On this date in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev chopped to pieces in Moscow for sustaining a major insurrection whose effects would haunt Russia for decades to come.
Pugachev’s Rebellion was the most spectacular specimen in populous family tree of 18th century peasant uprisings.
Most such disturbances were local and fundamentally unthreatening. Pugachev’s was neither.
Catherine was slow to see the import, but this hinterlands pretender set up a state-like bureaucracy and began issuing ukases as tsar — and one can readily discern from their content why he attracted a following:
We bestow on all those who formerly were peasants and in subjugation to the landowners, along with Our monarchic and paternal compassion … tenure of the land and the forests and the hay meadows and the fisheries and the salt lakes, without purchase and without obrok, and we liberate all the aforementioned from the villainous nobles and from the bribe takers in the city–the officials who imposed taxes and other burdens on the peasants and the whole people … [T]hose who formerly were nobles living on estates are enemies to Our power and disrupters of the empire and oppressors of the peasantry, and they should be caught, executed and hanged, they should be treated just as they, who have no Christianity, dealt with you peasants.
The insurrection speedily metastasized, and by the time a force sufficient to quash it was deployed, it had stretched itself from the Urals to the Volga.
Catherine the Great, for her part, was deeply shaken by the affair, and the “enlightened despot”, while maintaining traffic with the era’s liberal intellectual ferment, decisively turned against any reform to serfdom. Catherine’s choice, reinforced by her successors, to uphold their security with nothing but repression maintained Russian serfdom until 1861 on a staggering scale — an anchor dragging down the economy just as industrializing western Europe opened a development gap whose effects persist to this day.