, I might add), their post-cold war manufacture is impossible to determine. However, it is hard to imagine this practice continuing much longer (if indeed it still exists), since the potential collector base is quite small and no-one needs more than one of each type!

Real but wrong!

I believe the greatest problem facing a novice cap collector comes not the few caps produced from scratch as fakes, but authentic caps improperly “badged up”. I would guess that 25-50% of all caps offered for sale have wrong emblems or cords attached. These usually reflect the seller or some middleman trying to make the cap more attractive to prospective buyers. The more gold bits attached the better, right? The old joke about men being attracted to shiny things is dangerously close to the mark here. Fortunately, most of these errors are correctable by simply unpinning the wrong emblem and replacing it with the correct one (simple if you have it!), or swapping out the chin strap/cords. But watch out for anything pinned to the crown of the cap or the sides of the band. Unless you know that type cap should have an emblem there (Air Force or Railroad wings for example) – don’t buy it. A hole in the crown cannot be easily repaired and will be apparent as a flaw to most anyone viewing it.

Be especially suspicious of “Marshal’s” caps. “Simple” Marshals’ and Chief Marshals’ caps were identical to Generals’ caps. Only Marshals of the Soviet Union (MSU) wore the even more lavishly embroidered caps one thinks of when you hear “Marshal”. Ninety percent or more of caps advertised as “Marshal” are actually standard General’s caps. In most cases, the seller himself is just ignorant of the difference, but make sure you know what you’re getting for your money. A MSU’s cap, as I said above, is worth much more than a General’s. MSUs had a unique pattern of embroidered leaves on the band, visor and chin strap. Just having a lot of embroidery doesn’t make it a Marshal’s hat.

Even when purchasing a General’s cap advertised correctly, make sure it is complete. The greatest threat comes from having the wrong cockade attached. A General’s/Marshal’s cockade has an unpainted gold-colored metal background behind the red star – not the white enamel one used on cockades for colonels and below. Real generals’ cockades are somewhat difficult to buy separately, so make sure the cap has the right one before buying it (or if you do buy it, pay less for an “incomplete” cap). Again, the seller may not know the cap has the incorrect cockade or he/she may just be counting on your ignorance to pull a fast one. This “a sucker is born every minute” attitude is certainly not limited to sellers here in the US. In 1990, when I visited the Red Army Uniform Museum outside Moscow, I was offered a General’s Papakha (red-topped winter wool hat) for $75 by the director of the museum. I accepted (good deal at the time!), but noticed it had a regular officer’s cockade attached and protested that fact. The director tried to bluff his way by insisting it was the correct badge, but when I asked my translator (an Army colonel from the Military History Institute) if I was correct, the colonel smiled and told the director to get me the correct badge – which he proceeded to take off one of his display uniforms and replace with the incorrect one!