A Fancy Hat by Irena Pasvinter

In 1950s Soviet Russia, Vera wonders if her hero-worship of Joseph Stalin might be misplaced; by Irena Pasvinter.

On the night of March 6th, 1953, Vera did not sleep.

Paralyzed, she sat near the radio, listening to the gloomy music, waiting for official announcements. Every hour the same medical bulletin on Comrade Stalin's condition emerged from the black speaker. A grave voice reported ominous details: serious collapse, cardiovascular disturbances, pulse, temperature, blood pressure. For Vera it was not just frightful medical jargon - a physician herself, she could see through the medical reports, even though she did not dare to admit it: Comrade Stalin was going to die.

It came at four in the morning, the final announcement. When Vera heard "with profound sorrow," she knew it was the end. Fatal phrases flew from the radio in a somber terrifying stream: "died after a grave illness. The heart of Lenin's comrade-in-arms and the inspired continuer of Lenin's cause, the wise leader and teacher of the Communist Party and the Soviet people, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, has stopped beating."

Vera wept, hugging her daughter Emma, who too spent this dreadful night glued to the radio. Vera's husband Stepan groaned in his bed and turned on the other side.

After a while Vera pulled herself together and extracted a black silky band out of the cupboard. A framed photo of Comrade Stalin hung on the wall above Stepan's writing table. Vera arranged the black band on the portrait, still sobbing.

The first tentative rays of dawn crept into the room through the drawn curtains. Vera glanced at Stepan who was breathing hoarsely and shifting in his bed, trying to shake off the chronic pain. Giving up on attempts to sleep, Stepan opened his eyes and beckoned Vera to come closer. She bent over the bed, wiping her red watery eyes. Stepan whispered in her ear so that nobody else could hear him, "Don't cry. We should rejoice instead of crying."

Shocked, Vera twitched away from Stepan, wondering if she wasn't dreaming. His eyes insisted: "Yes, you heard me right."

Rejoice? How could he even think about this, let alone put the unthinkable into words? Rejoice when the ground is disappearing from under your feet? And yet Stepan was a clever man, a man who had seen a lot, more than he had ever bargained for. Vera could guess what he meant, in spite of herself.

The whispers, the rumors, the fear of black cars swooshing through the night, of knocking on the doors in small hours. But surely, the tragic fates of all those who disappeared without a trace were just a terrible misunderstanding or maybe even an intentional evil-doing perpetrated by local officials; it had nothing to do with the wise Father of Nations, the all knowing Comrade Stalin!

Rejoice, on a black day like this? Who knows what could happen now, when He was gone - another war, hunger... Unwelcome images rushed through Vera's mind: evacuation, trains, bombings, and then the terrible silence at the village post office, everybody turning their eyes away as she took this cursed brown envelope marked by the army stamp - her husband, the father of her daughter, will never come back. Enough, she must shut off these memories now.

Stepan turned away again, closing his eyes in a last futile attempt to sleep. Vera washed her face with cold water and looked into the mirror: still a teary mess. The unspeakable words rang in her ears: "Don't cry, we should rejoice instead." Madness.

Of course, there was something else Stepan had in mind. For a while now this menacing dark shadow was hanging above them: the Doctor's Plot. Newspapers teemed with revealing stories about "Jewish bourgeois-nationalist plotters" who conspired to poison the Father of Nations and about myriads of lesser Jewish betrayers and rootless cosmopolitans. People got fired, arrested, prosecuted.

Stepan scanned through the newspapers with a stiffened impenetrable face, but when Emma, his stepdaughter, became sixteen and had to apply for a passport, Stepan went with her. Emma's birth certificate had only her parents' names, no nationalities.

"Nationality?" the clerk asked.

"Russian," Stepan said. The clerk looked up at him and asked no further questions.

At least her daughter would be out of this danger. So far Vera was lucky, but being both Jewish and a doctor was not the best combination these days. And just recently Stepan told her about empty trains stashed on the outskirts of the railway station. According to whispers in the high quarters, the trains were part of the preparation for the transfer of all Jews towards their new habitat in the Jewish Autonomy in the Far East. When Vera asked Stepan if he would go with her, he did not reply. He was not the one who lied easily.

Of course, this nightmare wasn't Comrade Stalin's fault. Or was it? No, she must get rid of these insane thoughts.

It was morning now. They ate breakfast in silence. Stepan went to his job, wearing a black shirt, an equally black suit and a grim stony face, appropriate for the tragic day. Emma left for school and Vera hurried to the hospital.

She was not the only one puffy-eyed and swollen-nosed among doctors and nurses. They greeted each other in low voices, brushing tears away. Vera pulled out some of her patients' medical histories, trying to concentrate. The gloomy mood of mourning filled the room.

Nevertheless, when their watery eyes cleared up a bit, the female doctors could not completely ignore a fancy new hat hanging on a rack in the corner.

"What a lovely hat! Oh, is it yours? Charming! May I try it?"

A small queue formed near the wall mirror, and exclamations of delight sprinkled by poorly hidden envy accompanied trying on the adorable hat.

The phone rang. Vera answered.

"Special Department speaking," said an angry voice. "What are you doing there on a day like this? Stop this immediately."

White-faced, Vera lowered the phone.

"What is it?" somebody asked.

"Special Department asks what we are doing on a day like this."

The room went silent. Nobody wanted to try on the fancy hat anymore.

Many years later, in the 1990s, when Gorbachev popped up on the scene and the unspeakable was spoken once again, Vera's arrogant granddaughter asked her, "Did you really believe everything Stalin said? And why are you always so afraid of everything, Grandma? We are not in 1937, you know."

Then Vera told her naive granddaughter the story about the day the Father of Nations died and the fancy hat. And her granddaughter fell quiet.


  1. An interesting and skillful distillation of the confusions and horrors experienced by people who lived under Stalin's governance. To this day, in many countries, including the UK, the propaganda machines of the state and big business distort our understanding and structure our beliefs and prejudices via misinformation. This story speaks of the past and relates to the present day. Many thanks,

  2. this is a really fine story with credible characters and beautifully detailed scenes, conveying a real sense of helplessness, the names may change but the game remains the same.

    Mike McC

  3. Power abuse, repression, the science of envy...My goodness its tempting to start on about them instead of commenting on the writing...But hold on, if that's how I feel then the writing's done it's job!
    B r o o k e

  4. I'm always intrigued by this particular culture at this time. Great story