Sten’ka Razin

[Kris Mcclellan]

Popular uprisings can provide historians with a unique perspective on the social, cultural, and economic conditions in a particular time and place. Mass uprisings are usually the product of a variety of grievances held by diverse actors; because of this heterogeneous quality, it can be easy for multiple participating groups to craft their own version of the rebellion and incorporate it into their national histories. These diverse interpretations and motives can also undermine the potency of these national myths, however, and the motivational potential of the uprising for later generations may be diminished by the lack of a unifying history of previous rebellions. The Stepan Razin rebellion in the Don and Volga region between 1667 and 1671 reflects these elements of a popular uprising. Razin gathered a vast and diverse following, but his message did not suggest a viable alternative to the centralizing Russian state and was unable to harmonize the various motives of the insurgents. Several national groups, as well as Russians, were involved, but the rebellion largely reflected socio-economic grievances and not ethnic, religious, or national complaints. Although the rebellion inspired an undercurrent of hope for the eventual liberation of the masses, it did not provide a good foundation for the construction of national myths of resistance to tsarist imperialism.

The roots of the Razin revolt extend back to the beginning of the Romanov dynasty and the conclusion of the Time of Troubles (smuta). The government under Tsar Michael (1613-1645) succeeded in subduing serious fighting but did not address the underlying causes of the crisis, so that “on the lower Volga and ‘wild fields’ of the southern frontier banditry remained endemic and threatened to flare up at any moment into open revolt” (Avrich, 51). For the next three quarters of a century, Tsar Michael and then Tsar Alexis (1645-1676) pursued centralization of administrative and military power to prevent a repeat of the Time of Troubles, including the Law Code of 1649 which codified serfdom and firmly bound all elements of society into place (Avrich, 52). The new Law Code helped spur the first waves of immigrants to the Don Cossack territory as peasants sought refuge from serfdom (according to Cossack tradition, any man who made it to the Don was considered a free man, and “from the Don, no one is handed over” to the government) (Avrich, 61-2). Newly incorporated ethnic groups interpreted the centralizing policies of the tsarist state as brutal foreign domination that would force them to accept a foreign social and administrative order, and eventually subordinate their identity to a foreign religion and culture (Kappeler, 153).

The war with Poland and Sweden that began in 1654 exacerbated the peasants’ problems. It interrupted economic recovery and reconstruction (still under way after the Time of Troubles) while causing an increase in taxes and demand for soldiers (Avrich, 53). These factors contributed to an influx of diverse colonists, legal and illegal, to the Don Cossack lands, including Orthodox Slavs, Muslim Tatars, pagan iasak peoples from the Middle Volga, and Old Believers (Sunderland, 30). The labor problem created by this mass exodus caused the government to take on the recovery of run-away serfs as a state responsibility in 1658; thousands of fleeing peasants were captured in the Middle Volga and Tambov regions, both future Razin strongholds (Blumberg, 269). The new settlers concentrated on the riverbanks and mostly relied on agriculture, a practice shunned by Cossacks as a threat to their autonomy (Avrich, 61). The population of the Don territory tripled between 1645 and 1670, depleting the woodlands and rich alluvial soil and devastating wildlife resources (Sunderland, 31). The newcomers caused a cleavage between the established, downstream “house-owning” (domovitye) Cossacks, who controlled Cossack society from their base in Cherkassk and generally had good relations with Moscow, and upstream, newly-arrived “naked” (golytba or golutvennye) Cossacks who were disgruntled with imperial policies and the “house-owning” Cossacks’ reluctance to incorporate them into the Cossack community (Avrich, 63). Stepan Timofeeyevich Razin himself came from the “house-owning” group, and was the godson of the voiskovoi ataman, Kornilo Yakovlev, the leader of the Don Cossacks, but he organized the economically disadvantaged “naked” Cossacks, at first in the Cossack tradition of pirate raiding, and thereafter in open rebellion (Avrich, 66).

The Don Cossacks were accustomed to raiding in the Crimea, but between 1661 and 1665, the Crimeans expanded and improved their defensive fortifications to prevent Cossack and Kalmyk raids. Razin decided to switch from traditional raiding routes along the Don toward Persia and eventually to Russia (Khodarkovsky, 137). He set out on his first expedition in April 1667 to raid on the Caspian Sea and establish a base of operations at Yaitsk. Tsar Alexis asked his godfather, Kornilo Yakovlev, to rein in Razin, but at this early stage, Yakovlev felt no threat from Stepan and did not want to submit to the tsar against a fellow Cossack (Avrich, 70). Razin easily captured a convoy and made a declaration to his captives that would shape the remainder of his rebellious career, saying to them “Go wherever you please. I shall not force you to join me, but whoever chooses to come with me will be a free Cossack. I have come to fight only the boyars and wealthy lords. As for the poor and plain folk, I shall treat them as brothers” (Avrich, 70, emphasis added).

