We Need to Bring Back Peter the Great’s 17th Century Russian Beard Tax
On September 5, 1698, Russian Tsar Peter the Great implemented a unique tax, all in the name of modernizing 17th century Russian. All the fashionable men in western Europe went beardless.
Peter would force Russia to catch up, even if the people weren’t ready.
The change came on the heels of a tour of western Europe, traveled by Peter. When he returned to Russia, the first thing he did was gather all the nobles in one place and to their dismay, he cut off their beards himself.
In more recent history, April of 2014, scientists studied the history of beards, combining it with the results from test subjects. They determined that we’d hit “peak beard.”
Just as was Peter’s Russia, humanity is now on the back end of the beard trend. It seems we are due for a beard tax, a la 17th century Tsarist Russia.
Peter the Great
To answer the question, “Say what?” regarding the beard tax, one must understand the mind of the ambitious Tsar. Peter wanted to westernize the ways of Russia, a desire that would phase in and out of favor with Russian leadership until modern times.
Born Pyotr Alekseyevich, in 1672, the Russian inherited by Peter was considerably behind the modern times of the 17th century. In western Europe, countries prospered in the wake of the Renaissance, a wave of inspiration Russia somehow missed.
Once he became sovereign in 1696, Peter aimed to redirect Russia’s priorities. The 1698 tour only laser-focused those intentions.
Like an undercover boss, Peter made an effort to disguise his appearance, albeit a weak one. People knew who he was as walked about western Europe.
That didn’t stop Peter from investigating the ground truth on what made his western neighbors so much more prosperous.
He rubbed elbows with everyone from nobles to shipyard workers. He visited factories, met with a man named Isaac Newton, observed military technologies, and returned home more determined to modernize Russian than he was when he left.
The first thing that had to go was all the facial hair. At the time, Russians were well beyond peak beard. Those 17th century beards were biblical.
If Russia was going to catch up, they would need better science, better technology, but they would also need a fashion change.
History would remember Peter the Great as something of a tyrant, imposing, and ruthless, but a change agent nonetheless. It wasn’t only the beards that had to go. So too would he cut the length of the floor-sweeping sleeve fashions of the time.
Men of means would have to shave their beards, but their less affluent counterparts would not unless they visited the city. Men from upper-class families who refused to shave would pay 100 roubles every year they kept their beard.
Peasants who came to the city would either need to shave or pay the beard tax, a single kopek, which earned them a copper token to show they’d paid the tax.
It hardly stopped there. Peter mandated that nobles speak French in court. He erected a navy, switched Russia to the Julian calendar, imported educators, and dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern age.
The beard tax remained until 1772, but by then Peter’s impact had already affected Russian.