The Tsar Who Decided Modernization Needed A Beard Tax

Samuel Reason | March 9th, 2018

Peter The Great traveled all around Europe for a year during 1697, he was in disguise and wanted to learn about Western culture. He was on a mission for Russia to learn about shipbuilding and how they could integrate into the world. What was his proposal? Shave.

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Around 1698, Tsar Peter I or Peter The Great created a beard tax in Russia. And funnily enough, he is not the only king in history to have done this – England’s Henry VII also made one. But there is a fascinating story about how Peter’s beard tax came about.

At the time Russia was not really part of Europe at all, it may have been a huge country but it had no power to control any authority. They had barely any navy of any note, so could not patrol any of their sea borders. And whilst other great empires like the British or the Dutch were out colonizing the world, Russia was stuck at home, with no connection to the outside world. Peter The Great decided he had to learn and understand what made the European nations so great. So he traveled around Europe in disguise as a diplomat for Russia, together with high ranking ambassadors.

In fact, he even spent months working in a shipyard, blending in completely and never causing any suspicion that he was, in fact, a Tsar. He learned about shipbuilding from the Dutch and the British, hoping he could bring this knowledge back to Russia.

On his return to Russia, he set out his grand plans in motion: to modernize Russia so it would compete with the world’s superpowers. And he was vital to the westernizing of Russia in all forms: he changed their economy, government, culture and even religious affairs. He even reformed their calendar, and attempted to make all men beardless! Peter The Great had noticed that the modern western Europeans were all shaven, so he was determined that Russian society followed suit.

Initially, he announced every man in Russia had to lose their beards. But this was wildly unpopular, so eventually, he decided a beard tax would be more appropriate. Because might as well make some money for the state too, no? For proof of paying the tax, little tokens were made: silver for nobility and copper for commoners.

If you had a beard then you had to keep your token on you at all times, just in case you were stopped by the beard tax police. Haha! Just kidding… there was no beard police. But one thing is for sure Peter I’s reforms really did bring Russia into the modern world.

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