As part of a set of sweeping reforms designed to modernise his empire, Tsar Peter I of Russia implemented a tax on beards on this day in 1698.
Peter had just returned from a grand tour of Western Europe in August, in which he was impressed by European customs he thought superior to Russian. Among them, European men were clean-shaven. Inspired by what he saw on this trip and influenced by advisors in Western Europe, Peter was determined to westernise his empire, starting with its customs and dress. During his welcoming reception back in Russia, Peter purportedly embraced the nobles who gathered to welcome him, then withdrew a giant pair of scissors and began cutting off their beards.
That was the beginning of a social modernisation campaign in which courtiers, state officials, and the military were required to shave their beards and adopt modern clothing styles.
Not everyone obeyed Peter’s command. Long, flowing beards embodied Orthodox ideals of manhood, integrity, and piety, and Russian men had worn beards with pride for centuries. Many even considered it a sin to shave their facial hair. Among those who refused to part with their beards were the Boyars, members of the old Russian aristocracy.
At the same time that Peter was searching for a way to enforce his new rule, he was also desperately in need of money. Russia was fighting the Great Northern War with the Swedish Empire, which required unprecedented resources.
Peter decided to impose a tax on beards, effectively enforcing his program for social modernisation as well as collecting state revenue in one strategic move.
Excepting clergy and peasants, Russian men who wanted to keep their beards were required to pay a hefty tax of 100 rubles per year. Those who paid the tax were given a “beard token,” which they were required to carry at all times. It was a copper or silver coin with a Russian Eagle on one side and the lower part of a face with nose, mouth, and beard, on the other. The token was inscribed with two phrases: “the tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden.”
Other reforms followed Peter’s beard tax. He ordered nobles to wear Western-style clothing, put an end to arranged marriages, adopted the Julian calendar, and sent many Russians to be educated in the West.
While many felt Peter brought Western, Enlightenment ideals to Russia, others felt he betrayed its traditions. The beard tax was eventually abolished in 1772.
Caption: Those who paid the beard tax were given a beard token, and were required to carry it at all times.