Razin continued down the Volga unopposed, and his myth of invincibility grew. Detachments of streltsy (Russian guardsmen) sent to stop him defected instead, motivated by their own lower-class background and dissatisfaction over their pay (Avrich, 71). Razin’s forces took Yaitsk and wintered there as planned, setting out again in March 1668 with 30 strugi (Russian longboats well-suited to navigating rivers and inland seas) to raid the Dagestan coast from Derbent to Baku (Avrich, 71-2). His successes were tempered by a harsh winter and increasing Persian resistance, including a fleet of Persian galleys and 3,700 troops commanded by Menedi Khan. His strugi defeated the galleys in June 1669 and the victory added to his growing reputation, but Razin’s men were ill from poor supplies and around 500 were killed in the battle, so he turned back toward the Don (Avrich, 72-3). His men entered Astrakhan as victorious and heroic warriors after the voevoda, Prince Ivan Prozorovsky, offered Razin a full pardon if he gave up his heavy ships and guns and released his prisoners and the streltsy defectors who had joined him. Razin failed to fulfill the agreement, and Razin’s popularity insured that the voevoda, fearful that his own streltsy would prove unreliable, would not try to enforce it (Avrich, 73).

Razin left Astrakhan in September 1669 to establish a fortified base on Kagalnik Island in the Don River. His reputation “swelled to god-like proportions,” and so did his band of followers, who by spring 1670 numbered over four thousand (Avrich, 76). By this time, Razin had transformed this group of angry, disaffected people from a shaika (gang of pirates) to a voisko (rebel army) that targeted the wealthy and government officials, and he had become convinced of the weakness of official Russia, whose forces either defected to him or were easily defeated (Avrich, 77). Razin tried to forge an alliance at this point with the Dnieper and Western Ukrainian Cossacks, but their deep-seated rivalries frustrated his plans for a great Don Host Republic (Avrich, 77). Cossack divisions occurred much closer to home for Razin when, in December 1669, the tsar sent Gerasim Eudokimov to his godfather, Yakovlev, to restrain Razin (Avrich, 78). Razin burst into the krug (Cossack assembly) where they were meeting, denounced the tsar’s envoy as a spy, beat him, and drowned him in the Don, killing several elders who tried to stand in his way in the process (Avrich, 78). This enraged the tsar, who immediately tried to cut off all supplies to the Cossack region to punish and subdue them (Avrich, 78).

Seven thousand Don Cossacks stood with Razin in March 1670 when he declared his intention to attack the enemies and betrayers of the tsar, the boyars and voevodas, “to give freedom to the common people,” and pledged “to serve and die for the House of the Blessed Virgin and for the Great Sovereign”(Avrich, 79). One of Razin’s lieutenants, Vaska Us (who led a failed uprising several years before), took Tsaritsyn by deceit and defeated the government force sent to retake it (Avrich, 80). Following Cossack tradition and in the spirit of Razin’s declarations to defend the common people, he established self-government in Tsaritsyn, complete with a Cossack-style assembly (krug). This body may have contributed significantly to Razin’s eventual defeat when it voted to direct the rebellion to Astrakhan first before sweeping back up to Moscow, allowing the tsar time to bolster his defenses and enlist loyal groups like the Kalmyks to help stop the flow of fugitives and supplies to Razin’s forces (Avrich, 80-81).

Many of the streltsy in the Russian frontier proved to be unreliable against Razin’s forces. They shared many of the rebels’ grievances, as they were also residents of the posads (outskirt settlements of commoners surrounding town center, monastery, or citadel) of the outpost towns which were “overflowing with potential insurgents” who were impoverished, rootless, overburdened with taxes, and resentful of government monopolies (Avrich, 56-7). The streltsy in Cherny Yar mutinied and murdered their officers before opening the city to Razin, and the 2,600 streltsy under Prince Lvov from Astrakhan refused to fight, defecting instead “to help him [Razin] kill the masters, voevodas, officials, and other ranks of noblemen”(Avrich, 82-3). Astrakhan, Moscow’s “window on the East” and a wealthy, strategically important city, fell to a two-pronged attack by Razin, whose forces plundered the city and “slew the clerks and officials, the colonel and streltsy captains, the Moscow gentry and the Astrakhan gentry” (Avrich, 87). Razin instituted Cossack-style rule in Astrakhan and the city was orderly during his time there, but when he left it in the hands of others, discipline devolved into mob rule (Avrich, 88).

