20. Oppressed and Brutalized Russian Serfs Mounted Revolt After Revolt
Until they were finally freed in the nineteenth century, Russia’s downtrodden serfs rose up in revolt after revolt, only to get brutally beaten back into sullen submission each time. There were hundreds of relatively minor in size but nonetheless quite violent uprisings, whose participants numbered in the hundreds or few thousands. However, within a span of roughly a hundred years in the seventeenth and eighteenth, three uprisings caught fire, grew, and became major rebellions that rocked Russia to its core.
The first of them occurred in 1670 – 1671, when runaway serfs, free peasants – a decidedly relative term in Tsarist Russia – and Cossacks, rose in revolt against Russia’s aristocracy and government. Rebellion erupted along the lower Don River on Tsardom’s southwestern frontier, and spread out from there to engulf southern Russia. The revolt was led by a Cossack leader named Stepan Timofeyovich Razin, better known to history as Stenka Razin. Relatively little is known about Razin, other than that he was born into a lower-class Cossack family sometime around 1630. What he did within the span of a year, as the leader of a major revolt, secured his place in his history.
The first mention of Stenka Razin in the historic record dates to 1652, when he sought permission to go on a pilgrimage to a monastery on the White Sea. He next appears in documents dated to 1661, when he was listed as a member of a diplomatic mission from the Don Cossacks to the Kalmyks, a Mongolian subgroup that lived on the Steppe in Russia and modern Kyrgyzstan. His next appearance in the historic record is in 1667, when he was described as the head of a river pirate community.
Razin and his men preyed upon and exacted “tribute” from all vessels that plied the Volga River, and despoiled those that refused to pay up. The Cossacks from whom Razin hailed were semi-military, democratic, self-governing communities along Russia’s southern and southwestern frontiers. They were not agriculturists but subsisted upon tolls on merchant shipping on the Don and Volga rivers as they traversed their lands. In exchange for their agreement to Russia’s southern frontiers on behalf of the Tsar, the Russian authorities subsidized the Cossacks and tolerated their de facto independence.
18. A Future Revolt Leader’s First Step Against the Russian Authorities
The Cossacks routinely exacted tribute from vessels that plied the Volga River – a practice that was accepted by the authorities. However, it seems that Razin went renegade in some fashion, and exacted tolls in a manner inconsistent with the acceptable legalized piracy of the Cossacks. That took place against the backdrop of a turbulent stretch of Russian history. In the 1650s and 1660s, wars, epidemics, and crop failures led to widespread misery and impoverishment throughout Russia. In the chaos, many serfs fled their oppressive masters to the Don River region, the heartland of the Cossacks.
Russian authorities sought to forcibly retrieve the runaway serfs, but the Cossacks resisted. To bring them to heel and get them to change their minds, the Tsarist government cut off their subsidies and food supplies. In response, the Cossacks took up arms. In 1667, Stenka Razin organized a Cossack regiment to resist the Russian embargo. In May of that year, he attacked a Russian caravan in which both the Russian Tsar and Patriarch of the Orthodox Church held stakes. It was the first step towards his eventual leadership of a major revolt.
Stenka Razin’s attack on a caravan in which Russia’s most powerful figures held stakes enraged the authorities, and he was declared an outlaw and criminal. Unconcerned, Razin led his men to loot Persian settlements along the Caspian Sea. By the time he returned to the Don River region, he was a popular hero. He then organized about 7000 peasants and runaway serfs and led them in a revolt on behalf of Russia’s downtrodden. The uprising gained widespread popularity, and Razin’s forces grew.
In May of 1669, the peasant army captured Astrakhan and Tsaritsin (modern Volgograd) after the cities’ populations opened their gates to Razin’s men. The flame of rebellion spread, and by 1670, over 200,000 peasants and serfs throughout southern and southwestern Russia were up in arms. They formed into bands, and attacked landowners and government officials. Razin sought to establish a Cossack republic along the Volga River as a preliminary step to a march on Moscow. He declared that he aimed to seize the Russian capital in order to “eliminate the nobles and officials who obstruct the common people“.
16. The Brutal Suppression of Russia’s First Major Peasant Revolt
Unfortunately for Stenka Razin and Russia’s downtrodden serfs, their run of success was halted at the city of Simbrisk, which they attacked but failed to capture. After two vicious battles in its vicinity, Razin’s forces were routed and nearly annihilated by vengeful government forces. So Razin fled back to the Don. Despite the defeat at Simbrisk, Razin’s emissaries stirred further uprisings farther north. He proclaimed his intention to found a republic, in which the Cossacks’ absolute equality would be extended to all throughout the whole of Russia. That found receptive ears among the peasantry and serfs.
