Saturday 22 November 2014

The Strange Story of Monty, the Papakha and the Bekesha (1947)

Last week I picked up a copy of 'The Last Six Months' by General S.M. Shtemenko in a local charity shop. The author was Deputy Chief of General Headquarters reporting to Stalin on a daily basis through the final six months of the second World War. The book is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the Soviet view of this critical period. It is also full of interesting anecdotes including the visit of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery to Moscow in January, 1947. I will quote the story of Monty's bekesha and papakha in Shtemenko's own words.

Field Marshall Montgomery with Gen. Shtemenko

But first an explanation of what a bekesha and a papkha are. A bekesha is a squirrel skin winter coat much favoured by Soviet era military officers. The papakha is a Caucasian fur cap made of grey Astrakhan. Astrakhan is the fleece of a newly born lamb. When Monty visited the Soviet High Command in 1947 these were the gifts chosen for him. The picture above shows Montgomery departing Moscow after the trip. Shtemenko is to the right of Monty.

"Montgomery was very pleased with the gifts. He looked them over at length and asked whether the squirrel skin was genuine and how much the fur had cost. No one could tell him the price, so I had to go to the telephone to find out. Then Montgomery decided to to try on the bekesha and the papakha .... the bekesha was too long. The so called reliable data we had used was sharply at odds with reality. The British Field Marshall, not being distinguished by a hero's frame, simply swam in the bekesha. Vasilevsky said soothingly, "we can fix that. By tomorrow morning the bekesha will be delivered to you properly taylored". But this wasn't enough for the Field Marshall. He wanted the bekesha shortened right there and then, while he waited. The rest of us exchanged puzzled glances .... I went out and returned forty minutes later with a tailor. Measurements were taken, and in the reception room of the General Staff, the tailor set down to work with his sewing machine. Meanwhile, the time allocated for the official part of the visit had elapsed."

Monty with M Koniev. Hugh Lunghi stands between them.

Shtemenko goes on to recall "On the eve of Montgomery's departure, Stalin gave a dinner in the Field Marshall's honour. Some twenty persons were invited .... when Montgomery arrived, the door opened, and he entered the reception room, wearing his bekesha and papakha. "What's the matter? we asked rushing to meet his escort. "Why didn't you take off his coat and hat in the cloak room?" "He categorically refused" was the answer. Montgomery noticing our puzzlement said "I want Generalissimo Stalin to see me in Russian uniform". At that moment Stalin entered. Montgomery explained what was going on. Stalin laughed and had himself photographed with Monty (as the British call him)". 

You never know what you are going to find on the shelves of a charity shop. This dusty old book is a real treasure.