The Russian Beard Preservation Law, Otherwise Known as the Russkaya Pravda

Facial hair used to be important in Russia.

No, you don’t understand. It was REALLY important!

We know this because of the Russkaya Pravda (Rus’ Justice or Rus’ Truth), one of the primary sources of Old Russian Law. It dates back to the 12th century and was designed to protect Russian beards and mustaches.

OK, that last part was a bit of an overstatement. The true purpose of the Russkaya Pravda was to establish a fair and equitable system of justice. It was unusual for its day in that it punished primarily through monetary fines, rather than imprisonment, mutilation, or capital punishment. It entrusted the process of conflict resolution primarily to the persons involved in the dispute. The only authorized use of the death penalty was in the case of murder, and even then, the death of the murderer was at the discretion of the male family members of the deceased. Absent a claim of vengeance by an appropriate blood relative, the murderer’s punishment was limited to a hefty fine.

Russian Beard Token from 1705, carried to indicate that the owner had paid the beard tax imposed by Peter the Great

The fines were in the currency of grivnas. How much is a grivna? It is equal to 4 wiarduneks, 16 drams, 24 skojecs, 96 grains, 240 denarii, or 480 obols. If that isn’t clear enough, it was also equal to 48 groschen. If that doesn’t answer your question, you simply weren’t paying attention.

What does any of this have to do with the preservation of facial hair? The Pravda made a clear distinction between crimes of passion and those that were premeditated. It was assumed, for example, that hitting an enemy with the flat of the sword was something that would be done solely for the purpose of insulting him and treating him as less than an equal. For that reason, it was viewed as a more serious offense than impaling a person in the heat of anger.

This brings us to the beard business. Facial hair has been a big deal in Russia for a long time. When Peter the Great sought to make Russia more like the Western European nations, one of his strategies was to require that all men be cleanshaven. This was nearly his undoing. He faced such a backlash of opposition from the nobility, peasants, and the Russian Orthodox Church that he had to repeal his decree. (Keep in mind that you don’t typically earn the title “The Great” by being easily kowtowed.

Peter chose instead to institute a beard tax. Beginning in 1698, men had to pay for the privilege of sporting a beard. The tax remained unpopular and difficult to enforce. Catherine the Great, either out of a desire to get rid of a troublesome regulation or because she fancied her guys with whiskers, repealed the tax in 1772.

At the time of the Russkaya Pravda, a man’s facial hair was his honor. If you merely wanted to annoy a guy, you would cut off his finger. To truly convey your contempt for him, you would pull some hairs from his beard. That was the ultimate insult, and its severity is reflected in the Pravda.

In total, there are 43 articles, all of which can be read here. For the sake of brevity, we will limit our discussion to the first twelve:

Article 1 — If a man kills a man, the brother is to avenge his brother; the son, his father; or the father, his son; or nephews, their uncles; and if there is no avenger [the murderer pays] forty grivnas fine; if [the killed man] is a Kievan Russian, or a member of the druzhina, or a merchant, or a sheriff, or an agent of the prince, or even a serf, or a Novgorodian Russian, the fine is forty grivnas.

Article 2 — If a man is bleeding or is blue from bruises, he does not need any eyewitness; if he has no sign [of injury] he is to produce an eyewitness; if he cannot, the matter ends there; if he cannot avenge himself he is to receive three grivnas, while the physician is to get an honorarium.

Article 3 — If a person hits another with a stick, or a rod, or a fist, or a bowl, or a drinking horn, or the dull side of a sword, he is to pay twelve grivnas fine; if the offender is not hit back [by his victim], he must pay, and there the matter ends.

Article 4 — If a person strikes another with an unsheathed sword, or with the hilt of a sword, he pays twelve grivnas for the offence.

Article 5 — If a person hits [another’s] arm and the arm is severed or shrinks, he pays forty grivnas fine. And if he hits the leg [but does not sever it], and then he [the victim] becomes lame, let both [parties] reach an agreement.

Article 6 — And if a finger is cut off, three grivnas for the offence.

Article 7 — For the moustache twelve grivnas; and for the beard twelve grivnas.

Article 8 — If anyone unsheathes his sword, but does not hit, he pays one grivna fine.

