Peasant Uprisings

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Also known as "Peasant wars"; peasant uprisings in broad usage, were a number of rural-based rebellions from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, a typical form of protest in Russia against socioeconomic, religious, and cultural oppression and, occasionally, against political power holders.

Peasant uprisings in the narrow sense belong to the period of serfdom. Most of them followed a significant worsening of the conditions of the peasantry. The four major rebellions of this period were led by: 1) Ivan Bolotnikov, 16061607; 2) Stepan ("Stenka") Razin, 16671671; 3) Kondrat Bulavin, 17071708; and 4) the largest of all, by Yemelyan ("Yemelka") Pugachev, 17731775. The leadership in each case was largely symbolic, as an inherent feature of peasant wars was anarchic spontaneity with little organization, subordination, and planning.

The geographic center of the uprisings was in Southern Russia, between the Don and the Volga rivers and between the Black and the Caspian seas. However, they spread over wider territories and, in the case of the Bolotnikov rebellion, involved a battle in the vicinity of Moscow (which the rebels lost, in December 1606). The key initiative was played by Cossacks (Razin and Bulavin were Cossack atamans, and Pugachev a prominent Cossack as well). The rank and file included serfs and free peasants, as well as ethnic and religious minorities (e.g., Tatars in the Razin rebellion and Bashkirs in the Pugachev rebellion; ethnically Russian Old Believers in the Razin, Bulavin, and Pugachev rebellions). The Bolotnikov uprising, as part of the Time of Troubles, also involved impoverished or discontented gentry, some of whom, however, parted company with the rebels at a crucial stage. The religious and cultural aspect of the uprisings reflected discontent with top-down autocratic reforms along foreign patterns. Some also view the uprisings as a cultural response of the Cossack frontier to excess regulation by the imperial center.

Rebel demands are known from their own documents (e.g., "Seductive Letters" issued by Razin) and government reports. These demands involved land redistribution, the change of peasants' status from serfs to Cossacks, and often the elimination of the privileged classes. None of the uprisings was directed against the institution of monarchy; some rebels allied themselves with contenders to the throne (e.g., Bolotnikov with one of the Pseudo Dmitrys and then with another self-styled tsarevich, Peter), while Bulavin and Pugachev claimed their own rights to the tsar's scepter. On the territories occupied by rebels, peasants were declared free of servitude and debt, and Cossack-style selfrule was decreed. The uprisings were characterized by mass casualties and brutality on both sides. All of them were violently suppressed and their leaders executed; in the longer run, they may have spurred policy changes and reform efforts emanating from the top.

The most famous Pugachev rebellion was distinguished by the fact that its leader claimed to be Tsar Peter III (the actual tsar was murdered a decade earlier, in 1762, in a coup that brought his wife, Catherine II, to power). He issued his first manifesto in this capacity in September 1773. Pugachev promised to give peasants "back" their freedom "stolen" from them by the gentry, making them into Cossacks. The army of his followers counted about twenty-five thousand people. This rebellion was the first one of the manufacturing era, and was joined by serfs laboring at the manufactures in the Urals. Its suppression was followed in the short run by the strengthening and further spread of the institution of serfdom, as well as the incorporation of Cossacks into the state bureaucracy. During the nineteenth century, peasant uprisings never rose to the scale of wars. A major uprising in 1861 in the Kazan region reflected discontent with the conditions attached to the emancipation of the serfs.

Peasant guerrilla culture in Russia (as in some other countries) involved the operation of a parallel, or shadow community beyond the reach of the state, abruptly revealing itself in mass action. Guerrilla tactics followed by peasant rebels played a role in the twentieth-century revolutions (both on the Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik side), due to the numerical and cultural influence of peasantry (or recent peasants among urban workers and the intelligentsia). These tactics were also employed in defense against foreign invasions (the 1812 Patriotic War and World War II).

Scholars emphasizing the continuity of peasant resistance over centuries view the revolutions of 19051907 and 1917 as a resumption of peasant wars, in a different socioeconomic environment. Some of them consider the 19171933 period as "the Great Peasant War" suppressed by Josef Stalin through artificially organized famine and collectivization of the peasantry.

Peasant wars figured prominently in Russian folklore and modern arts. Alexander Pushkin, in characterizing a "Russian rebellion" as "senseless and merciless," perpetuated the view of peasant wars as destructive explosions, characterized by savage brutality on both sides, after seemingly endless patience of the oppressed. Revolutionary democrats of the Populist tradition cultivated a heroic image of peasant rebels, while orthodox Marxists dismissed them as anarchists and enemies of the modernizing state.

See also: bolotnikov, ivan isayevich; cossacks; dmitry, false; peasantry; pugachev, emelian ivanovich


Avrich, Paul (1976). Russian Rebels, 16001800. New York: Norton.

Graziosi, Andrea. (1997). The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 19171933. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Longworth, P. (1973). "The Last Great Cossack Peasant Rising." Journal of European Studies 3.

Pushkin, Alexander. (1987). Captain's Daughter. New York: Hyperion.

Pushkin, Alexander. (2001). The History of Pugachev. London: Phoenix.

Raeff, Marc. (1970) "Pugachev's Rebellion." In Preconditions of Revolution in Early Modern Europe, eds. Robert Forster and Jack P. Greene. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press.

Wolf, Eric (1969). Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper & Row.

Dmitri Glinski