On the 5th September 1698, Tsar Peter I of Russia – otherwise known as Peter the Great – imposed a tax on beards. The long flowing beards of Russian tradition, which were closely associated with Orthodox Christianity, were faced with a progressive tax that charged up to an eye-watering 100 roubles. In return, the wearer would receive a small copper token indicating the tax had been paid but which declared “the beard is a superfluous burden”.
Determined to modernise and westernise Russia following the death of his brother Ivan, with whom he had jointly ruled Russia until 1696, Peter returned from undertaking the Grand Tour and immediately began a series of dramatic reforms. Military, political, economic and social changes were imposed that were designed to catapult Russia into the modern world and place it amongst the great powers of Europe.
Peter’s war on beards began as soon as he returned to Russia. Meeting with numerous nobles and senior members of the government on his return from Western Europe, he is said to have begun shaving his guests with a barber’s razor. Only members of the clergy and peasants were spared the demand to have a clean-shaven face.
The move was unpopular, not only because it was a significant challenge to tradition, but also because shaving a beard was interpreted by some as being a sin. Although he initially ordered officials to shave anybody they found who did not comply with the new decree, Peter soon realised that taxing beards would take advantage of some of his subjects’ unwillingness to shave. The tax wasn’t abolished until 1772.