After Astrakhan, Razin’s triumphs mounted. Saratov and Samara fell without opposition because of internal uprisings of urban residents reacting to appalling conditions and Razin’s revolutionary message (Avrich, 89). Razin used leaflets and covert agents to spread his message throughout Russia, proclaiming that he was “going to Rus to establish the Cossack way there, so that all men will be equal” and inspiring peasants to burn manor houses and title deeds (only a few went so far as to murder their masters) (Avrich, 89-90). Non-Russian peoples on the Volga also joined Razin; Mordva, Mari, and Chuvash tribesmen had been peasants until Russian and Tatar nobles confiscated their lands, and they rebelled against forced baptisms by killing the Archbishop of Riazan (Avrich, 90). Some Bashkirs, Kalmyks, and Tatars also joined the rebellion, but most of their kinsmen remained loyal to the tsar (Avrich, 91). Women were involved as propagandists and even commanders (including Razin’s mother), and the lower clergy-which shared many of the economic grievances that drove others to join-contributed by writing “seditious letters” and creating an aura of religious fanaticism around the rebel army (Avrich, 92). Razin acquired a messianic character which the government tried unsuccessfully to discredit, but Razin was more concerned with spreading his revolutionary message than fighting a religious war, so he tailored his pronouncements to appeal to different local faiths, including Muslims (Avrich, 93-5). He was admired and revered for his courage and called Batiushka (“Little Father”), a term of endearment and respect reserved for the tsar (Blumberg, 272). He also tried to increase his movement’s legitimacy by claiming to have the (allegedly, and it turns out, actually) dead tsarevich Alexis and the disgraced Patriarch, Nikon, whom Razin saw as the victim of a boyar conspiracy but who refused to support Razin’s movement (Avrich, 95-7).

By the summer of 1670, Razin controlled 800 miles of the Volga and was closing in on Moscow with a great deal of popular support (Avrich, 97). Tsar Alexis dispatched Prince Yuri Dolgoruky to intercept and destroy the rebel force using seasoned, well-trained veteran troops from the Polish War (Avrich, 97). The decisive showdown occurred at Simbirsk, the last stronghold before Moscow, under the control of the voevoda Prince Ivan Miloslavsky, who was a popular and well-respected leader among his streltsy. Razin initiated his attack on September 5, 1670, but his traditionally armed peasant gang was no match for seasoned troops armed with modern weapons, even with a four to one numerical advantage (Avrich, 98). The city’s defenders, counting on the arrival of reinforcements led by Prince Yuri Bariatinsky, held Razin at bay during a month-long siege until Bariatinsky arrived in force on October 1, and Razin was in full retreat by October 3. During the siege, he sent some forces to spread his movement and build a broader support base before heading to Moscow, but the tactic failed, and his divided force was no match for the tsar’s armies (Avrich, 100-104). Razin’s brother Frolka suffered a nearly simultaneous defeat at Korotoyak on September 27, and both main Cossack forces retreated for the Don.

The revolt continued to spread in Kadom, Kurmysk, Saransk, Lomov, Kerensk, and Tambov for several months, and raids by Cossacks, peasants, and tribesmen spread the rebellion to the Oka River, raising anxieties in the capital (Avrich, 105-6). By November 1670, Dolgoruky reported to the tsar that the territory “from Simbirsk to Kazan and from Kazan to Moscow” had been pacified by imperial armies (Avrich, 107-8). Frolka tried to rally and went on to besiege Tambov, but after five weeks, on December 5, the forces of Prince Romodanovsky caught up with him and overtook the retreating Cossacks at Boikino, halting the rebellion before it entered the Russian heartland (Avrich, 108). The rebels scattered in all directions, some to Siberia, some to their Zaporozhian cousins on the Dnieper, and others to the forests, but the majority were hunted down and executed or banished (Avrich, 109). The official suppression of the rebellion was far more brutal than the insurgency that provoked it, and the government used public torture and executions to terrorize the population back into submission (Avrich, 109). Thousands of Russian peasants as well as Chuvash, Mordva, and Mari tribesmen between Kazan and Nizhni Novgorod were executed and their villages were burnt down. Under official interrogation, the Mari explained that they were motivated by Razin’s leaflets, but that they also wanted “to regain their ancestral lands of which the state had deprived them” (Avrich, 110). These sorts of diverse motives helped attract a large following to Stepan Razin’s rebellion, but they also make it difficult if not impossible for groups to claim the rebellion as their own “national” response to Russian imperialism.

