What would you do if President Trump forced you to pay a small tax for sporting a beard? That’s what many Russian men faced when Czar Peter I levied a tax on all bearded men.
Russian archeologists found a beard token from 1699 that was used it to avoid harassment from Peter’s royal police. The copper coin was distributed among peasants after paying a single kopek, the lowest type of currency in the Russian empire, for retaining facial hair. Wealthier classes such as the boyars (nobles) and merchants paid as much as 100 rubles on a yearly basis to keep their beards.
The beard coin is priceless, and most of them were melted down a few years after Peter’s death in 1725.
Why was Peter obsessed with beards?
The coin symbolized Czar Peter’s relentless efforts in dragging his countrymen kicking and screaming into the modern age. When his beardless mandate first went into effect, Peter restrained stubborn Russian nobles who scoffed at the decree. In addition, his police brigade forcibly shaved anyone who sported a beard without paying the tax.
Peter the Great was very much the Donald Trump of his age. Loud and boisterous, he was known for his gregarious manner and raunchy drinking affairs that included mock baptisms using vodka, naked women leaping out of pies, and a band of merry dwarfs dressed in lavish costumes carrying dildos. He was a man of imposing stature and stood over six feet tall, a giant for his time.
He was an unabashed absolutist monarch that used the full weight of the crown to remodel his country. The monarch sought to revamp his country from the top-down, including customs, culture, architecture, and fashion.
Revolt of the bearded men
But Peter faced quite a bit of contention at home, as many Russians were not ready to cast aside centuries-old customs, fashion, and dress. The beard was considered a symbol of manhood within Russian culture and was emblematic of virtue and piety among the clergy. Peter traveled throughout western Europe and was embarrassed by his country’s decrepit medieval infrastructure and outdated manner of dress.
The clergy considered the loss of facial hair tantamount to blasphemy, and the czar encountered fierce resistance from religious and noble circles. In an act of rare compromise, Peter imposed the beard tax system to appease his fiercely-traditional compatriots.
Political intrigue behind the beard coin
But there was more to the story than simple emulation of all things western. First, Peter’s love affair with the West was not rooted solely in adoration. He modernized his country to become a powerful contender against his contemporaries in the West.
Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox Church had a wide degree of influence in Russian society, threatening his reign. Therefore, his attack on beards was an indirect attack on the church while bolstering the power of the state. Orthodox clergymen sought to distinguish themselves from their Catholic counterparts, where a beardless face was common among western priests.
Peter got his way in the end, as most men chose to shave their beards rather than pay the tax. However, the beard coins fell almost entirely out of circulation after of his death, and future leaders repealed the beardless decree decades later.