On beards

Beard types, from http://www.aif.ru/dontknows/infographics/1236527

Beard types, from http://www.aif.ru/dontknows/ infographics/1236527

With a post title like that, you might not be surprised to hear that I am lecturing on Peter the Great tomorrow. I always wondered a bit how his beard tax worked in practice, and I was a bit thrilled to see an example of it at work in a file when I was doing research on my book on soslovie.

On first glance the file (RGADA f. 742, op. 1, d. 493) is a straightforward one: in July 1749 the Kursk merchant Nikifor Prokofiev Rastorguev petitioned the Kursk magistracy, asking to be released from his status as a merchant in order to enter a monastery. He promised in his petition that his son would take over his business (and his taxes and duties). The case went smoothly; in February 1750, the Kursk town starosta reported that the town society agreed to free him, and the magistracy finalized its positive decision in May.

This was all normal. What wasn’t normal was an incident report from the Kursk governor’s chancellery regarding Nikifor Prokofiev’s unlawful facial hair.

In January 1750–after Nikifor Prokofiev had petitioned, but before his petition had been granted–he was spotted by a local official “at the bazaar in a beard and in unlawful dress.” Called before the chancellery, Nikifor Prokofiev did indeed turn out have “beard and whiskers unshorn and unshaved” and to be dressed in “a fur, a caftan, a Russian shirt and with no tie.” This was counter to the laws then in force, which stated that anyone unshorn and dressed in Russian clothing was suspected of Old Belief and thus liable to prosecution.

Nikifor Prokofiev had an explanation for his dress: he was getting ready for his entrance into the monastery, and was not and Old Believer. The beard (and dress) was premature, but not as unlawful as it could be.

There’s no more follow up on this incident in this file; the letter from the Governor’s chancellery seems only to have spurred the Magistracy to follow up on the original petition. I was still glad to see it, though, because it gave a new angle to this initial moment. The beard tax always provokes a bit of laughter–the idea of a beard tax token (look! you can buy your own beard-tax token replica bottle opener!) seems so particularly silly. But realizing that even decades after its initial institution, a guy could get hauled in for questioning because of it (even if with no ill effect this time) made it seem a bit less silly and a bit more serious.

About Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History; Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)
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1 Response to On beards

  1. Alison,

    You brought up a very interesting question. The beard (Old Believer) tax was a much more serious business than it appears in this case. Russian Christian minorities were limited in civil rights, and Kursk area had a large Old Believers population.

    Twenty two years after the event that you describe, Yemelian Pugachev started the largest uprising in Russia by promising “the cross, and the beard, and freedom, and land, and homesteads, and forests, and meadows, and fishing rights, and all this without taxes and without compensation…” (exact text of his proclamation changed from time to time as he moved through the Volga area, but the meaning stayed the same)

    Specifically in Russia, Old Believers were

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