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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The ironclad rule of Russian politics? Every other leader goes bald

Illustration for article titled The ironclad rule of Russian politics? Every other leader goes bald
Photo: Peter Muhly-WPA Pool (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Bald-hairy

What it’s about: An odd quirk of Russian history, in which every other leader of the country, going back to 1825, has been bald, and the alternating leaders have had full heads of hair. What does it mean? Almost certainly nothing, but it’s been a running joke in Russian politics for ages.


Biggest controversy: One of the bald leaders doesn’t seem to be bald. Georgy Lvov, the first prime minister of the provisional government formed after the overthrow of hairy Nicholas II, is shown here with a full head of hair. An offsite image search shows evidence of a much older, balder Lvov, but almost certainly from later in life, well after he left office. While Lvov was elected by the Duma to lead the provisional government in March of 1917, by July, his support flagging, he resigned. Alexander Kerensky, Lvov’s (hairy) minister of war, took over, but barely three months later, the October Revolution overthrew Kerensky and replaced him with Lenin.

Strangest fact: Before bald-hairy, there was a different pattern: man-woman. From 1682 to 1801, Russia alternated between tsars and tsarinas—Peter I The Great, Catherine I, Peter II, Anna, Ivan VI, Elizabeth, Peter III, Catherine II The Great, Paul. Paul banned women from taking the throne, so the pattern stopped with him, and Russia hasn’t had a female ruler since.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Bald-hairy even holds up on technicalities. Besides the two short-lived provisional prime ministers keeping the pattern, Viktor Chernomyrdin, Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister, temporarily became head of state while Yeltsin was undergoing surgery. Chernomyrdin was bald; he both succeeded and was succeeded by Yeltsin’s thick head of hair.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: A third pattern emerged that bridges bald-hairy and man-woman: killed-died. From 1740, (Wikipedia mistakenly says 1730) when Empress Anna died of a kidney stone, until the 1917 Russian Revolution, every other ruler was murdered. Anna was succeeded by her grand-nephew Ivan VI, who took the throne at two months of age, was overthrown in a coup and imprisoned at 15 months, in a Man In The Iron Mask scenario where not even his jailers knew his identity, and at age 23, he was killed by those jailers to foil a rescue attempt.

The coup put Elizabeth on the throne; she reigned for 20 years before dying of a stroke. Her successor, Peter III, reigned for six months before being murdered on the orders of his wife, who ruled for 34 years as Catherine II The Great (but not until after four different fake Peters appeared, insisting his death had only been a rumor). Catherine’s son, Paul I, was murdered after refusing to abdicate, and his son, Alexander I, ruled for 24 years. After his death from typhus, his brother, Nicholas, broke the pattern when he survived an assassination attempt by the Decembrists (the failed military coup, not the twee indie rockers), but his son, Alexander II, was blown up by a bomb.

Alexander III died of kidney failure, and his son Nicholas II was hoping for exile in the U.K. after the Bolsheviks overthrew the crown, but was imprisoned and then executed. (If you ignore the two short-lived prime ministers in between Nicholas and Lenin, the pattern might continue, as some historians believe Stalin was poisoned, although Wikipedia offers no comment.)


Also noteworthy: Although bald U.S. presidents are few and far between, we might be starting our own pattern, if you take into account power-behind-the-throne Dick Cheney replacing Bill Clinton’s lustrous coif, and being succeeded by Barack Obama’s recession-proof hairline. Which brings us to Trump, who… well… what we mean to say is, Dear Leader has a glorious head of hair that’s the envy of all who behold it. But if our own bald-hairy pattern continues, it’s bad news for Cory Booker’s 2020 hopes.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Wikipedia has an expansive human hair category, with articles covering everything from hair theft, to hair cloning, to chest hair, to the Andre Walker system.


Further down the Wormhole: In his brief reign, Peter III was unpopular despite making progressive reforms. One big point of contention was that the Russian-born but German-raised tsar was too friendly with Prussia, and was too quick to end the Seven Years’ War on terms favorable to Prussia’s Frederick The Great. (Although Catherine The Great, who overthrew Peter, was also German.) Frederick was Prussia’s longest-serving and most significant ruler, and modernized the kingdom that would eventually become modern Germany. Frederick laid the groundwork for that transition by opening factories that produced, among other things, silk and porcelain, Chinese inventions whose manufacture once baffled Europeans. Next week, we’ll take a look at the substance English speakers named “china,” and see why it was once more valuable than gold.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.