In 1698, Peter the Great introduced a beard tax across all of Imperial Russia. The news wasn’t taken particularly kindly; the beard at the time was a symbol of religious piety, integrity, maturity and, above all, manliness. This was done as part of a set of reforms to modernise Russian society or, more accurately, to westernise Russian society. All men who were not priests or peasants were required to pay 100 roubles a year or remain clean shaven. Even today, although the tax itself was lifted in 1772, it is actually quite rare to see a Russian man with a beard outside of the clergy.
(Photo Translation: 'Tax Paid')
This is partly related to men in the Soviet Union being expected to appear in public as respectable upstanding members of the community. If he were to wear an- ushanka, for example, letting the ear flaps hang loose was stigmatised and men were also expected to be clean-shaven if they were to deal in business. After the Second World War, Soviet Russians were exposed to more western culture than ever before. The soldiers then returned to the USSR and the style was appropriated by teenagers giving rise to the stilyagi, an imitation of the teenagers in 1950s America. In stark contrast to the rest of Soviet society, they wore loud ostentatious clothing: a bright yellow cheap suit and hair slicked back with hair gel.
For the first time, teens were able to express themselves purely through a choice in clothing. Inevitably, attempts were made to stamp out this somewhat metrosexual trend, or otherwise control it by producing a state approved alternative: Soviet jazz, Soviet rock ’n’ roll and others. Today, Russian men have changed again and a division exists between the stronger, bearded, that is to say ‘traditionally masculine men’, of the villages and small towns and the typically thinner, clean-shaven men of the city.
It’s clear that the concept of masculinity is fluid, the perception of it, however, can actually be surprisingly fragile. A prime example was when Conchita Wurst won Eurovision two years ago, many were outraged. They compared her to Arnold Schwarzenegger, claiming that:
"there are no real men left in Austria."
Many even shaved off their beards in ironic mimicry of Tsarist Russia: this time to oppose Europe rather than emulate its fashion. The older generation think back to the heroes of the Great Patriotic War with admiration, completely ignoring that women also fought in the war. Gender roles are set and, in their minds, the man goes to war. With such rigid views on what a family looks like, there’s simply no room for anything else. Homosexuality is rejected by many and Conchita and her ilk are seen as threats to society. From a Russian point of view, she is neither man or woman and there is simply no room. For you see, in Russia, although masculinity might be flexible, gender roles are exceptionally rigid.
(Photo Translation: 'The day before yesterday was the last day when a beard made you more masculine.')
Author: Sam - British - Student of Russian and German