Beards Taxed by Peter the Great, 1698

Peter the Great wanted to rule a modern Russia. He accomplished much toward that end, instituting a modern navy and a host of reforms. He made sure that all the children of the nobility received an education, especially in math and science. He did away with the old order of precedence, based on birth, and replaced it with a new Table of Ranks that was based on merit. And he decreed a new dress code for the people of Russia.

Peter’s reign had gotten off to a shaky start. His father, Tsar Alexis I, had died when Peter was only 4. His half-brother, the sickly Feodor III, had ruled for awhile, at least in name, but had died after only 6 years. Another half-brother of Peter’s, Ivan V, was next in line, but he was ill and considered infirm of mind, so the Duma, the council of Russian nobles, declared Peter as Tsar, with his mother as regent. The people of Moscow ratified it, according to ancient tradition. But that was far from the end of the matter.

Peter had an older half-sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, who led the Streltsy, the Russian elite military, in a rebellion against the decision. Many of Peter’s supporters and relatives were killed, and the ten-year-old boy witnessed some of the murders. As a result of the uprising, Ivan and Peter were declared joint rulers, with Ivan holding the position of the senior Tsar. Actually, however, Sophia held all the power in her position as regent.

By the time Peter turned 17 he was ready to take over. Eventually he gathered enough support to overthrow Sophia, and he forced her to retire to a convent. Peter and Ivan were still co-tsars, but Sophia no longer held the strings. Peter’s mother did.

In 1694, when Peter was 22, his mother died and he finally ruled in his own right. Technically, Ivan was still co-ruler, but he was largely ineffectual.

Peter was determined to create a modern Russia, and to do that, he believed, he needed a navy and strong allies. In 1697 he embarked on an 18-month trip through Europe, called the “Grand Embassy.” He sought to broaden and strengthen the Holy League, an alliance against the Ottoman Empire. He also wanted to learn as much as he could about how things were done in the world outside of Russia. The Embassy was officially headed by several of Peter’s most trusted men. Peter went along incognito, under the name Peter Mikhailov.

As far as making alliances against the Turks went, the trip was an utter failure. Everyone had their own concerns: France was already allied to the Ottomans, Austria sought neutrality, and all of Europe was more interested in the Spanish succession than they were with Peter’s concerns. But Peter learned a lot during the trip, not just manners and customs — although he learned a lot about those, too — but about shipbuilding and engineering. He worked in the shipyards of the Dutch East India Company for four months. He also learned about dentistry, botany, and butterflies from the learned scholars of the day.

After Holland, Peter went to England, visiting Oxford and Greenwich, and spending time reviewing the Royal Navy. In Manchester he studied city planning.

The Grand Embassy trip was cut short by another uprising of the streltsy. By the time he got home, it had been crushed, but Peter was there in time to deal harshly with the rebels. He was ready to stay home now, and he was determined to make Russia into a modern country.

Peter wanted to stop the custom of arranged marriages, which he thought barbaric and contributing to domestic violence. He had been the victim of an arranged marriage himself, to Eudoxia Lopukhina, the daughter of a conservative boyar house. After his return from the West, he had the marriage annulled, and Eudoxia was sent to a convent.

He had been very impressed with what he had seen in the European cities and courts. He wanted his people to dress in the modern, European fashion, as he had seen in the courts of the Western nations. Instead of the traditional, almost Oriental-style robes, he wished to see his noblemen in pants and shirts, and adorned with gold and silver ornaments, to whatever extent they could afford. For the common folk, a suit of clothes in the new style was hung at the city gate. Everyone except peasants was expected to have clothes tailored in the new style. Those not complying would be fined.

Women, too, had some changes to get used to. Instead of wearing caps and bonnets, they were expected to style their hair. They were now to be invited to weddings and banquets, where they would dine in the same hall as the men, and attend concerts and dances afterwards. Of course, only those dressed appropriately would be admitted to the festivities.

Peter decreed that from then on, modern dress would be worn by the Russian boyars. He also wanted the noblemen to cut their beards. If they declined to cut them, they would have to pay a tax of one hundred rubles a year. In return, they received a “beard token”, which displayed the Russian Eagle on one side and a bearded face on the other. On one side was the inscription, “The tax has been taken.” The other side read, “The beard is a superfluous burden.”

The beard tax was the cause of a great deal of public outrage. The tradition had long been for men of the upper classes to wear their beards long and their hair short. (The clergy, to distinguish themselves from the laypeople, wore their hair long.) The new tax applied not just to the boyars: commoners also had to pay a tax if they wanted to wear a beard, although theirs was only a kopek a year. Officials were posted to enforce the law — it was best to keep your beard token on your person.

The feeling among many of the Russians was that the new beardless fashion was undercutting the influence of religion, and was regarded as a great sin on the part of the Tsar. The priests did their best to fan the flames of this opposition, even distributing pamphlets on the subject. The priests, it is true, were required to keep their beards long by the tenets of their faith, but Peter had granted an exemption to them for just that reason. Old Russians, who had lived many years under the old tradition, were worried that they would not be admitted to Heaven without their beards, and they carefully kept their shaved beards stored away. They wanted them available so that the beards could be placed with them in their coffins when the time to meet their Maker finally came.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; 5;;;;;;;;;

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