As I am enamored by both Russian history and beards, what better way to kick off Movember than with a post on Peter the Great, otherwise known as the Tsar who sheared a nation.

Peter the Great (r. 1682 – 1725) dreamed of a modernized Russia fit for the world stage. To achieve this, he enacted a series of reforms to transform Russian culture and also built a new city – St. Petersburg – Russia’s window to the West. But Peter’s dreams went beyond edifice.  If the West were to accept a new, modernized Russia at face value, the literal Russian face had to change as well.

At the time of Peter’s reign, the clean-shaven face was in vogue in Europe –  a stark contrast to the very hirsute Russia. Peter observed this, and many other cultural differences, when he covertly toured Europe between 1697 and 1698.

Upon returning to Russia in 1698, Peter greeted his boyars (nobles) with a razor. What was intended as a lively welcoming reception turned into a shaving party! No one dared resist the imposing, 6’8” Tsar. But this makeover was not confined to court, for Peter declared that all men (except priests, deacons, and peasants) must shave.  Those wishing to retain their whiskers had to pay a fine based on their status. Nobles, military officers and chancellery officials had to pay 60 roubles, while merchants of the first guild had to pay 100. Upon payment, taxpayers received a bronze token depicting a beard and inscribed den’ gi yziaty (tax paid).

These reforms were greeted with resistance, inspiring all sorts of rumors. Stories spread that Peter was imprisoned in Sweden or that he was dead. Russia was a proudly hirsute nation and the beard tax was not only an affront to masculinity, but to Russian Orthodoxy (beards were a symbol of piety). 

Writing a century after Peter’s time, the Englishman Robert Brenmer romanticized Russian beards in his 1839 work Excursions in the Interior of Russia:

“The Russian loves his beard with no common love, and there it still flows in ample waves to his girdle, defying alike the beheading sword and the razor. The peasant would sooner part with his purse than his beard; it is his pride, his birthright. Better abandon children and home to wander into forlorn exile, than give up the only thing left him to glory in. […] he knows that no true Russian maid would look at him, if shorn of this beauteous appendage. Without his beard he would neither have affection from others, nor respect from himself. A beard is graceful, imposing, venerable in one word it is Russian.”

The gains from the beard tax were insubstantial, but that was of little consequence. Peter intended to uproot the old order, which he did. One stand at a time.


Image: British Museum collections through Wikimedia Commons
Other Sources:
Borrero, Mauricio. Russia: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present. Publisher.
Hughes, Lindsey. Peter the Great: A Biography. Publisher