English speakers usually call an ushanka a shapka. Shapka is the Russian word for hat, and the ushanka is a type of man’s hat made from fur or wool that has earflaps, used in some of the coldest climates in the world. It is particularly well known as the hats worn by Soviet soldiers, but evidence suggests that it was originally a design of the Mongols. During battles with Mongolia in the Middle Ages, many believe that Russian troops adopted the design.
The ushanka is circular and cylindrical in shape and is worn above the ears, so the brim of the hat would cover the head in front to about mid-forehead. In very cold weather, you can fold down the earflaps of the hat and secure the hat under the chin with a tie. When people don’t want to wear the earflaps, they can conveniently tie them above the hat.
A hat from the Middle Ages would probably have been made with any available fur, including possibly wolf, bear, and fox. The typical ushanka worn by members of the Soviet Union armed forces or the police was grey and had a red star in the center. Use of this hat certainly predates the founding of the Soviet Union, and police and military officers in Russia definitely wore them prior. It would have been absent the red star taken as a symbol by the Communist Party.
The police and military did not exclusively wear the ushanka. In fact most Russian men wore them. The hat is also not exclusive to Russians — many people in Eastern European countries wear one. It’s not uncommon to see people wearing this style in parts of the US, especially in areas where Eastern European immigrants are concentrated. The Polish Army also makes the ushanka part of its military uniform. People who are drafted wear either brown or black hats, and enlistees tend to wear grey.
In modern Russia, certain traditions are linked to the ushanka. Wearing the earflaps down may be considered unmanly. Yet in cold weather, or for work that requires being out in the cold, the earflaps can be quite helpful. Russian sanitary workers often wear the earflaps down while collecting garbage. The modern ushanka may also be worn by women, simply because it is a useful hat during cold weather.
Today it can be difficult to find shops in the US that offer any other than vintage ushankas, often with the Soviet badge. On sites like eBay, and in several British Internet stores, one can find new hats for sale, and it may be possible to score a vintage one online. Inexpensive new faux fur ushankas are usually relatively inexpensive.