That Time The Emperor Of Russia Went Around Shaving Off Everybody's Beards

Beards can sometimes seem like more trouble than they're worth -- they're hot, they're itchy, they get caught in your pants if you're truly dedicated -- but that depends on how you quantify worth. Sentimental value? Sex appeal? Personal musk? The bedtime snack's worth of food you find in it at the end of the day?

One way that beards are not normally valued is monetarily, but in the late 17th century, Peter I of Russia put a price tag on face plumage. Ol' Pete had a pretty stiff hard-on for Europe, see, to the point that he organized an entire diplomatic mission to his neighbors to the west just so he could blend in among a crowd of about 250 other Russian ambassadors and check out the scene in a disguise that, ironically, probably did not include a beard. (He couldn't grow one.) He went full Undercover Boss, picking up jobs at shipyards in Holland and the U.K. to learn their shipbuilding secrets, as Russia, being made mostly of land, was rather maritimely ungifted.

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He came back with loads of ideas for modernizing the old country, changing everything from their calendars to their military to their freaking language, but his weirdest new obsession was the lack of beards he saw in Europe. He was convinced this was the key to bringing Russia into that groovy Restoration fold, and he announced it in quite spectacular fashion by holding a party, standing up in front of all those in attendance, and dramatically whipping out an enormous razor. That sort of thing usually only happened when things were about to get Red Wedding up in there, so they were only slightly less horrified when Peter proceeded to kidnap every guest, one by one, and shave them clean against their will. It was like Sweeney Todd but with better music.

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Peter's depilatory rampage only continued, branching out to the guests of other people's parties (because kicking out the emperor of Russia was likely to get you much worse than a forcible shaving) and then anyone he met at all. That's already weird and rude, but to make matters worse, barbery wasn't among the emperor's talents. His "shaves" were often more "assaults with a deadly weapon," leaving his victims looking like a bunch of assholes on Halloween the year The Dark Knight came out. Sometimes, he didn't even bother with the razor and just ripped people's beards off with his bare hands. Again, this is the kind of thing people let you do when your name ends with "the Great."

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Eventually, Peter realized he couldn't debeard all of Russia singlehandedly (have you seen the size of that thing?), so he went ahead and outlawed beards for everyone except the clergy. This wasn't some random concession between a corrupt emperor and church -- the Russian Orthodox religion, like many others, forbids the removal of facial hair. That fact really casts Peter's shaving parties in a whole new light, making it at least two different kinds of assault, but it would have been particularly rude to the clergy. Still, Peter's beard law created a new, shaggy class of fugitive as Russian Orthodox men and those who just had really weak chins dodged the beard police, which was a real thing that really existed. They wouldn't just throw you in jail for a night and let you emerge come daylight like some kind of hipster freedom fighter, either -- they were empowered to shave violators on sight.

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Those who couldn't stay underground but could afford to have principles started bribing the beard police to let them pass unshaved, and Peter realized all that money could be going to him. He was generally pretty tax-happy, upcharging everything from births and funerals to water. Good luck working out how that was possible in a time before widespread municipal water supply. There was a bed tax, a bath tax, and a beyond tax, and only one of those is a joke.

A beard tax seemed like the logical next step in Peter's grand debeardification of Russia. To his credit, he was flexible on how much he'd shake you down: The richest men of Russia were fined 100 rubles per year to keep their beards, while government lackeys got away with 60 and common men were only charged a single copeck whenever they came in and out of town. And there was no sneaking: A guy was stationed at the gates of every city in Russia to check everyone's beard papers.

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Well, not papers exactly. Those who'd paid their tax received coins they could wear around their neck to prove they were square (or circle, or anchor, or whatever shape they were sporting). These "beard tokens" varied by year and class of man swinging it around, but they were typically copper or silver and stamped with a Russian Eagle, a comically bearded face, a date the tax was paid, and/or some words to that effect. One from 1725 was printed with "beard tax taken" on one side and the chiding statement "the beard is a superfluous burden" on the edge.

(U.S. State Department/Wikimedia Commons)
Just to rub in the indignity of the whole situation.
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Most Russian men, however, chose to just give up the goat. Some religious men carefully preserved their severed beards so they could be buried with them because apparently, in the Russian Orthodox Church, you can take it with you, but many younger Russian men discovered a delightful benefit of facial baldness: the ladies. They were way into the legally enforced lack of scratchiness, so as the years wore on and the generations turned over, it hardly became necessary. The beard tax was finally lifted in 1772, some 75-ish years after it was implemented, and Russian men were finally free to treat women everywhere to week-old bits of cabbage trapped in their chins.

Top image: Wellcome Collection/Wikimedia Commons

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