Stenka Razin

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(c. 16301671), leader of a Don Cossack revolt and hero of folksong and legend.

Stepan Timofeyvich Razin, also known as Stenka Razin, is the hero of innumerable folksongs, legends and works of art. The most popular motif is his (legendary) sacrifice of his bride, a Persian princess, whom he throws into the Volga River for the sake of Cossack solidarity. Over the past three centuries, the name of Stepan Razin has been associated in the Russian popular mind with freedom, social justice, and heroic and adventurous manhood. The philosopher Nikolai A. Berdyaev, assessing the phenomenon of communism in Russia, characterized it as a synthesis of Marx and Stenka Razin.

Stepan Razin, the son of a Don Cossack ataman (military leader) and, it is said, a captive Turkish woman, rose to prominence among the Cossacks at a relatively young age. Thus there was no shortage of volunteers when he led a series of brigandage expeditions to the lower Volga in 1667 and the Caspian Sea in 1668 and again in 1669, especially from among the many impoverished newcomers to the Don region, mostly former peasants escaping serfdom. Unlike other Cossack leaders, Razin welcomed the newcomers and cultivated the spirit of Cossack brotherhood and equality (obsolete by his time) among his men. His expeditions were unusually successfulRussian and Persian caravans were plundered, Persian commercial settlements and towns were devastated, a Persian fleet was defeated, and Razin's warriors won riches and glory.

Upon returning to Russia, Razin departed from tradition by keeping his band intact and not sharing his booty with the established Cossack leaders. Moreover, as he passed through the lower Volga cities of Astrakhan and Tsaritsyn, hundreds of townsmen, fugitive peasants, and even regular soldiers flocked to his standard. The commanders of the Russian garrisons did not dare to stop the popular hero and let him and his men return to the Don region unimpeded.

Having raised an army of perhaps seven to ten thousand, Razin announced a new campaign in 1670, aimed at settling scores with the tsar's boyars and officials, the "traitors and oppressors of the poor." The towns of Saratov and Samara opened their gates to him; Russian peasants and indigenous peoples rose up in revolt by the tens of thousands throughout the lower and middle Volga region. The rebels intended to march on Moscow, although they maintained that they were loyal to the tsar. They were defeated, however, when they besieged the next large town, Simbirsk, crushed by the government's regular army, which exploited the lack of coordination between Cossacks and peasants. Stenka Razin fled to the Don region, where in 1671 he was captured by the men of his godfather, Kornilo Yakovlev, a leader of the Don Cossacks. Stenka Razin and his younger brother Frol were delivered to Moscow in an iron cage and executed on June 6, 1671.

See also: cossacks; folklore; peasantry


Field, Cecil. (1947). The Great Cossack: The Rebellion of Stenka Razin against Alexis Michaelovitch, Tsar of All the Russias. London: H. Jenkins.

Fuhrmann, Joseph T. (1981). Tsar Alexis: His Reign and His Russia. Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press.

Elena Pavlova