Russia has a rich tradition of royal lip contacts with their subjects. However, the history presidential kissing is rather short. There has been only two of them (if we include the placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev, three). The first one, Yeltsin, came about first in 1991.
Out of vogue
There were a couple episodes of Yeltsin kissing other alpha males. Yet, they were relatively prudish. He was nowhere near the famous Russian lip-locks practiced by General Secretaries Leonid Brezhnev (“mediocre politician—but what a kisser!”) and the occasional lip-brushing of Mikhail Gorbachev.
One of the last holdouts of this ancient tradition was reported to be Putin’s former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin. Otherwise—especially amid the wide nationwide campaign against gay propaganda—it has largely disappeared.
No kisses, please
Some theorists of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s attribute the deterioration in the bilateral relations to repeated attempts at brotherly kissing on the part of Soviet functionaries, which the Chinese interpreted as a repulsive manifestation of their intent to dominate the international Communist movement.
Like the Chinese, President Putin belongs to the group that have an aversion to lip-kissing. Moreover, he is famous for hating touching other people unnecessarily. He rather prefers facial contacts with horses, dogs, fishes, religious artefacts and kids’ bellies. Silvio Berlusconi tried Slav-kissing on Putin once, but found no reciprocity.
This is shared by an absolute majority of Russians. Even amid the universal jubilation on the Easter day, when true Orthodoxes congratulate each other with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it’s not a good idea to try to lip-kiss people.
The tradition of male lip-kissing was brought to us by Balkan clergy. They performed a holy kiss as a standard Easter greeting. The habit caught on immediately. Foreign travelers describing Muscovy in the XVII century were puzzled by the ubiquitous lip-kissing among Russians. The tradition was somewhat relieved by a customary kiss on the lips that guests in the house were expected to exchange with the wife of the host.
There is an apocryphal explanation that linked to lip kisses the legendary robustness of our people. Russians were allegedly subjecting themselves to the bombardment by virulent foreign germs. Throughout generations, it conditioned our bodies to all kinds of hardship.
Among old-timers in some local Russian Orthodox communities there is still a tradition of laity kissing the priest on the lips at the Easter service. Czar Nicholas II often did the same on his troops when awarding medals (the picture below).