On beards and slavic hairiness

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There was a time, on the wild steppes of Russia, when they spent not rubles but grivnas.

The grivna was the unit of currency in mediaeval Russia, and it was used to keep boyar and surf alike under strict control.

With 12 grivnas, you could buy six horses. Or 12 cows, or 120 sheep. And if you transgressed, the grivna could be used to impose fines. Murdering a free woman could cost you 20 grivnas. Only in Mother Russia.

And perhaps you will grasp the full importance of the whole facial hair ethic if I tell you that if you messed with a man’s beard, you would pay dearly:12 grivnas. Murdering a slave only cost six.

Beards were important to Russian men, as one might imagine on those inhospitable wastes or on a frost-rimed St Petersburg night. But warmth was just a sideline to the main advantage: that a beard made a man look like a man.

And, the common thinking of the time went, anyone who did not look like a man must be effeminate.

When Ivan the Terrible’s  father shaved his beard ostensibly to please his young wife, tongues began wagging immediately.

It took a man’s man to turn the whole beard business on its head. Peter the Great, a  towering 6 ft 8 inches tall, took it upon himself to tour Europe on a ‘Grand Embassy’. It was not successful in building alliances – but as he travelled he fell head over heels in love with the western way.

And that included being clean shaven.

The men of Europe, so civilised and urbane, wore their chins hair-free. And Peter decided that he must drag Russia kicking and screaming out of the whole sacred beard era.

This is how it worked: no-one had to shave their beard off. But every hairy chin carried a tax.

To show they had paid, every bearded man must carry a token emblazoned with the Russian Eagle on one side, and a disembodied nose and beard on the other.


Things got messy. There was considerable opposition to the tax. Plenty of Russian men did not want to be labelled a heretic but did not fancy paying Peter The Great either. It is rumoured Peter put together gangs of press-barbers, who roamed the streets of the big cities, looking for men to shave.

Things change. The 19th century man-beard made a nonsense of Peter’s painstaking planning, and Russian returned to the beard with gusto.

Look at Tolstoy, for chrissakes.



23 thoughts on “On beards and slavic hairiness

  1. How much did it cost to retain face-fungus?
    Surely the ones who paid the tax were also hairy ticks? The loss of beards makes one more truthful, of course. There is an art in being a bare-faced liar.

  2. He did, Helen, and brought the tea party to Russian parlours too. He launched a state newspaper, and schools of medicine and engineering and science. Not one to do things by halves, was our Peter.

  3. Fascinating, and here in the U.S. November is “Don’t shave-grow your beard” month. No fooling.
    I’m wondering what the fine is for murdering a man…30 grivnas???

      1. Agree completely about the timing, although sometimes the point is how you dig yourself out of situations. Arguments with Norwegian security guides, or asking for a team sheet in German, in Sweden, then thanking the chap, in French.

  4. How interesting. What about those men who had skimpy beards, or were the Russian genes such that all men could have a full thick beard? What if a woman had a beard (I work hard to keep my mustache under control). And a freewoman’s life was worth only 20 of their currency. Sad, sad, sad.

      1. If I don’t whip out the wax strips and tweezers every 2 days, I wind up mindlessly stroking the hairs on my upper lip … and driving myself crazy until I can get myself to a mirror and tweezers (which you know, I do keep at the office) … 😉

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