• McKinley Valentine

The Russian Beard Tax made complete sense

“Quirky facts” strip out the historical context and are often kinda condescending and racist

I want to talk about Quirky Facts: brief, self-encapsulated bits of information that make you go “cool!” and hit share. These facts are stock-in-trade for my newsletter, The Whippet, and the internet in general, as well as shows like QI.

Here’s a Quirky Fact that you might have seen around:

FB post from the British Museum: “Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!”

If you couldn’t show one, you’d be forcibly shaved.

This is totally true, and it seems wacky and random, and the token is great. It reads “a beard is a superfluous burden”. You probably want your friends with beards to know about this.

Now here’s why the tax was introduced, roughly: In the mid-1600s, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Nikon, instituted a bunch of reforms, including re-translations of important church literature (including the wording of prayers and hymns, how to cross yourself, how churches should be constructed, etc). He said it was to bring things in line with the Greek Orthodox Church, and that was probably true, but the restructure also gave the Patriarch, i.e. him, way more personal power.

The fact that the translations were made without scholarly consultation (and apparently contained a lot of errors) made his motives look suspect.

To enforce the reforms, old-style churches were demolished and soldiers raided homes to look for suddenly-heretical imagery. Understandably, a lot of people hated this. Some resisted for religious reasons and some because it was pretty clearly a political move.

The people who resisted, and kept to the old ways, were called Old Believers.

For Old Believers, shaving your beard off was blasphemous. Nikon’s reforms reversed this. So the tax was a combination of religious persecution — like a tax on headscarves would be today — and an attempt to quash resistance to a political power grab.

Not that quirky. I’m not even taking a stance on the reforms or the religious doctrines or Patriarch Nikon — I’m just saying, it’s a pretty rational attack on your political opponents, not a tax on beards, there’s nothing that funny or random about it.

Of course, I get why people share the cute beard tax token without explaining that context — you probably skimmed it yourself, right? It’s complicated and dry. It’s not WRONG to just share the one-sentence summary. But I’m uncomfortable with it because we end up in this position of going “lol random” at people from different countries or times, and then having no understanding of how power operates.

We also end up with a wrong impression of people from other cultures, including historical ones, as totally irrational. Just in case you don’t already know this, no one in the Middle Ages ever believed the earth was flat — it’s a myth from the late 1800s. It ties into contemporary people’s need to believe we’re much smarter and better off than olden times people. I’m not, like, worried that medieval people’s feelings will be hurt, the problem is what it does to us in the here and now. If we think history is full of irrational, you-so-crazy people instead of people just like us, we never really think that we can learn from it.

So here’s the thing I would love for you to remember: when you come across some quirky old or foreign thing that makes you think “lol so random”, catch yourself — especially if it has to do with laws, leaders or money. The people who did it had a motive, and that motive was almost certainly to do with protecting their access to power or resources.

I’ve used a historical example but for a contemporary, foreign-country one try “China makes it illegal to reincarnate without a permit”, a seemingly absurd law that is 100% about not allowing the occupied Tibetan people to choose their own leader after the Dalai Lama dies.

If you can’t see how power and resources come into it, you’re probably missing information, and it’s important to know that (whether you can be bothered finding out what the missing info is, I’m less fussed about. So long as you know there’s more to it).

If you’re interested in Quirky Facts with full story behind then, subscribe to The Whippet! A free fortnightly newsletter, it’s like this but with more facts and a bit less preachy.

P.S. My explanation of the beard tax only looks at one part of why it happened — I was giving enough info to make my broader point. If you want a full history of the relationship between church and state in Tsarist Russia, there’s better sources than me.