[Max Gordon]

Pugachev’s rebellion was in many ways the zenith of resistance to Imperial expansion and bureaucratization, a culmination of frictions between peripheral forces and the central tsarist government. It was the largest of a long series of rebellions on Russia’s vast steppe, following Ivan Bolotnikov’s uprising of 1606-07, the infamous Stepan (Sten’ka) Razin’s from 1669-71, Kondratii Bulavin’s of 1707-08, and many other smaller incidents (Alexander 44). Lasting from 1773-1775, Pugachev’s revolt, commonly known as Pugachevshchina, had a distinctively multi-ethnic and traditionalist character. It was not an isolated incident of insurrection, but rather a popular uprising that fit into the larger context of Russian Imperial relations with the peoples of the Steppe.

Central to the Pugachevshchina was the concept of volia, the ‘freedom-loving’ spirit of the Cossacks which the rebellion constantly invoked. Cossack is a generic term for the nomadic tribal peoples of the Steppe and their descendants. It is supposedly a word of turkic origin (kazak in Russian) that itself means ‘nomad.’ Despite the generalization, the Cossacks were in fact a diverse group (or groups) of different ethnicities. Many were Tatars, Turkic-speaking nomads who had long been present on the Steppe. Others were, in fact, Russian, often fugitives of the state. Whether running from the law, from oppressive lords, or from religious persecution (especially the Old Believers), many alienated Russians turned to the Cossacks for shelter, and eventually were integrated.

As Muscovite and later Imperial power expanded onto the Steppe, tsarist relations with the Cossacks were double-edged. These nomads often proved to be rowdy and fractious, presenting a danger to Russian interests in the region. Yet they were also seen as useful, if precarious, allies, acting as border guards in exchange for certain privileges. These privileges included a certain degree of autonomy from the Russian state, as well as rights to pasture lands, fishing grounds, military service without actual enlistment, etc. This autonomy also corresponded to a certain level of participatory, tribal egalitarianism in contrast to the authoritarian Russian system of government. It was this (at least perceived) egalitarianism, autonomy, decentralized power, refuge for the alienated, relative absence of serfdom, and nomadic lifestyle which constituted the idea of volia, which literally means something akin to self-determination.

Beginning with the reign of Peter I and continuing through Catherine II, the increasing burden of Russian imperial hegemony created greater and greater friction with the volia-loving Cossacks. The Yaik Cossacks, who were to be the instigators of the Pugachevshchina (though Pugachev himself was a Don Cossack), were a community of fervent Old Believers. Their traditional clothing and religious reverence for beards meant that their very appearances contrasted starkly with those of the Russian bureaucrats, which since Petrine times had been forced to wear German dress and shave their beards. Catherine II’s German ethnicity only heightened this general sense of the ‘foreignness’ of Russian government officials and military officers and soldiers that the Cossacks came into contact with, not to mention the already persecuted status of Old Believers by the ruler. Other participants in the Pugachevshchina, such as the Bashkirs (who along with the Yaik Cossacks constituted the majority of rebels), faced discrimination because of their Muslim faith.

In the decades leading up to the revolt, the intense Imperial bureaucratization had begun to penetrate more deeply into the lives of the Cossacks, and this was yet another source of contention. The Secret Expedition, a Senatorial interrogation institution initiated by Catherine II to combat unrest of all sorts and throughout the entire empire, became a symbol of bureaucratic abuse, anathema to the Cossacks. The state monopoly on weapons had for a century been used to exert pressures on them to act more in line with the imperial vision. A census was instigated in 1722, crucial to bringing the Cossacks further under to veil of the Imperial bureaucracy. By 1740, the right to appoint the ataman (the leader of any band of Cossacks) was taken over by the government, and by 1750 the Yaik Cossacks passed under control of the governor-general in Orenburg (Alexander, 46). These atamans, who had previously been elected by the Cossacks themselves took over customary Yaik enterprise, effectively controlling access to wealth. Thus, atamans and their advisors, known as the starshina, became increasingly wealthy while their subordinates watched their traditional rights and privileges wither away. This focus on co-opting the elite was part of a larger pattern of Russian expansion, but was practiced more intensely on the Steppe than, say, in Central Asia or in the North.

Mining in the Ural region was highly invasive to traditional Bashkir lands. Tension between the Muslim Bashkirs and the Orthodox colonists in the region often developed a specifically religious edge. Mutual antagonism between the Bashkirs and certain Orthodox Russians did not, however, rule out friendship with others of the Orthodox faith (especially with the Old Believers), some being Cossacks and others Russian. One of the reasons that the Pugachevshchina acquired such a large following was that it was tailored to appeal to a diverse population, and addressed grievances held in common by many. Declaring himself to be Tsar Peter III, Pugachev “claimed [that he] had not been murdered after all but had meekly accepted his dethronement and then…had wandered sadly among his people, learning of their sufferings and grievances”(Hosking 229). By filling this very far-from-reality portrait of Peter III, Pugachev set himself up against what those alienated Cossacks, Tatars, Russian fugitives, etc. viewed as a Germanized, alien Russian incursion into land that was rightfully theirs.

This alien incursion was, in the minds of the Cossacks, in direct opposition to the spirit of volia. Under the economic pressures of modernization since the time of Peter I, the problems of serfdom were exacerbated, and even within Cossack tribes the bureaucratized wealthy elites owned serfs. The centralized, absolutist government continued to eat away at the rights and autonomy of the more democratic Cossacks, and its impersonal, bureaucratic nature was despised. Those whom Pugachev in his manifesto of July 1774 denounced as “wicked nobles and mercenary urban judges” (Hosking, 229) embodied the oppressive, impersonal face of bureaucracy. The economic modernization practiced by the government via these wicked nobles ran counter to the pastoral idealism of the Steppe. The German dress, shaving of beards, and persecution of the Old Believers conflicted with what the Cossacks saw as the righteousness of Christian law, though this ideal was not something so central to the cause as to estrange the Muslim Bashkir allies. Rather, it was a desire for the right to practice unimpeded by imperial law. Whereas the government saw “preservation of political and social stability as its top priority” (Kappeler, 107), which entailed bureaucratization, integration, and control of the Steppe peoples, the rebels sought the “maintenance or restoration of ancient rights” (Kappeler, 156), which of course meant the end of bureaucratization and suppression. Catherine II, seeing a threat to the great modernization project, responded with brutality (Pugachev’s own actions were similarly brutal), although, consistent with her vision of enlightened despotism, pardoned many of the lesser transgressors once the rebellion had been resoundingly quashed. To this end it was not something nationalistic, but rather cross-ethnic and inclusive, a fundamentally class- and ideology-oriented struggle. As the tsars continued to encounter various pushes for liberation throughout the empire (such as the serf question, various nationalistic movements, etc.), the horrors of the Pugachevshchina were invoked time and again as justification for harsh crackdowns. Thus, it is arguable that in the end the rebellion actually played into the hands of the government. But perhaps the greatest significance of the Pugachevshchina was that it was a rebellion against the alienating forces of modernization, evidence of the flaws of absolutist rule. Thus, despite being traditional and pastoralist in its yearnings and ideals, it is in a certain sense a modern uprising, and at the very least a harbinger of the great questions of the Modern Age in Russia.


Works cited

  • John T. Alexander, Autocratic Politics in a National Crisis: The Imperial Russian Government and Pugachev’s Revolt (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1969).
  • Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians, a History (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 2001).
  • Andreas Kappeler, trans. Alfred Clayton, The Russian Empire: a Multiethnic History (Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, 2001).