The Cossack Rebellion
During the reign of Tsarina Catherine II, Russia’s elites adopted western culture, technologies, fashions, and foods. However, the new western way of living was expensive, and to pay for it, Russia’s landed elites squeezed their serfs dry. That led to mounting resentment, serfs fleeing their landlords’ lands, and rebellions, with over 160 localized uprisings in the Russian Empire between 1762 and 1772. The accumulating grievances finally erupted into a massive uprising, The Cossack Rebellion of 1773 to 1775. It was a major popular revolt that terrorized Russia’s elites and shook the state to its foundations.
The rebellion was sparked by a rumor that Tsar Peter III, who had been murdered in 1763, was still alive. He was said to be hiding amongst the Cossacks from his former wife, Tsarina Catherine, who sought to prevent him from abolishing serfdom. In reality, the person claiming to be “Tsar Peter III” was Yemelyan Pugachev, a Cossack and former Russian army officer.
Pugachev had fought in the Seven Years War before deserting the Russian army to wander southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists. With them, he hatched a plan to pose as the deceased Peter III, and in that guise he became popular with Cossacks and peasants. He also won a large following of non-Russians, who resented official discrimination and pressures to convert to Orthodox Christianity.
Promising a repeal of an unpopular poll tax and forced labor, “Tsar Peter” gathered a large army of Cossacks, peasants, and non-Russians. In their first battle in 1773, the rebels defeated a Tsarist army sent to disperse them. They then advanced into Russia’s heartland, promising the masses an end to oppression. The rebels formed an alternate government that emphasized freedom from the nobility, and Pugachev, as “Tsar Peter”, held court to punish abusive landlords and officials who fell into rebel hands.
The Cossack Rebellion gathered momentum and grew, and at its height, the rebels controlled vast Russian lands. However, in April of 1774, the rebels suffered a defeat, and their leader fled to the southern Urals. There, Pugachev revived the revolt by raising a new army and returning to the fight. The rebels fought a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which was put to the torch. After further defeats, the rebels were forced back to the Volga river, where they were decisively defeated. Pugachev was then betrayed to the authorities, and the Cossack Rebellion ended with the capture of its leader, who was executed in January of 1775.