Pugachev Revolt (1773–1775)

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PUGACHEV REVOLT (17731775). Emelian Pugachev (17421775), a Cossack from the Don region (in contemporary Ukraine), led what would be the lastand arguably the most explosiveof the great Cossack rebellions that plagued the Russian state during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Begun, like so many others, as a frontier rebellion, it engulfed large parts of southeastern Russia and staged a brutal and extended assault on the fortress town of Orenburg between October 1773 and February 1774, and at one point it threatened Moscow itself.

Much of Pugachev's success derived from his use of the pretender myth, that is, his claim to be the avenging reemergent true tsar Peter III, who in reality had been murdered six months after ascending the throne in a coup that brought his wife, Catherine the Great, to power in 1762. Neither the first nor the last such pretender (some surfaced as far away as the Balkans), Pugachev insisted that he was the one true Peter III, who in myth had not died but had been rescued by loyal Christians. He assembled an army and even something of a campaign court. His goal was nothing short of entering the capital and claiming the Russian throne.

The revolt itself built on a mutiny of the Yaik Cossacks, begun and suppressed in 1772. Pugachev arrived in the Yaik region in November of that year, claiming to be Peter. Soon arrested, he was taken to the city of Kazan' on the Volga river, from which he escaped on 29 May 1773. By early 1774 he had assembled a loose coalition of Yaik Cossacks, Kalmyks, and Tatars, along with a growing number of discontented serfs. At its peak, his forces numbered twenty thousand, organized loosely into Cossack-style regiments. Although effective in the rough and wooded terrain of the Volga frontier, Pugachev's forces had little chance in the long run against the much larger and better-fortified imperial army. Over time this superiority proved decisive, and on 15 September 1774 he was handed over to the authorities by his own Cossacks. Taken to Moscow in an open cage, he was publicly executed on 10 January 1775.

Part of Pugachev's unique appeal was social, in that he fomented a fluid kind of class warfare, pitting serfs against landlords, three thousand of whom are thought to have died during the revolt. Having freed the landlords from compulsory service in 1762, so he claimed, he had intended to free the serfs as well but had been prevented from doing so by disloyal and greedy noble landowners. This claim seems to have resonated with much of Russia's servile population, thus broadening the revolt's base beyond the Cossacks and borderland Turkic minorities, who had predominated in the earlier rebellions of Stepan Razin and Kondraty Bulavin, to include serfs, state peasants, and some homesteading free peasants.

The rebellion generated a new phase of state-building between 1775 and 1785, the period of socalled legislomania. The empress concluded that Russia required a more permanent and extensive administrative presence in the countryside, one that would not be so prone to periodic depopulation or reliant upon unpaid and informal service. The enabling legislation, the Reform of Provincial Administration (1775) and the Reform of Police Administration (1782), greatly increased the size of the standing provincial government, both civil and military, to one sufficient to keep local disorders contained.

See also Catherine II (Russia) ; Cossacks ; Razin, Stepan ; Serfdom in Russia .


Alexander, John T. Emperor of the Cossacks: Pugachev and the Frontier Jacquerie of 17731775. Lawrence, Kans., 1973.

Raeff, Marc. "Pugachev's Rebellion." In Preconditions of Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Edited by Robert Forster and Jack P. Greene. Baltimore, 1970.

Gary Marker