Of the four great rebellions that Russia experienced between 1600 and 1800, the rebellion led by the Don Cossack Stepan (Stenka) Razin has evoked the most popular feeling. It did not involve the most territory nor the widest diversity of population, but it lasted the longest, and the name of Stenka Razin has come to signify the very essence of Russian folk spirit.
Stepan Razin's life as a rebel began abruptly at the age of thirty-seven, in April of 1667, when he led a group of fellow Cossacks from their Don River settlements to the Volga River for the purpose of brigandage. The rebellion on the Lower Volga started as a Cossack attack on a fleet of tsarist ships sailing to Astrakhan. This success whetted the appetite of the experienced frontier warriors for further conquest. The state offered no resistance, despite the brigands' obvious intentions. In fact, government troops at garrisons in Tsaritsyn, Chernyi Yar, and in Astrakhan occasionally joined the rebels in looting and pillaging the rich commerce of the Lower Volga. In the spring of 1668, after wintering at Yaitsk, Razin ventured into the Caspian Sea, lured by the bountiful traffic of the Shah of Persia. As many as one thousand Cossacks took part in this campaign, which struck not only at the shipping on the Caspian, but also attacked commercial settlements and towns of the Caucasus along the western shore, from Derbent south to Baku. After wintering along the southern shore in Persia, Razin's band resumed the campaign in 1669 along the eastern shore among the settlements of the Turkmen population of Central Asia. They then decided to return to the Don in the fall of 1669, with the riches and memories of their long and exhilarating adventure that provided the material for songs and legends that would be handed down for generations.
In March of 1670, Razin announced to the Cossack assembly (krug ) that he intended to return to the Volga, but instead of sailing against the Turks or the Persians to the south, this time he pledged to go "into Rus against the traitorous boyars and advisers of the Tsar." After once again securing Tsaritsyn, Chernyi Yar, and Astrakhan by leaving comrades in charge of these fortress towns at the mouth of the Volga, Razin's band moved quickly up the river. In June and July, the townsfolk of Saratov and Samara opened their gates to the Cossacks, and the garrisons surrendered and joined the rebel army. Razin again left Cossacks in charge to supervise the looting and pillaging, while he set out for the next fortified town, Simbirsk. (This town was called Ulianovsk for six decades in the twentieth century, commemorating it as the birthplace of Lenin.)
Razin was forced to lay siege to Simbirsk. After four unsuccessful assaults in September 1670, and threatened by the approach of a major tsarist force, Razin retreated down the Volga in early October. In the meantime, a massive uprising, involving tens of thousands of Russians and native non-Russians (Mordvinians, Chuvash, Cheremiss, and Tatars) erupted in a forty thousand square mile expanse of land called the Middle Volga region. For two months, local rebels controlled virtually all of the territory within a rectangle bordered roughly on four corners by the major towns of Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Simbirsk, and Tambov. The type of protest, the levels of violence, the character of leadership, and the extent of popular interaction reflected the socioeconomic realities of the vast region as they appeared on the eve of Razin's arrival. Local issues determined the pattern and ensured the stunning success of the Middle Volga rebellion in the first two months. At the same time, these regional particulars eventually determined the failure of the complex and uncoordinated insurgency in the ensuing two or three months. The uprising was finally crushed in January of 1671 by the combined efforts of five Tsarist armies coordinated by Prince Yuri Dolgorukov from a command post in the midst of the region at Arzamas. In the spring of 1671, a group of Cossacks betrayed the location of Razin's camp on the Don to the Cossack chieftain (ataman ), Kornilo Yakovlev. Yakovlev's forces captured Stenka Razin in May and brought him in an iron cage to Moscow, where he was tried and condemned for leading the rebellion, was anathematized by the Russian Orthodox Church, and on June 6 was hanged not far from Red Square and the Kremlin just across the Moscow River.
Thus the state succeeded eventually in destroying Stepan Razin and in imposing its will upon the townsfolk, peasantry, the military, and the rambunctious Russian and non-Russian Volga frontier population. The rebellion solved nothing in the long run, and very little in the short run. Nonetheless, the name of Stenka Razin would live forever as a reminder of this exciting time, and as an enduring promise of relief to the oppressed. The Razin Rebellion expresses a profound truth about the meaning of Russia and its history. That truth is exhilarating and romantic, but at the same time it is violent, bloody, and hopelessly tragic.
See also: alexei mikhailovich; cossacks; enserfment; peasant uprisings
Avrich, Paul. (1972). Russian Rebels: 1600–1800. New York: Norton & Company.
Chapygin, Alexei Pavlovich. (1946). Stepan Razin, tr. Paul Cedar. London: Hyperion Press.
Field, Cecil. (1947). The Great Cossack. London: Herbert Jenkins.
Longworth, Philip. (1969). The Cossacks. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Ure, John. (2003). The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. New York: Overlook Press.
James G. Hart