Soon, armed peasants, in search of freedom and deliverance from their yoke, were gathered in bands on the outskirts of Moscow, and around Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles to the east. Once the government gathered its strength, however, the lightly armed serfs and peasants proved no match for the discipline and firepower of professional soldiers. The uprisings were brutally put down, followed by a wave of violent repression in which hundreds of thousands of peasants and serfs were massacred. About 100,000 were slaughtered in the Novgorod region alone. By 1671, the revolt was over, and in April of that year, Stenka Razin was captured and taken to Moscow. There, he underwent a gruesome public execution in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, in which his limbs were chopped off, before he was finally beheaded.
The next major serf uprising was led by Kondraty Bulavin, a democratically elected Cossack leader. The Bulavin Rebellion (1707 – 1708), also known as the Astrakhan Revolt, was the second of the three major peasant revolts that rocked Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As with the Stenka Razin uprising, this rebellion was triggered by tensions between Moscow and the independent Cossacks. They arose in no small part because the central authorities tried to stem the tide of serfs who fled their oppression in Russia.
The downtrodden serfs ran away from the estates to which they were bound and sought freedom in the Cossack frontier lands. As with Razin’s revolt a generation earlier, when the Tsarist authorities tried to recover the fugitives for their aristocratic masters, the Cossacks resisted. There was another twist in the runup to Bulavin’s Rebellion: resistance to westernization and modernization. At the time, Tsar Peter the Great was engaged in radical reforms to modernize Russia and bring it closer to western norms. That rubbed many in Russia the wrong way, and increased the resentment against the Tsar and his government.
14. Attempts to Recover Runaway Serfs Once Against Sparked a Major Russian Rebellion
Much of what Tsar Peter the Great did was seen as sacrilege by Russia’s pious peasants and an affront to their Orthodox faith. That, piled atop the peasantry’s preexisting grievances and the oppression and injustice under which they groaned, led to widespread discontent. Accordingly, many of them voted with their feet, and escaped to the Cossack lands, where they could toil and practice their faith in freedom. That left the landlords with a labor shortage, so they pressured the government to recapture the fugitives and restore them to their masters.
In response, Peter the Great ordered a census in the Cossack settlements in 1707. The goal was to identify the runaway serfs, so they could be sent back to Russia and the estates on whose lands they were obligated to toil. An expedition to carry out the Tsar’s decree was seen by the Cossacks as a threat to their freedoms. On the night of October 8th, 1707, Kondraty Bulavin led a Cossack band that fell upon the Tsarist force and wiped it out. It was the first act in a widespread if inchoate, peasant revolt that aimed to march on Moscow.
The goal of the serfs and peasants in the Bulavin Rebellion was not to fight the Tsar. Instead, they wanted to free him from the evil counselors whom many peasants mistakenly believed had kept him ignorant of their plight. Others, of a more religious bent, believed that the real Tsar was hidden away. As they saw it, the person who claimed to be Tsar Peter and who sought to implement the radical westernizing reforms that offended their Orthodox faith was actually the antichrist. That old-timey version of Q-Anon-type logic was one of the many reasons why the rebels lost. Although their revolt gained widespread popularity, poor leadership and vision condemned it to failure.
Among other things, Bulavin failed to offer an alternative Tsar around whom the discontented could rally and unite. As a result, much of the armed resistance was frittered away in various eruptions, which the authorities could deal with piecemeal. Additionally, although Tsar Peter was engaged in a major war against Sweden at the time, the rebels failed to coordinate their actions with the Swedes. So the Tsar had enough time to amass a 32,000 man army to deal with the serfs. That force steadily stamped out the revolt, and eventually. As the rebellion collapsed beneath the hammer blows of bloody defeat after bloody defeat, a faction of Bulavin’s followers turned against the rebel leader and assassinated him on July 7th, 1708. That finally brought the revolt to a quick end.
The Pugachev Rebellion (1773 – 1775), also known as the Peasants’ War, was the third and greatest of Russia’s major peasant uprisings that erupted between 1670 to 1775. The revolt was led by Emilian Pugachev, a former Russian army lieutenant, and it posed an existential threat to Tsardom. As with the other rebellions, it took place against a backdrop of deep resentment by the peasantry of Russia’s exploitative government and aristocracy. The downtrodden serfs’ hardships were made even worse by a war against the Ottoman Turks.
In Russia’s decidedly not progressive taxation system, the costs of the war fell heaviest not upon the richest, but upon the poorest: the already downtrodden and exploited peasantry. Westernization efforts also played a role. In the reign of Tsarina Catherine the Great, Russia’s elites embraced western culture, arts, technologies, fashions, and foods. The new western luxuries and westernized standard of living were quite expensive, however. To pay for them, Russia’s landlords turned to their peasant serfs, increased their tax burdens, and squeezed them dry.
The increased taxation of the peasantry led to protests, increased incidences of serfs who fled their landlords’ lands, and rebellions. Between 1762 to 1772, over 160 localized peasant uprisings were recorded throughout the Russian Empire. In 1773, the discontent erupted into a massive peasant revolt. It was sparked by word that Tsar Peter III, who had been assassinated in 1763, had not actually been killed. Instead, he was said to have escaped death and fled to hide amidst the Cossacks from Tsarina Catherine the Great. In this narrative, the Tsarina was depicted as an evil figure who sought to thwart Peter III from his intent to emancipate Russia’s peasants from serfdom.
