Around this day in 1698, Tsar Peter I – known as Peter the Great- established a beard tax. He wasn’t the only ruler in history to do this: in 1535, King Henry VIII of England, who wore a beard himself, had done the same.
But what was Peter’s reason for the tax?
During 1697 and 1698, Peter spent some time travelling incognito around Europe under the name “Sergeant Pyotr Mikhailov”.
Having discovered that Russia was desperately antiquated, he decided to modernize it so that it could compete with the other European superpowers.
Therefore, he introduced a more structured bureaucracy, he liberalized the feudal economy and brought western experts into his country to reshape his military and political system. He also ordered his nobles to wear fashionable western style dress instead of their traditional clothing, and French became the language of the court and the upper class.
Then, one day, at a court reception, he unexpectedly pulled out a massive barber’s razor and began to personally shave the beards from his horrified guests; only the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was spared.
He thought that beards were “unnecessary, uncivilized, and ridiculous” and declared that all the men in Russia had to lose their beards. Many old Russians, having had their beards shaved off, saved them preciously, in order to have them placed in their coffins, fearing that they would not be allowed to enter heaven without their beards.
Given the strong reaction and the cultural preference for beards and, maybe, realizing he could raise money for the state while allowing his people to keep their beards, he imposed a beard tax, a progressive fine according to the status of the bearded man; only priests were excluded.
After paying, people were given a “beard token”, which bore an image of the Russian eagle on one side and a bearded face on the other. The medal also proclaimed “the beard tax has been taken” (lit: “Money taken”) and “the beard is a superfluous burden“, and had to be worn with a chain around the neck.
Those who resisted the ban were forcibly shaved.
Eventually, the tax was abolished in 1772.