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—England’s Henry VII did the same—but what’s interesting is the story behind Peter's reason for the tax.
Before Peter I, Russia wasn’t very connected with Europe, nor did it have a navy that could assert authority on its sea borders. Although Russia was huge, writes Encyclopedia Britannica, it lagged behind in ships at a time when European powers such as England and the Dutch were exploring and colonizing the globe—and impinging on each other’s borders. With the goal of learning from European nations’ successes, Peter I spent time during 1697 and 1698 travelling around Europe, in disguise, on a “Grand Embassy.”
The tsar travelled incognito as “Sergeant Pyotr Mikhaylov.” As the Grand Embassy consisted of 250 people, including high-ranking ambassadors, he was able to blend in and spend time learning about Europe firsthand. According to the encyclopedia, he spent four months working at a shipyard for the Dutch East India Company, where he was able to learn about the shipbuilding innovations of the day. After that, the encyclopedia writes, “he went to Great Britain, where he continued his study of shipbuilding, working in the Royal Navy’s dockyard at Deptford, and he also visited factories, arsenals, schools, and museums and even attended a session of Parliament.”
When he came back from the Grand Embassy, Peter I embarked on an ambitious project of modernizing Russia so that it could compete with the European superpowers. He “played a crucial role in westernizing Russia by changing its economy, government, culture, and religious affairs,” writes Mario Sosa for St. Mary’s University. “By doing all of this, Russia was able to expand and become one of the most powerful countries in the eastern hemisphere.”
Among his reforms, he revised Russia’s calendar, introduced changes to the way Russian was written, completely changed the military and tried to get Russians to go beardless, like the "modern" Western Europeans he had met on his tour.
As Mark Mancini writes for Mental Floss, Peter I begun the practice of beardlessness in quite a dramatic fashion at a reception held in his honor not long after he came back from Europe. “In attendance were his commander of the army, his frequent second-in-command Fyodor Romodanovsky, and a host of assorted aides and diplomats,” writes Mancini. “Suddenly, the crowd’s mood went from elation to horror as Peter unexpectedly pulled out a massive barber’s razor.” As the Grand Embassy proved, Peter I was a do-it-yourself kind of ruler. He proceeded to personally shave the beards from his horrified guests.
He declared that all the men in Russia had to lose their beards—a massively unpopular policy with many including the Russian Orthodox church, which said going around sans facial hair was blasphemous.
“Eventually, the ruler’s stance softened,” Mancini writes. Figuring he could make money for the state while still allowing people to opt to keep their beards, he imposed a beard tax. 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.”
Although many of Peter I’s reforms aren’t routinely recalled today, the beard tax has gone down as one of history’s quirkier moments. But one thing is for sure—Peter I did change Russia forever.