Peter the Great brought about many radical changes during his reign. But why exactly did he want his people to stop having beards?
Peter's Problem with Beards
On this day in 1698, Tsar (later, Emperor) Peter the First introduced a tax on beards, with the idea that this would force his subjects to conform to European fashion trends (beards had gone out of fashion in European countries). He even went so far as to allow his guards to forcibly and publicly shave anyone who refused to pay the tax. Those who paid their beard tax were required to carry a beard token (pictured below), that showed they had lawfully bought the right to have a beard. This tax on beards remained in force until 1772.
A beard token (1705)
Why didn’t people want to go clean-shaven? Well, according to the Orthodox Religion, it is a religious requirement for a man to have a beard, and so many believed that shaving off their beard would be counted as a sin. Others considered that this change - a change that was part of Peter’s overall aim to make Russian culture more European - would be a betrayal to true Russian culture. Debates about Russia’s direction - about whether Russian culture should be Westernised (the Europhile stance) or stay true to its roots by rejecting European influences (the Slavophile stance) - became more common after Peter the Great’s radical Western reforms, reaching their peak 19th century.
Russian dress in the 17th century
Why was Peter so desperate to get rid of these beards?
In 1697, towards the beginning of his reign as Tsar, Peter I went on a tour around Europe (called the ‘Grand Embassy’), during which he visited places such as The Netherlands, France, and Austria. Although originally intended to be a political journey (he was going to the countries to ask for help in his fight against the Ottoman Empire), the time abroad ended up being a time of cultural enlightenment for the ruler: he was captivated by the sophistication of Dutch culture and, as a result, aimed to replicate such culture in his own country. He returned to Russia and set about to establish a new city - a ‘window to the West - that would be modelled on a typical European city of the time. By 1703, a city had been created. Its name? - Saint-Petersburg.
St. Petersburg in its early days
Peter’s vision was to create a city that would not only resemble Europe in its architecture, but would also resemble European cities in its culture - in other words, in the way people dressed and behaved. Therefore, this tax on beards was not just about the removal of facial hair - it was a symbolic gesture towards European style and thought. This gesture would soon be followed by several other taxes that aimed to draw Russian people away from their own Slavic practices and towards more ‘European’ practices: during his reign, Peter the Great is sad to have introduced taxes on the Slavic traditions of bathing, fishing, and even bee-keeping!
Did you know? Peter wasn’t the only one to have a problem with beards - in 1535, Henry VIII of England introduced a tax on beards (despite having a beard himself!)
Henry VIII, King of England in the 16th century.
Peter the Great: malevolent or benevolent?
Not all of Peter the Great’s reforms were negative and wholly European-focused. He introduced several economic reforms that would strengthen and consolidate trade within Russia’s borders. For example, he brought in heavy tariffs on imports from outside of the Empire, meaning that people would be more likely to choose Russian products over foreign versions.
Furthermore, although it may seem that, with all of these unnecessarily harsh taxes posed on beards and leisure activities, Peter the Great was a malevolent ruler, he did many other things that would suggest the contrary. For example, he taxed boyars in order to reduce social stratification in Russia. Although, of course, this did not solve the problem of social stratification (the system of serfdom would still exist for about 150 more years), it at least initiated a process of liberation and (perhaps even) encouraged future rulers to establish similarly-enlightened laws.
Peter the Great
What do you think? Was Peter the Great good or bad for Russia? What do you think about his intention to ‘Westernise’ Russia? Was he betraying tradition, or introducing cultural reforms that would allow Russia to fit in more with European countries?