How Turgenev, Bunin, Tolstoy and other writers forged their images

Leo Tolstoy in his youth, maturity, old age.

Leo Tolstoy in his youth, maturity, old age.

We can recognize them at first sight. It appears that not only the compositions of Russia’s great writers, but also their remarkable appearances were the result of a creative process. Here are some of the most dramatic metamorphoses in Russian literary history.

Nikolai Gogol

Russian writer Nikolay Gogol. Source: TASS

Having come from a small provincial town near Poltava (today’s Ukraine) to cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, at first Gogol tried to follow fashion trends: he had a short haircut, a stiff collar and made a lot of efforts to tie his necktie in the right way. However, he did not have enough money to radically transform his appearance. According to his contemporaries, his suit represented a contrast of dandyism and slovenliness.

On the top of his head, Gogol had a tuft of hair, but the writer did not like it so he grew long curls. To crown it all, he grew a mustache to hide his nose, which Gogol was also embarrassed of.

Ivan Turgenev

Russian writer Ivan Turgenev. Source: TASS

As the son of a rich land-owning family, he dressed and groomed his face much like other young people of his milieu while a student at Moscow University. After he graduated, Turgenev spent a lot of time abroad, he achieved literary fame and his reputation started to develop. In the 1840s Turgenev began growing his hair and a small beard. That change as well as his height and a majestic build made him look more and more like a Russian aristocrat, which was further enhanced by his writings.

Moreover, his beard let him hide his weak chin. As time went by, his famous bushy hair acquired a noble grey color and the image of a “Russian-European” was born once and for all.

Leo Tolstoy

Yasnaya Polyana mansion. Writer Leo Tolstoy. Source: TASS

As an artillery officer in the military he followed official orders concerning facial hair. A clean-cut hairstyle and a well-shaven face are standard in the army now, but the appearance of an officer in the Russian Empire was even more regulated.

Nevertheless, as soon as he resigned he began growing out his beard, which has become one of the most recognizable ones in Russian culture. Moreover, growing your beard out to such a length at that time was perceived as a sign of rebellion against government dictates. Tolstoy also changed his wardrobe from the aristocratic attire of a count to simple peasant clothes, which was quite shocking during the epoch in which he lived.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Source: TASS

As a Nikolayev Military Engineering Institute graduate who was promoted to the rank of a junior officer Dostoyevsky also obeyed an order about shaving. After being arrested for involvement in the Petrashevsky Circle (an underground socialist group) he was condemned to penal servitude. According to his sentence in Siberia he had to serve as a soldier and then as a non-commissioned officer and had to have his hair length measured with a ruler.

After Dostoyevsky received a pardon and came back to the European part of Russia, he took on the look for which he became famous. His hair, which he often applied pomade and carefully smoothed according to the fashion of the time was “whitish, extremely thin and starting to disappear from his front.” Just like many other balding men he decided to balance this loss with a beard. 

The writer dressed with care and was very disappointed that his beard began to thin out, which his nieces kept teasing him about. The beard didn’t make him into a nobleman or a peasant, but gave him almost evangelic features that depicted suffering, which went well together with the general mood of his works. Dostoyevsky also had different eye colors at one time – having injured one eye during an epileptic seizure, he treated it with atropine, which made one eye black while the other one stayed brown. 

Ivan Bunin

The first Russian writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature Ivan Bunin. Source: TASS

Before the revolution of 1917, the noble and snobbish Ivan Bunin had managed to get into the literary circles of the Silver Age, was awarded two Pushkin Prizes and achieved the status of honorary academician. Women loved him and he loved them back. In photographs from those years he looks like a fop with his imperial beard, dandified moustache and elegant suit.

The 1920s became a critical time not only for Russia but also for other countries that had been involved in World War I. The Belle Epoque, a time of languishing ladies in corsets and elegant cavaliers with imperial beards, had ended. The Roaring Twenties began and it became fashionable for men to shave their faces often. The émigré writer stayed abroad and yielded to the general trends, which worked to his advantage. Old-fashioned facial hair had hidden his regular features, but once he shaved we see a strong man’s face, which corresponds to his prose.

First published in Russian in

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