August 27, 1698, was a day of historic importance for the grooming of the Russian male. It was then that Tsar Peter I (known to history as “the Great”), who had just returned from his Grand Embassy to Western Europe, armed himself with scissors and undertook to mercilessly clip beards from the faces of summoned noblemen and boyars. The royal barber did not stop there: the very next day he had the court jester shear a new batch of beards.
This was followed by a royal decree requiring all of Peter’s subjects to remove their beards (the peasantry and clergy were exempted). Anyone reluctant to part with their facial hair could pay for the privilege to keep it, but the sums required were quite hefty: 60 rubles per annum for the nobility; 100 for merchants; and 30 for less distinguished townspeople. These fees entitled the payer to a token affirming “Beard Tax Paid” and emblazoned with the dictum “The beard is an unnecessary burden” around its edge. A levy was placed on peasant beards as well, but only upon their entrance into and departure from a city. That tax was two dengas – denga being the early term for the rough equivalent to a kopek.
City gates were manned by a zealous anti-beard force charged with shaving the chins of hirsute travelers. Resisters had their beards ruthlessly torn out by the roots. Soon, as Nikolai Gogol so eloquently put it: “Rus was transformed for a time into a barber shop packed to the gills; some offered up their chins while others were forcibly shaven.”
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