World history is full of odd tax schemes, including one imposed by Russian Tsar Peter the Great on September 5 in 1698. By choosing a more western way of living for his nation, Peter enforced a beard tax on all Russian men, since European men were usually clean shaven.
From the very beginning of his reign, Peter I had set a course for Westernizing the entire Russian way of life, society, and culture. Not only did he revolutionize his army, education system and administrative structure, but also encouraged Western fashion sensibilities.
Peter embarked on an extreme makeover the very next day he came back from the grand tour of Western Europe (the Great Embassy) in August 1698. All the nobles gathered together for the welcoming reception. Although they suspected some changes to come, they could not have even imagined what Peter I had in store for them. After embracing each one, the young Tsar took out a pair of huge scissors and began cutting off their beards. All were mortified, but obeyed.
For centuries Russian men had worn long flowing beards. Not only was it a traditional culture, it embodied Orthodox views on manhood and image. Many considered it a sin to shave and removal was a deeply symbolic act. Of course, Peter’s new rule was difficult to get accustomed to and caused hardship for those struggling to part with their beloved beards.
In order to enforce the new fashion order which was adopted in other European countries, Peter levied a heavy tax on those still much attached to their facial hair. All men except priests had to pay up to 100 roubles (a small fortune in those years) annually.
However, much of Peter’s cultural revolution only affected the upper classes of Russian society. Peasants were allowed to wear beards in their villages, but were required to shave it off when entering the city or pay a one kopek coin for it.
Those who had paid the tax were given a copper token which depicted a moustache and a beard, indicating that the beard tax had been paid. The medal also proclaimed “The beard is a useless burden”. Furthermore, Peter ordered his nobles to wear fashionable German or English style dress instead of their traditional clothing, whilst French became the language of the court and the upper class.
On Peter’s return from Europe, many other reforms followed, including the change from the Old Russian calendar to the Julian calendar. Peter also sent Russians to be educated in the West, and imported skilled labor, military and administrative experts from abroad. Many later praised the tsar for his reforms, but others felt he betrayed his country’s traditions. Several of Peter’s successors reaffirmed his innovation, but the law on wearing beards and beard tax was only completely abolished in 1772.