December 01, 2019

The Best (and Worst) Facial Hair in Russian History

The Best (and Worst) Facial Hair in Russian History
Unfortunately, beards haven't always been so in-style. Public Domain

If you're anything like us, you might have let your whiskers grow free and wild as the entirety of our life has moved online. There's less pressure than ever to keep your stubble trimmed. In celebration of and solidarity with our quarantined, bearded brothers, here are our picks for the best and worst beards in the last 1200 years of Russian history.

Because Buzzfeed-style listicles are the kind of high-quality content you've come to expect from Russian Life.

Note: dates in parentheses are the birth and death of the person, not the beard.

The Best

5. Rurik (830ish-879)

An engraving image of Rurik
The beard, pelt, and spiked mace complement each other and we won't let anyone tell us otherwise. | Teutonic Myth and Legend by Donald A. Mackenzie, London, Gresham Publications 1912. Wikimedia Commons

Not much is known about the founder of the Russian state; both his life and his beard are shrouded in mystery. A Norse traveler-warlord who established a line of royalty that would rule the Russian lands until the 17th century, Rurik's entrance to Novgorod in 863 marked the start of Russian history as we know it.

But we just know he sported an epic, grade-A Viking beard, so he easily makes the top five. It completes the whole fur-wearing, battle-axe-toting, skull-crushing look. He'd be rated higher if Russian historians knew more about him, or if we had an accurate representation of him.

4. Tsar Alexander III (1845-1894)

A portrait of Alexander III
Your friendly neighborhood tsar. | Portrait by Nikolay Shilder, Public Domain

This lesser-known Victorian-era tsar was known as "the Peacemaker" for his diplomatic prowess among European powers. Despite his conservatism in other areas, one thing we can all agree on is that his beard is impressive. Points deducted, however, for his balding head, which detracts from the overall aesthetic.

3. Leon Trotsky (1879-1940)

a portrait of Trotsky
He had to be one of our "picks" (pun intended). Think his stare looks "icy" (another pun intended)? | Журнал «Прожектор» №1 (23) 15 января 1924 года, Wikimedia Commons

It's always good to run an uprising in style, and this leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution proves it. Like Rurik, Trotsky's goatee is more about the ensemble: the glasses, hair, and neat communist-style jacket that communicate erudition and charisma. They all go together equally well in the snows of St. Petersburg and the sun of Mexico City.

2. Stalin (1878-1953)

portrait of Stalin
Fun fact: this photo used to have two of Stalin's colleagues in it. Photoshop has been around longer than you'd think. | Unknown author, Public Domain

Can you nationalize facial hair? We don't know, but communists grow good mustaches, apparently.

Stalin was destined to be on this list. Among twentieth-century facial hair aficionados, there's only one guy whose 'stache is more iconic (in a bad way). Unfortunately, Joseph Stalin was also destined to commit terrible political repressions and state terror, and of course this.


1. Nicholas II (1868-1917)

Portrait of Nicholas II
Tsar of Russia, Tsar of Beards, Tsar of our Hearts | Portrait by Boris Kustodiev, Public Domain

As you can tell by the list, the turn of the century was a golden age for Russian facial hair. But the last tsar's hirsute mug takes the cake.

Nicholas II has a lot going for him here: the long mustache, full growth, and the way it pairs well with his face. For a ruler often remembered as timid, detached, and uncompromising, Nicholas II's beard is surprisingly bold, like a decision to establish a legislative body in an autocratic state. Any of us would be happy to sport something so impressive.


The Worst

Alexander II (1818-1881)

Alexander II, portrai
Strange to think that this look was once all the rage. | National Archives of Canada, Public Domain

This might be a controversial take, given the impressive mutton chops that Alexander II's got. Plus, he's one of the best-remembered tsars, called "the Liberator" thanks to his freeing of the serfs in 1861.

His low ranking, however, is due to the coarse texture (see above photo and compare it to the smoothness of Nicholas II's), weird extra mustache hair (again, compare to Nicholas II), and resemblance to US Civil War General Ambrose Burnside (whose name, you guessed it, carried over to sideburns). All these extremely objective measurements doom Alexander II to the fifth-worst spot.

4. Peter I (1672-1725)

Great emperor, bad facial hair. | 
Portrait by Carel de Moor, Public Domain

Peter the Great was one of the better tsars, don't get us wrong. The great modernizer, father of the Russian navy, and founder of the Russian empire. But his 'stache looks like the first attempt of a 15-year-old, not the well-earned facial embellishment of a virile, manly emperor.

Sorry, buddy. Stick to fountains.

3. Lenin (1870-1924)

Yearbook photo, Class of 1917. "Most Likely to Ruin the Tsar's Day." | Wilhelm Plier, Public Domain

Not all communist leaders sport the impressive beards of 1917 bad boys Trotsky and Stalin. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin misses the mark.

Despite a similar goatee-mustache combo a la Trotsky, it just doesn't work here. Maybe it's the lack of glasses, the facial shape, or the necktie. For whatever reason, Lenin's beard just doesn't stack up.

At least you can say it's timeless: he's still sporting it today for the world to see. It's the only beard on this list that we have actually seen IRL.

2. Ivan IV (1530-1584)

A portrait of Ivan IV
You can never get him to smile. | Portrait by Klavdiy Lebedev, Public Domain

Some call him "Ivan the Terrible," but his beard is the real affront.

As great as Russia's last tsar was in the beard game, that's how bad Russia's first tsar is (he's also one of the last of the line of Rurik). Raggedy, unkempt, disheveled. If nothing else, it goes with the "tormented soul" aesthetic that Ivan is known for.

1. Rasputin (1869-1916)

Back then, this was the kind of guy you'd want hanging around your hemophiliac kid. | Universal Images Group / Getty Images

No list of beards would be complete without mention of famous mystic, monk, and Russia's greatest love machine Grigory Rasputin.

Long, unkept, and coarse-looking, Rasputin's beard is the stuff of legend (much like other parts of his body). We doubt that he ever did a No-Shave November in his life.

Imagine this: every day, Rasputin got out of bed, looked in the mirror, and said, "Yep, looks good to me. Time to seduce some noblewomen."

It's also one of the only historically accurate things in the animated 1997 Anastasia film:

Rasputin from the 1997 film, Anastasia
Beady eyes? Check. Weird hair? Check. Grody beard? Double-check. | 20th Century Fox


Tags: humorhistory
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
At the Circus (bilingual)

At the Circus (bilingual)

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

Life Stories: Original Fiction By Russian Authors

The Life Stories collection is a nice introduction to contemporary Russian fiction: many of the 19 authors featured here have won major Russian literary prizes and/or become bestsellers. These are life-affirming stories of love, family, hope, rebirth, mystery and imagination, masterfully translated by some of the best Russian-English translators working today. The selections reassert the power of Russian literature to affect readers of all cultures in profound and lasting ways. Best of all, 100% of the profits from the sale of this book are going to benefit Russian hospice—not-for-profit care for fellow human beings who are nearing the end of their own life stories.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
93 Untranslatable Russian Words

93 Untranslatable Russian Words

Every language has concepts, ideas, words and idioms that are nearly impossible to translate into another language. This book looks at nearly 100 such Russian words and offers paths to their understanding and translation by way of examples from literature and everyday life. Difficult to translate words and concepts are introduced with dictionary definitions, then elucidated with citations from literature, speech and prose, helping the student of Russian comprehend the word/concept in context.
Driving Down Russia's Spine

Driving Down Russia's Spine

The story of the epic Spine of Russia trip, intertwining fascinating subject profiles with digressions into historical and cultural themes relevant to understanding modern Russia. 

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602