4 – The Pugachev Rebellion – 1773-1774 AD
By the eighteenth century serfdom in Russia had become even more oppressive than it had been at its height in Western Europe. Not only were serfs bound to the land, they could also be bought and sold by nobles, and in some cases, Russian nobles even took out mortgages on their serfs. Russian serfs were also liable to be conscripted into the military for the incredibly long term of twenty-five years. One of these Russian serfs forced into the army was Yemelyan Pugachev, who fought for Russia in the Seven Years’ War before escaping the military and going into hiding.
It was from this exile that Pugachev developed a plan. Tsar Peter III had recently been assassinated, but rumors had been going around amongst the serfs that Peter had actually escaped and been driven out by Catherine the Great. In 1773 Pugachev latched on to these rumors and began wandering the land claiming that he himself was Peter III. Whether the serfs really believed him or just wanted it to be true, they began to follow him. In short order, he amassed an army of serfs supporters who together claimed most of the eastern part of European Russia, whereupon Pugachev, posing as the Tsar, emancipated the serfs.
Of course, Pugachev did not actually have the authority to free Russia’s serfs. Catherine the Great dispatched an army to put down Pugachev’s revolt. The poorly led and ill-equipped forces of the Tsarina were unable to defeat the rebellious serfs, and Pugachev’s imaginary kingdom remained until 1774 when a much more effective Russian force defeated Pugachev’s forces.
Pugachev himself was betrayed by his Cossacks and taken back to Moscow in a cage for a public execution. In the end, the Pugachev Rebellion had the opposite effect of what it had hoped for. Catherine had been considering emancipating the serfs, but the uprising prompted her to abandon the plan.