5 September 1698: Peter the Great’s beard tax

In 1696, after the death of his half-brother Ivan, Pyotr Alexeyevich became Tsar Peter I (pictured). After a trip to Austria, Holland and England, ‘Peter the Great’ decided that Russia had to be modernised to bring it into line with Europe.

One of his most important symbolic decisions was to tax beards and traditional clothing. The tax, which applied to everyone except priests and peasants, was very successful in getting people to adopt more modern garb.

These cultural changes were accompanied by political and military reforms, among them his attempt to turn Russia into a maritime power by greatly expanding its navy.

The port of St Petersburg was founded in 1703 and became the Russian capital ten years later. He also centralised the machinery of government, reducing the power of the nobility.

This allowed Russia to defeat Swedish and Turkish invaders, and to extend Russian control over the Baltic countries, turning it into a major world power. But while Peter made Russia stronger in the short run, his rule set it back in other ways.

He used mass executions to crush dissent, and increased state control over the Russian Orthodox Church, while his decision to strengthen the rights of masters over their serfs prevented the emergence of democracy.

Some even argue that Peter’s use of secret police provided the template for Stalin’s terror, over 200 years later.

Merryn

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