Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev

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(c. 17421775), Russian cossack rebel and imperial impostor, leader of the Pugachevshchina.

Emelian Pugachev headed the mass uprising of 17731774 known as Pugachevshchina (loosely translated as "Pugachev's Dark Deeds"). The bloodiest rebellion against central state authority and serfdom between 1618 and the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, it disrupted an immense territory and momentarily threatened the Muscovite heartland. Thousands of individuals from disparate social groups and ethnicities challenged Catherine II's legitimacy and aggravated international tension from prolonged Russo-Turkish hostilities. Many suspected upper-class, religious, or foreign inspiration behind the upheaval, widely reported by the European press. Particularly provocative was Pugachev's impersonation of Peter III (17281762), which recalled Catherine's usurpation of power.

The revolt originated among the Yaik (Ural) cossacks, a frontier "warrior democracy" that resisted pressure from state expansion. Disputes over the elected leadership led to government suppression of a cossack mutiny in January 1772, which left the community divided and resentful. Pugachev, a Don cossack fugitive, visited the area in late 1772. A typical primitive rebel, Pugachev was illiterate and his biography obscure. His imposture was not original; he was one of some seven pretenders since 1764. Shrewd, energetic, and experienced in military affairs, he was also charismatic. It is unclear whether he initiated renewed revolt or was persuaded to lead it by the cossacks.

About sixty rebels issued a first manifesto in late September 1773, presumably dictated by Pugachev or cossack scribes, calling on cossacks, Kalmyks, and Tatars to serve Peter III in pursuit of glory, land, and material reward. The rebels focused on frontier freedom or autonomy, but Peter III's name lent national stature to the burgeoning movement. Within weeks their forces exceeded two thousand besieging the fortress of Orenburg and spreading the revolt into the Ural Mountains with specific appeals to diverse social and ethnic groups. Turkic Bashkirs joined in force as the regional rebellion evolved into three chronological-territorial phases.

The Orenburg-Yaitsk phase lasted from October 1773 until April 1774, when the rebel sieges of Orenburg, Yaitsk, and Ufa were broken, Pugachev barely escaping. Shielded by spring roadlessness, the rebels replenished ranks while fleeing northward through the Urals. This second phase culminated in the plunder of Kazan on July 23 before the horde was defeated and scattered. With rebel whereabouts unknown, panic seized Moscow, but news of peace with the Turks soon allayed fears.

Pugachev fled southward down the Volga, exterminating the nobility and government officialsthe third and final phase. This rampage sparked many local outbreaks sometimes called "Pugachevshchina without Pugachev." The main rebel force was decisively defeated south of Tsaritsyn on September 5. To save themselves, some cossacks turned Pugachev over to tsarist authorities at Yaitsk on September 26, 1774. After lengthy interrogation he was beheaded and then quartered in Moscow on January 21, 1775. To erase reminders of the revolt, Yaitsk, the river, the cossacks, and Pugachev's birthplace were all renamed, his wife and children exiled. Late in life Alexander Pushkin (17991837) popularized Pugachev in history and fiction. "The Captain's Daughter" became an instant classic, famously declaiming "God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless." But agrarian anarchist dissidents found inspiration in Pugachev for grassroots rebellion. After 1917 the Soviet regime endorsed Pugachev's fame, recasting the revolt as a peasant war against feudal society and autocratic government.

See also: catherine ii; peasantry; peter iii; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich


Alexander, John T. (1969). Autocratic Politics in a National Crisis: The Imperial Russian Government and Pugachev's Revolt, 17731775. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Alexander, John T. (1973). Emperor of the Cossacks: Pugachev and the Frontier Jacquerie of 17731775. Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press.

Pushkin, Alexander. (1983). "The Captain's Daughter" and "A History of Pugachev." In Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction, ed. Paul Debreczeny. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

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

John T. Alexander

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Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev (yĬmĬlyän´ ēvä´nəvĬch pōōgəchôf´), c.1742–75, Russian peasant leader, head of the peasant rebellion of 1773–74. A Don Cossack, he exploited a widespread peasant belief that Peter III had not actually been murdered. Claiming (1773) to be Peter III, he soon found himself at the head of an army and of a revolutionary movement. His followers—Cossacks, peasants, runaway serfs, Tatar bands, and serfs from the mines and factories—all belonged to the lower classes, whose rights and liberties had been increasingly curtailed in the past two centuries. Pugachev announced the abolition of serfdom. His army overran the middle and lower Volga districts and the Ural region and took Kazan and several fortresses, committing barbarous excesses and threatening the throne of Catherine II, who was waging war on the Ottoman Empire. However, the rebels lacked experienced leadership and were ultimately defeated. Pugachev was betrayed, taken to Moscow, and beheaded. As a result of the rebellion Catherine introduced the administrative reform (1775) that increased the central government's control over outlying areas and more firmly entrenched the institution of serfdom.

See A. Pushkin, The History of Pugachev (1983).