As government forces swept up the countryside, Razin retreated to Kagalnik to recover from his wounds and regroup. He set out in February of 1671 with a (now much smaller) band of “naked” Cossacks to unseat the established Cossack authority in Cherkassk, but loyalists of Yakovlev and Mikhail Samarenin prevented him from entering the settlement after a week of trying, and Razin returned to Kagalnik (Avrich, 111). Finally recognizing Razin as a threat, Yakovlev sided with the tsar, who sent full payment of the Cossack’s zhalovanie (annual subsidy for protecting the frontiers of the empire) and 2,000 dragoons (the first such imperial force to ever enter Don Cossack territory) in March 1671. Yakovlev then attacked Stepan at Kagalnik on April 14, captured both Stepan and Frolka, and took them under guard to Moscow (Avrich, 112). Although their leader and chief fortress were gone, the legacy of opposition could never be completely extinguished among the “naked” Cossacks.

Razin requested an audience with the tsar, whom he believed until the end to be a good man who was the victim of boyar influence. Alexis interrogated him, and then handed him over to be tortured; he was beaten with the knout, his limbs pulled out of joint, branded, and cold water was dripped on his shaved head. On June 6, 1671, Razin was brought to Red Square to be executed “for evil and loathsome acts against God, for betraying the Great Sovereign Tsar and Grand Prince Alexis Mikhailovich, and for bringing ruin and devastation upon the whole Muscovite state” (Avrich, 112-3). His mother and uncle were executed around the same time for their role in the uprising, but his brother was held captive until he was finally decapitated in 1676. The tsar rewarded Yakovlev and Samarenin for their services, but it was the beginning of the end of Cossack independence. In August 1671, the Cossacks swore an oath of fealty to the Tsar Alexis and became Muscovite subjects (Avrich, 113). Astrakhan was the last rebel stronghold to fall to the tsar’s forces, but only after a long siege and desperate bloodbath at the end. By January of 1672, Moscow celebrated complete victory over the rebellion and the return of order in the lands of Muscovy (Avrich, 115).

The revolt was a bitter reminder that even parts of the steppe claimed by Moscow were still mostly beyond direct state control (Sunderland, 31). In the end, Razin’s rebellion helped to accelerate many of the trends he had hoped to reverse, like the centralization of state authority and encroachments on Cossack autonomy. Razin remains a powerful and popular figure in Russia even today; he is the subject of more songs and legends than any other popular hero, and has been attributed with superhuman powers and even immortality (Avrich, 120). Tsarist authorities tried to fight his legacy, and censors even banned the publication of parts of Pushkin’s “The Songs of Stenka Razin” because they felt some of the songs justified his actions as the product of righteous wrath (Blumberg, 273). Even Vladimir Lenin identified with Razin’s resistance against the upper class elites and dedicated a statue to him on May Day in 1919 (Blumberg, 273).

The Razin Rebellion was devastating and still serves as a powerful symbol of resistance, but it was largely provoked by socio-economic conditions and not ethnic or religious tensions. Razin appealed to Orthodox Russians as well as Muslims and Old Believers; as in government, Razin and the Cossacks thought that the people in each region should be allowed to follow their own path in religion. The Cossack-republic model that Razin implemented in conquered towns held the promise of a democratic Russia that was quickly extinguished by a centralizing, bureaucratizing, militarizing authoritarian Moscow. The Cossacks and other peoples along the Don and Volga lost more and more autonomy as Moscow and St. Petersburg grew stronger, and although later revolts did occur (like Pugachev), none was able to fulfill Razin’s vision of a popular government. The various tribes that participated in the rebellion were also unable to secure their independence; thousands of tribesmen were executed outright, and over succeeding generations Russian immigration to the fertile lands continued to threaten their cultural survival. Razin led a diverse multiethnic rebellion, but was unable to overcome divisions among the various tribes and peoples to unite them all against the real common threat from Moscow, as the divisions among Cossacks, Kalmyks, Bashkirs, and others have shown. The Razin Rebellion was largely a failure in the end because it was unable to affect the kinds of changes for which its leaders and participants fought. The man Pushkin called “the most poetic figure in Russian history” remained just that, a hero in legends and songs, but not an effective role model for national consciousness or massive social progress.


Works cited

  • Paul Avrich, Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 (New York: Schocken Books, 1972 ).
  • Arnold Blumberg, ed. Great Leaders, Great Tyrants? Contemporary Views of World Rulers Who Made History (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1995).
  • Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: A Multiethnic History (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001).
  • Michael Khodarkovsky, Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).
  • Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).