Article 9 — If a man pulls another man toward himself or pushes him away and [the offended] brings two witnesses, the fine is three grivnas; if he should be a Varangian or a Kolbiag, an oath is to be taken.

Article 10 — If anyone conceals a runaway slave of a Varangian or a Kolbiag for three days, and if it is discovered on the third day, the original owner gets back his slave and three grivnas for the offence.

Article 11 — If anyone rides another’s horse without the owner’s permission, he has to pay three grivnas.

Article 12 — If anyone steals another’s horse, or weapon, or clothes, and the owner recognises it within his township, he gets back his property and three grivnas for the offence.

In summary and increasing degree of severity, the penalties assessed were as follows:

  • Striking a person in the leg, causing lameness — negotiated settlement
  • Unsheathing a sword but not striking with it (brandishing a weapon) — 1 grivna
  • Taking someone’s horse for a joyride without permission — 3 grivnas
  • Stealing a horse, weapon, or clothes within the township — 3 grivnas and return of property
  • Inflicting an injury resulting in bleeding or bruising — 3 grivnas, plus payment of the physician’s fee
  • Pushing or pulling — 3 grivnas.
  • Concealing runaway slave of a Varangian or Kolbiag (traveling merchants) for 3 days — return of slave plus 3 grivnas
  • Loss of finger — 3 grivnas
  • Striking someone with a stick, rod, fist, bowl, drinking horn, or the dull side of a sword — 12 grivnas
  • Striking someone with unsheathed sword or hilt of the sword — 12 grivnas
  • Pulling out a man’s (or woman’s, presumably; the law doesn’t specify) mustache or beard — 12 grivnas
  • Causing the loss or shrinkage of an arm — 40 grivnas
  • Killing a man of any social status — 40 grivnas, unless a family member of the deceased chooses to exercise the right to seek vengeance.

Consider the implications of these regulations. An attorney in those days would likely give the following advice:

  1. If you are going to borrow your neighbor’s horse without permission, you might as well plan on keeping it. After all, the penalty is the same either way.
  2. If you plan on getting in a fight, the weapon of choice should be a plate, stone, or open hand — basically, anything other than a stick, rod, fist, bowl, drinking horn, or the dull side of a sword. Using any of the latter will cost you 12 grivnas, regardless of whether you cause injury. Use anything else, and you are free to bloody and bruise your opponent to your heart’s content with only a 3-grivna fine. By the way, once you draw blood or inflict a bruise, you might as well keep going; as long as you don’t sever a body part or kill the guy, the penalty is the same.
  3. If you have your heart set on inflicting pain to your opponent, cut off each of his fingers, one-by-one, and batter him about, following the rules spelled out in the preceding paragraph. The total fine, in that case, is 33 grivnas, as opposed to 40 grivnas if you sever your adversary’s arm.
  4. If, in anger, you unsheath your sword, consider carefully what you will do next. If you can compose yourself and return your sword to its sheath, you can walk away from the conflict just 1 grivna poorer for your loss of temper. If you can’t control yourself, however, and you feel the need to use your sword, for goodness sakes, use the sharp part and not the flat. Slicing a guy up (as long as you don’t cut off fingers, arms, legs, or facial hair) will cost you 3 grivnas. If you slap him with the flat of the sword, however, be prepared to shell out 12 grivnas.
  5. Russian men are proud of their facial hair. They will give up three fingers before they will let you molest a mustache or beard. If, however, in the heat of the moment, you rip off a portion of your opponent’s mustache, you might as well go all the way and keep pulling until you have robbed him of his beard, as well. It’s going to cost 12 grivnas either way.
  6. For that matter, if you get in a tussle and rip your opponent’s arm off, you might as well go ahead and work out all of your anger and kill the guy. It is a 40 grivna fine, either way. One word of caution — it would be helpful to make sure he has no close male relatives. They would have the right to seek vengeance by taking your life. If he has no male relatives (or if his relatives think he’s as much of a jerk as you do), just hand over the 40 grivnas and be done with it.
  7. If you consider yourself a good negotiator, just aim for your opponent’s leg, maiming it for the rest of his life. With no established penalty specified, it is left to the two of you to haggle over the appropriate compensation. For that matter, go ahead and take out both of his legs. That way, no matter what claim he makes against you, he won’t have a leg to stand on.

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