With the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign gathering steam by the day,
it’s a safe bet that taxes will be a common topic, regardless of the politician.
Of all the taxes that will be referenced in political speech in the
United States, none may be as broad-reaching as one in 18th century
Russia. The beard tax of Peter the Great led to a series of
fascinating tokens, one of which is offered in Fritz Rudolph Künker’s
March 10 auction of Russian coins.
Peter the Great instituted numerous reforms, building St. Petersburg
and positioning his nation for success in the 18th century.
One of his reforms, however, was directed at the way citizens
presented themselves. In 1698, Peter decreed that Russians should
dress more like other Europeans, and outlawed beards and other facial hair.
The ukase (or edict) was followed by another in 1705 that authorized
the issuance of beard tokens, to be purchased by those who continued
to wear facial hair. These served as receipts for the tax, allowing
them to continue to sport facial hair.
Peasants and clerics were exempt, but everyone else who wanted to
wear a beard had to pay the annual fee and carry a token as proof of payment.
Randolph Zander, writing in The Numismatist (“Russian Beard
Tokens,” December 1948), noted: “The law provided for check-points at
the entrance to towns, where officials would deny passage to any
bearded person who could not produce a beard token. In addition, law
enforcement agencies were enjoined to arrest and fine bewhiskered
individuals on sight if they carried no beard license.”
The first pieces were round affairs showing a nose, mustache and
beard on one side and the imperial eagle on the reverse. Later issues
were diamond shaped and dropped the images but bore the legend, “The
beard is an unnecessary burden.”
Zander wrote, “The czar’s frontal attack on the customs of his
people produced a violent and indignant reaction.”
The tax was collected from 1705 to 1772. It was levied according to
rank, topping out at 100 rubles for wealthy merchants.
Subsequent rulers continued Peter’s policy toward men’s facial hair,
until Catherine II (the Great) took the throne in 1762 following the
death of her husband, Peter III.
Walter Hawkins, writing in “Russian Beard Tokens” in the 1843–1844
Numismatic Chronicle, suggests that the tokens are rare (with
the exception of novodels or restrikes in the 19th century) because of
the public’s distaste for the tax.
“The national aversion to the origin of this token probably caused
their destruction or dispersion, after they had served their purpose
for the years as they are now very rarely to be met with, even in
Russia,” he wrote.
The beard token in the Künker auction is in Very Fine condition and
has an estimate of €1,000 (about $1,133 in U.S. funds.)