The Officer-Soldier Greatcoat in the War of 1853-1856.


By Ye. G. Gvozdikov.[1]



(“Ofitsero-soldatskaya shinel’ v voinu 1853-1856 gg.” Russkaya Starina, Vol. 84, 1895. No. 2, pages 68-70.)


At the height of the Crimean War, when the bombardment of Sevastopol by the enemy allied powers never ceased day or night, our military officers were sharply distinguishable from lower ranks by their shiny epaulettes and it was obvious that they were targets for the foe’s deliberately aimed shooting.


The reigning monarch at the time, Emperor Nicholas Pavlovich, had a worthy idea: allow all military ranks, whether serving in combat units at the front or not, to wear, besides their usual uniform greatcoats, soldiers’ greatcoats [soldatskie shineli] of thick gray cloth, worn over the tailcoat with arms in the sleeves.


To this end, the commander of the Model Cavalry Regiment [Obraztsovyi kavaleriiskii polk], General Kurdyumov,[2] was ordered to have sewn for two officers, as a model, government issue greatcoats of the pattern for soldiers, and present these officers in the greatcoats for a Highest inspection at the Winter Palace.


The fortunate persons to be selected were Staff-Captain Pustoshkin of His Imperial Highness Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich’s Tver Dragoon Regiment[3] and myself[4], writing these memoirs.


On the prescribed day at the appointed hour (this was in January of 1855[5]), Pustoshkin and I, led by our regimental commander General Kurdyumov, rode the Tsarskoe-Selo railway from Pavlovsk to St. Petersburg and went straight to the Winter Palace. We were conducted up the parade staircase to a billiards room where we were to wait to be received by the emperor.


After a few minutes, the heir and tsesarevich Alexander Nikolaevich entered the billiards room accompanied by his suite. Approaching us, His Highness with his characteristic friendliness said, “The sovereign emperor regrets that he is unable due to illness to see you gentlemen. His Majesty entrusted me to receive you and inspect the new greatcoats—how suitable they would be in wartime and whether they might save officers from enemy bullets in the present war.”


While examining the greatcoats, His Highness asked us if the epaulettes under the greatcoat (even with arms in the sleeves) were not too heavy a burden on the shoulders. With complete candor, we answered that due to the narrowness of the greatcoat on the shoulders, the epaulettes actually did press on us somewhat.


“Very well, gentlemen! I will relay this to the sovereign!”


Then His Highness asked several questions of General Kurdyumov, gracefully thanked all of us, and left the billiards room accompanied as before.


That same day there followed a Highest Order for the removal of epaulettes and their replacement with shoulder straps of galloon, and allowing all military generals and field and company-grade officers to wear a soldier’s greatcoat over the tailcoat.


Emperor Nicholas Pavlovich liked this greatcoat so much that he constantly wore it while strolling around St. Petersburg[6] and, as is well known, died while covered by one.


Regarding this greatcoat I will relate an amusing incident that happened to me that day.


After our reception by the heir to the throne, I took advantage of the good weather and returned from the Winter Palace on foot. Over the soldier’s greatcoat I had draped over my shoulders a raccoon fur coat and on my head—a lancer cap with cords and an officer’s pompon. And since it had been warm in the palace I had loosened my saber so that it now dangled on the ground and I walked with open skirts. A police soldier standing on the corner of Voznesensky Prospect and Bolshaya Sadovaya Street looked at me with unbelieving eyes and said with a smile, “Eeesh, what a fashion model! Looks like he rented a lord’s fur coat, rattles an officer’s saber, and thinks he’s a ‘eneral!… If you please, another soldier will well doff his forage cap in front of him and stand to ‘tenshun!”[7]


“And thee, dear fellow, really you aren’t going to salute me?” I asked the policeman.


“You’re joking, brother! Get along! In Piter we’ve seen many such fashion dandies of your ilk. Go on your way, wherever it takes you. I’ve been generous enough today.”


At the time, not everyone knew yet about the new soldier’s greatcoat for officers, and for that reason I did not wish to disillusion the overseer of public order or enter into further conversation with him.


Upon Emperor Alexander Nikolaevich’s ascension to the throne, epaulettes were reintroduced into the army as before, and the officer-soldier greatcoat with its standing collar and narrow folds at the back was replaced by the current paletot which was later also given to all lower ranks in place of the previous unsuitable and overly confining soldier’s greatcoat—although, on the other hand, the young soldiers looked very fine fellows in them and had a smarter appearance overall.



Translated by Mark Conrad, 2004.

[1] Yefim Grigor’evich Gvozdikov. On 7 March 1855, he would be transferred to the irregular Bashkir cavalry regiments and serve with them for a number of years. – M.C.

[2] Petr Antonovich Kurdyumov, commissioned in 1821 and commander of the Model Cavalry Regiment for some years. He was later a lieutenant general commanding the 7th Cavalry Division. – M.C.

[3] Actually, the Tver Dragoons stopped carrying the title of “Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich’s” when he died in 1849. At that point Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich became chef of the regiment. – M.C.

[4] As a cavalry staff-captain, in 1853 I arrived at the Model Cavalry Regiment from Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Catherine Mikhailovna’s Yelisavetgrad Lancer Regiment. - Ye.G.

[5] The translator strongly suspects that the events described took place earlier, sometime in 1854. This must be so to match the War Minister order of 29 April 1854 authorizing lower ranks’ greatcoats to be worn by officers during wartime. Also, Nicholas I died on 18 February 1855 (Old Style) and if Gvozdikov’s story actually took place in January of 1855, then his description further on of the emperor habitually walking about St. Petersburg would hardly make sense. – M.C.

[6] At the time there were displayed for sale in the shops on Nevsky Prospect life-size plaster busts of Nicholas I in a soldier’s greatcoat. I still have one of these. – Ye.G.

[7] During the reign of Nicholas I all lower ranks, not excluding junkers and cadets, upon meeting a general officer had to take off their caps at 16 paces distance and not come closer then 8 paces without standing to attention. – Ye.G.