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The Greatest Russian Beards

Austrian singer Conchita Wurst personifies what Russia hates about Europe -- except for the beard.
Austrian singer Conchita Wurst personifies what Russia hates about Europe -- except for the beard.
BuzzFeed has reported about Russians shaving their facial hair to protest bearded Austrian singer Conchita Wurst's Eurovision win.

Now, gay activists are fighting back, officially applying for permission to hold "the Conchita Wurst March of Bearded Women And Men" in Moscow. The activists plan the march on May 27, the 21st anniversary of the decriminalization of homosexual relations in Russia.

Beards have always been political in Russia. In the late 17th century, Peter the Great ordered his courtiers to shave and introduced a tax on beards, as part of his efforts to modernize Russia. It didn't go down particularly well, with much popular outcry.

But rather than being an example of the effete and decadent West (we have, after all, reached peak beard), the beard has had a long, proud tradition throughout Russian history, seen as a sign of masculinity and Orthodox piety.

Before Peter the Great, men could be fined for damaging another man's beard and "people judged a Russian man’s power and strength based on the thickness and tidiness of his beard. There was no worse insult than spitting in the beard."

In this handy infographic here on the evolution of the Russian beard, the author says that under Peter the Great "shaving off beards went counter to the traditional Orthodox understanding of masculine beauty and an image worthy of a man."

After the "puffy wigs" and "side whiskers" phase, Soviet communism's approach to facial hair was more austere. As this blogger points out:
Just when you thought the bare-chin cultural hegemony would never be challenged, along came Pushkin with his wild sideburns. The subsequent flowering of beards peaked in the age of Great Reforms, "the greatest of which was the liberation from serfdom of bearded ploughmen." Then the pendulum swung back again, ushering in a beardless Bolshevik regime and a new model of historical progress: "from Marx’s beard to Stalin’s mustache, and further to Khrushchev’s smooth pumpkin-like head," which appeared on the horizon as the apotheosis of Peter’s dream of total facial hairlessness.

Or less generously:
Then, the soviets came at power. Lenin didn’t wear beard, but a goatee and a moustache. After him, comes a mustached Stalin, and then a bald Krushchev, a shaggy Brezhnev, two toxic old men, Andropov and Chernenko, and then, a Gorbachev with a forehead burned by the sun. Not to mention the last three presidents: not a single hair thread see on their chin or under their nose.

Anyway, here is a little reminder of the sheer greatness of Russian beards (in reverse order of greatness):

6. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

According to his son, his beard helped create his image as a "embittered, angry prophet."

5. Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov

A nuclear physicist, he was known as the father of the Soviet atomic bomb. He was also dubbed "the beard" after he said he would not shave his beard until the program succeeded.

4. Fyodor Dostoevsky

"Whereas Dostoevsky’s beard is at once wispy and gregarious, his drooping moustache is resolute."

3. Leo Tolstoy

A beard described by the "Daily Telegraph" as "as long as War and Peace."

2. Vladimir Lenin

Modern, sculptured, a break from the past. A beard that promised a brighter future. And here's Lenin without a beard.

1. Rasputin

"There lived a certain man in Russia long ago
He was big and strong, in his eyes a flaming glow
Most people looked at him with terror and with fear
But to Moscow chicks he was such a lovely dear."

-- Luke Allnutt

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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