Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

The Crusade Against Beards and Cloaks

The return of Peter the Great from his European journey was marked by other events than his cruel revenge upon the rebellious Strelitz. That had affected only a few thousand people; the reforms be sought to introduce affected the nation at large. The Russians were then more Oriental than European in style, wearing the long caftan or robe of Persia and Turkey, which descended to their heels, while their beards were like those of the patriarchs, the man deeming himself most in honor who had the longest and fullest crop of hair upon his face.

To Peter, fresh from the West, and strongly imbued with European views, all this was ridiculous, if not abominable. He determined to reform it all, and at once set to work in his impetuous way, which could not brook a day's delay, to deprive the Russians of their beards and the tails of their coats. He had scarcely arrived before the boyars and leading citizens of Moscow, who flocked to congratulate him on his return, were taken aback by the edict that whiskers were condemned, and that the razor must be set at work without delay upon their honorable chins.

This edict was like a thunder-clap from a clear sky. The Russians admired and revered their beards. They were time-honored and sacred in their eyes. To lose them was like losing their family trees and patents of nobility. But Peter was without reverence for the past, and his word was law. He had ordered a mowing and reaping of hair, and the harvest must be made, or worse might come. General Shein, commander-in-chief of the army, was the first to yield to the imperative edict and submit his venerable beard to the indignity of the razor's edge. The old age seemed past and the new age come when Shein walked shamefacedly into court with a clean chin.

Peter the Great


The example thus set was quickly followed. Beards were tabooed within the precincts of the court. All shared the same fate, none being left to laugh at the rest. The patriarch, it is true, was exempted, through awe for his high office in the Church, while reverence for advanced years reprieved Prince Teherkasy, and Tikhon Streshnef was excused out of honor for his services as guardian of the czaritza. Every one else within the court had to submit to the razor's fatal edge or feel the czar's more fatal displeasure, and beards fell like "autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa."

An observer speaks as follows concerning a feast given by General Shein: "A crowd of boyars, scribes, and military officers almost incredible was assembled there, and among them were several common sailors, with whom the czar repeatedly mixed, divided apples, and even honored one of them by calling him his brother. A salvo of twenty-five guns marked each toast. Nor could the irksome offices of the barber check the festivities of the day, though it was well known he was enacting the part of jester by appointment at the czar's court. It was of evil omen to make show of reluctance as the razor approached the chin, and hesitation was to be forthwith punished with a box on the ears. In this way, between mirth and the wine-cup, many were admonished by this insane ridicule to abandon the olden guise."

For Peter to shave was easy, as he had little beard and a very thin moustache. But by the old-fashioned Russian of his day the beard was cherished as the Turk now cherishes his hirsute symbol of dignity or the Chinaman his long-drawn-out queue. Shortly after Peter came to the throne the patriarch Adrian had delivered himself in words of thunder against all who were so unholy and heretical as to cut or shave their beards, a God-given ornament, which had been worn by prophets and apostles and by Christ himself. Only heretics, apostates, idol-worshippers, and image-breakers among monarchs had forced their subjects to shave, he declared, while all the great and good emperors had indicated their piety in the length of their beards.

To Peter, on the contrary, the beard was the symbol of barbarity. He was not content to say that his subjects might shave, he decreed that they must shave. It began half in jest, it was continued in solid earnest. He could not well execute the non-shavers, or cut off the beads of those who declined to cut off their beards, but he could fine them, and he did. The order was sent forth that all Russians, with the exception of the clergy, should shave. Those who preferred to keep their beards could do so by paying a yearly tax into the public treasury. This was fixed at a kopeck (one penny) for peasants, but for the higher classes varied from thirty to a hundred rubles (from sixty dollars to two hundred dollars). The merchants, being at once the richest and most conservative class, paid the highest tax. Every one who paid the tax was given a bronze token, which had to be worn about the neck and renewed every year.

The czar would allow no one to be about him who did not shave, and many submitted through "terror of having their beards (in a merry humor) pulled out by the roots, or taken so rough off that some of the skin went with them." Many of those who shaved continued to do reverence to their beards by carrying them within their bosoms as sacred objects, to be buried in their graves, in order that a just account might be rendered to St. Nicholas when they should come to the next world.

The ukase against the beard was soon followed by one against the caftan, or long cloak, the old Russian dress. The czar and the leading officers of his embassy set the example of wearing the German dress, and he cut off, with his own hands, the long sleeves of some of his officers. "Those things are in your way," he would say. "You are safe nowhere with them. At one moment you upset a glass, then you forgetfully dip them in the sauce. Get gaiters made of them."

On January 14, 1704, a decree was issued commanding all courtiers and officials throughout the empire to wear the foreign dress. This decree had. to be frequently repeated, and models of the clothing exposed. It is said that patterns of the garments and copies of the decrees were hung up together at the gates of the towns, while all who disobeyed the order were compelled to pay a fine. Those who yielded were obliged "to kneel down at the gates of the city and have their coats cut off just even with the ground," the part that lay on the ground as they kneeled being condemned to suffer by the shears. "Being done with a good humor; it occasioned mirth among the people, and soon broke the custom of their wearing long coats, especially in places near Moscow and those towns wherever the czar came.

This demand did not apply to the peasantry, and was therefore more easily executed. Even the women were required to change their Russian robes for foreign fashions. Peter's sisters set the example, which was quickly followed, the women showing themselves much less conservative than the men in the adoption of new styles of dress.

The reform did not end here. Decrees were issued against the high Russian boots, against the use of the Russian saddle, and even against the long Russian knife. Peter seemed to be infected with a passion for reform, and almost everything Russian was ordered to give way before the influx of Western modes. Western ideas did not come with them. To change the dress does not change the thoughts, and it does not civilize a man to shave his chin. Though outwardly conforming to the advanced fashions of the West, inwardly the Russians continued to conform to the unprogressive conceptions of the East.

It may be said that these changes did not come to stay. They were too revolutionary to take deep root. There is no disputing the fact that a coat down to the heels is more comfortable in a cold climate than one ending at the knees, and is likely to be worn in preference. Students in Russia to-day wear the red shirt, the loose trousers tucked into the high boots, and the sleeveless caftan of the peasant, to show that they are Slavs in feeling, while the old Russian costume is the regulation court dress for ladies on occasions of state.

We cannot here name the host of other reforms which Peter introduced. The army was dressed and organized in the fashion of the West. A navy was rapidly built, and before many years Russia was winning victories at sea. Peter had not worked at Amsterdam and Deptford in vain. The money of the country was reorganized, and new coins were issued. The year, which had always begun in Russia on September 1, was now ordered to begin on January 1, the first new year on the new system, January 1, 1700, being introduced with impressive ceremonies. Up to this time the Russians had counted their year from the supposed date of creation. They were now ordered to date their chronology from the birth of Christ, the first year of the new era being dated 1700 instead of 7208. Unluckily, the Gregorian calendar was not at the same time introduced, and Russia still clings to the old style, so that each date in that country is twelve days behind the same date in the rest of the Christian world.

Another reform of an important character was introduced. Peter had observed the system of local self-government in other countries, and resolved to have something like it in his realm. In Little Russia the people already had the right of electing their local officials. A similar system was extended to the whole empire, the merchants in the towns being permitted to choose good and honest men, who formed a council which had general charge of municipal affairs. Where bribery and corruption were discovered among these officials the knout and exile were applied as inducements to honesty in office. Even death was threatened; yet bribery went on. Honesty in office cannot be made to order, even by a czar.