1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

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.

The Cossack commander raised a revolt in the Urals in 1773, styling himself the long-lost tsar Catherine had overthrown a decade before.

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.

Alexander Pushkin used the story of Pugachev’s rebellion for The Captain’s Daughter (text in English | Russian), which has been adapted to film several times — most recently in 2000.

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.

4 thoughts on “1775: Yemelyan Pugachev”

  1. Good post, Headsman. Great addition, Dmitri: a humane woman the Russian Minerva was!:)

    Here is my contribution. The Empress was rather reluctant to be reminded of the unfortunate uprising. In 1775, five days after the execution, she ordered to rename some memory-disturbing geographical spots: the river Yaik henceforth borne the name Ural and the town of Yaitsk became known as Uralsk.

  2. On 15 November, I wrote about Pugachev: “…Later, in Moscow, Pugachev and some of his friends, Perfilyev, Shigayev, Podurov and Tornov, were sentenced to death. He was to be quartered, decapitated and his remains were to be burned. The empress Catherine secretly ordered the executor to decapitate Pugachev and other rebels before the quartering to decrease their suffering.”

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