Peter the Great (1672 – 1725 AD), ruler of the Tsardom of Russia, was so determined to modernize Russia to European standards that he ordered all men to ditch their long overcoats and shave their beards. When his tough stance caused an uproar, he relaxed the rules and introduced a beard tax instead so men would have to pay for the privilege of sporting a beard.
The beard has had a long and proud tradition throughout Russian history. Facial hair was so extensive, in fact, that the Russkaya Pravda (Rus’ Justice), a series of ancient Russian laws dating back to the 12th century, decreed that the penalty for interfering with a man’s beard or mustache was four times higher than the penalty for stealing a horse or cutting off a finger! It was a man’s honor and masculinity and was also closely tied to religious beliefs – in the Russian Orthodox Church, being clean-shaven was considered blasphemy.
So when Peter the Great embarked on his ambitious plan to bring Russian society into line with Western European patterns by changing its economy, government, culture and religious affairs, he underestimated the resistance .
Portrait of Peter the Great ( Public domain )
It was perhaps his initial approach that made the new laws hard to swallow – at a reception held in Peter’s honor shortly after his return from Europe, the Tsar reportedly personally shaved Peter’s beard his horrified guests. And to enforce his beard ban, the Tsar authorized the police to forcibly and publicly shave those who refused to do so themselves.
Peter soon realized that this policy was extremely unpopular. He faced such a backlash from the nobility, peasants and the Russian Orthodox Church that he was forced to back down. Instead of forcing his subjects to shave their beards, Peter decided that those who wished to keep their beards had to pay a “beard tax”.
The tax levied depended on the status of the bearded man: wealthy merchants were charged 100 rubles per year, townspeople were charged 60 rubles per year, and peasants were charged two half kopeks each time they entered a city.
Those who paid the tax had to wear a “beard token”. It was a silver token for nobles and copper for commoners representing the lower part of a face with nose, mouth, mustaches and beard.
The tax remained unpopular and difficult to enforce, and it was repealed by Catherine the Great in 1772. Perhaps it is thanks to Catherine that many Russian men continue to wear their beards proudly today!
Top image: Russian with a beard. Source: revered /Adobe Stock
Read more: The great and less great actions of Peter the Great
By Joanna Gillan