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Quirk of history

The Tsar who went to war with whiskers

Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty

Peter the Great launched his infamous beard tax in “classic Peter the Great fashion”, says The Retrospectors podcast. During a banquet being held in his honour in 1698, the Russian tsar suddenly brandished a “huge barber’s razor” and proceeded to “personally shave all of his bearded guests”. The bizarre levy was part of an effort to westernise his agrarian country. During a secret tour of Europe – he went disguised, somewhat implausibly, as “Sergeant Peter Mikhailov” – Peter had decided that beardless faces were a mark of sophistication.

He couldn’t just ban beards outright because of the Orthodox Church’s whiskery traditions. Instead, he enacted a tiered tax based on wealth: peasants were excluded altogether, while wealthy merchants had to pay the not insubstantial sum of 100 roubles a year. Those who forked out received a token they had to carry around with them: silver for nobility, copper for everyone else. Carved on the front was a “nose and a mouth with a moustache and a beard” – and even a “cigarette packet-style warning” describing beards as a “superfluous burden”.