Peter I of Russia shortcutted his infamous beard tax when he personally shaved his horrified courtiers.
At a court reception not long after his European tour, he unexpectedly pulled out a massive barber’s razor.
Peter began to personally shave the beards from his horrified guests, sparing only the Patriarch, a very old man and his own guardian.
Hairless necks and faces were de rigeur in the Western World, so the Czar initially ordered that all of his subjects (excluding clergy and peasants) must lose their face furniture.
So dedicated was Peter to his cause that he even instructed police officials to personally shave those who refused to comply on sight.
Beards were “unnecessary, uncivilized, and ridiculous,” as Peter’s biographer Robert Massie puts it.
The Beard Tax
Peter declared that all the men in Russia had to lose their beard.
This was a massively unpopular policy with many including the Russian Orthodox church, which said going around sans facial hair was blasphemous.
At first, horrified Russians bribed officials to let them go, only to fall into the hands of another official.
Before long, wearing a beard became too expensive a luxury.
Finding men in his presence still bearded, Peter sometimes “in a merry humor, pulled out their beards by the roots or took it off so roughly [with a razor] that some of the skin went with it”.
Eventually, perhaps realizing he could raise money for the state while still allowing people to opt to keep their beards, he imposed a beard tax.
It was a progressive tax: the humble peasant paid two kopeks, a rich merchant up to 100 rubles.
As the State Department describes,
“for nobility and merchants, the tax could be as high as 100 rubles annually; for commoners it was much lower — as little as 1 kopek. Those paying the tax were given a token, silver for nobility and copper for commoners.”
The token also proclaimed “The beard is a useless burden”.
In 1708, Peter created a service of revenue officers who got busy “making income for the sovereign lord”. Besides beards and mustaches, new taxes were levied on :
- registration of will
- wheat and tallow
- horse hides
- horse collars
- wearing of leather boots
- kitchen chimneys
- drinking water
Englishman John Perry, who was an engineer at Peters court from 1698 until 1712, at some length on the origin of the beard tax:
It had been the manner of the Russes, like the Patriarchs of old, to wear long Beards hanging down upon their Bosoms, which they comb’d out with Pride/5 and kept smooth and fine, without one Hair to be diminished; they wore even the Upper-Lip of that length, that if they drank at any time, their Beard dipp’d into the Cup, so that they were obliged to wipe when they had done, altho’ they wore the Hair of their Head cut short at the same time; it being the Custom onlr for the Popes or Priests, to wear the Hair of their Heads hanging down upon their Backs for Distinction sake. The Czar therefore to reform this foolish Custom, and to make them look like other Europeans, ordered a Tax to be laid, on all Gentlemen, Merchants, and others of his Subjects (excepting the Priests and the common Peasants, or Slaves) that they should each of them pay 100 Rubles per Annum, for the wearing of their Beards, and that even the common People should pay a Copeck at the Entrance of the Gates of any of the Towns or Cities of Russia, where a Person should be deputed at the Gate to receive it as often as they had occasion to pass.
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.
Young men may have become amenable to the change as it made them more attractive to the opposite sex.
Peter was so crazy about Western ways that he ordered his nobles to wear fashionable German or English style dress instead of their traditional clothing.
French became the language of the court and the upper class.
For ordinary people, a suit of clothes cut in the new fashion was hung at the gate of the city as a model for how to dress.
The penalty for not adopting the new style was was to either have their clothes below the knee cut off, or pay two grives to enter the town.
Apparently, the guards at the gates were so good-tempered about it, the people readily abandoned their old dress, especially in larger towns.
Tobacco scholar lain Gately argues that nothing so grand as Europeanization was behind the beard tax.
Instead, he says, it was simply retaliation against the Russian Orthodox Church for its opposition to smoking, a favorite pastime of Peter when he wasn’t shaving:
“The Patriarch of Moscow threatened smokers with excommunication, thus provoking a trial of strength with the tsar. But Peter did not enjoy, or even allow, disagreement. . . . Peter responded to the patriarch’s challenge by imposing a tax on beards of the sort favored by the Orthodox clergy.”
Gately cites no authority for his theory, so it may be so much smoke.
Despite the beard tax’s widespread unpopularity, it remained in place until 1772, 47 years after Peter’s death.
If you like hirsute history, you might enjoy reading about the lengths Victorian gentlemen went to keep their magnificent beards.
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.