The self-proclaimed Tsar Peter III was actually Emilian Pugachev, a Cossack born in the same village where former peasant revolt leader Stenka Razin had been born a century earlier. Pugachev was a Russian army lieutenant who had fought in the Seven Years War. He eventually deserted, and wandered throughout southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists known as Old Believers. With them, Pugachev hatched a plan to pose as the deceased Peter III. In that guise, he soon attracted widespread popularity amongst Cossacks, peasants, and non-Russian populations resentful of official discrimination and demands to convert to Orthodox Christianity.
Pugachev promised to repeal an unpopular poll tax and to do away with forced labor. That was welcome news to many, and he amassed a large peasant army, supported by Cossacks, Tartars, and other non-Russians. In 1773, his forces crushed a Russian army sent to put down the revolt. As the rebels marched deeper into Russia, they promised the Russian masses liberation from aristocratic oppression. Pugachev, under the guise of Tsar Peter III, formed an alternate government that emphasized the peasants’ freedom from the nobility. He also held court to judge and punish abusive landlords and officials captured by the rebels.
The revolt steadily gained steam, and at its height, the rebels controlled vast territories that stretched from the Volga River to the Urals. In April 1774, Pugachev suffered a defeat and was forced to flee to the southern Urals. There, he raised a new army and returned to the fray. He fought a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which the rebels put to the torch. After a series of setbacks, the rebels retreated to the Volga River where, outside today’s Volgograd, they were defeated. Pugachev’s lieutenants then betrayed him to the authorities. The revolt collapsed with the capture of its leader, who was taken to Moscow and executed in January of 1775.
The Stellinga Rebellion of 841 to 845 took its name from an Old Saxon word that means “comrade” or “companion”. The uprising was a revolt of mostly-peasant Saxon freemen and freedmen to recover recently lost rights. The rebels’ class, while lowly, had nonetheless possessed political privileges when the Saxons were pagans and lived under traditional tribal customs. After the Saxons were forcibly converted to Christianity by Charlemagne, however, their nobility were co-opted by the conqueror, while the commoners were reduced to mere peasants and serfs.
In 840, a civil war had broken out in the Carolingian Empire between the heirs of Emperor Louis the Pious. One of the contestants, Lothair I, promised the Saxon lower classes of the Stellinga a restoration of the rights they had enjoyed in the days of paganism. In exchange, he secured their support to put him on the throne of East Francia – the future Kingdom of Germany. In the meantime, the Saxon nobility was divided between supporters of the new order imposed by Charlemagne, and those who pushed back against it.
The Stellinga Revolt erupted in 841. As described by contemporaries: “throughout all of Saxony the power of the slaves rose up violently against their lords. They usurped for themselves the word Stellinga, and they perpetrated much madness. And the nobles of that land were violently persecuted and humiliated by the slaves“. The writer, a royal chaplain, was biased against the rebels. The rebels had turned on the aristocracy, and such a turning of the worm alarmed many because it was seen as an inversion of the medieval world’s perception of what constituted the natural order of things.
Lothair I, the champion of the Stellinga, was defeated at the Battle of Fontenoy in 841, and he eventually signed a truce with his brothers. The victor, his brother Louis the German, marched against the insurrectionists, and defeated them militarily. He then had the captured Stellinga leaders executed. The Saxon nobility, who had been chased off their estates, returned to their land under the protection of Louis the German’s armies. They subjected their peasantry to a reign of terror and retaliatory vengeance that stamped out the insurrection by 843.
Lakshmi Bai, also known as the Rani of Jhansi (circa 1830 – 1858), was the rani, or queen, of the Indian princely state of Jhansi in northern India. She is best known as a leader of the Indian Mutiny, a massive revolt against the British Raj in 1857 – 1858, in which she personally led troops and fought in the line of battle. Lakshmi Bai’s exploits made her a national heroine, a symbol of resistance to the domination of India by foreigners, and a martyr for independence.
She was born into a Marathi Brahmin family, the daughter of a military officer in service to the Peshwa, or prime minister, of the Maratha Empire that had dominated much of India before the British arrived. Lakshmi Bai had an unusual upbringing for a girl of her class in those days. For one, she was brought up among boys in the Peshwa’s household and was taught all the martial skills imparted to upper-class Indian boys of her era. As seen below, that came in quite handy when she grew up.
6. British Legal Chicanery Planted the Seeds of Revolt
In her early years, Lakshmi Bai was taught and became proficient in martial arts such as swordsmanship, shooting, and horseback riding. When she came of age, she was married to the maharaja, or princely ruler, of Jhansi. The couple did not have children, but her husband adopted a child as his heir. Upon her husband’s death, the British resorted to legal chicanery in order to seize Jhansi. They refused to recognize the adopted child as heir to the princely state and rested their decision on what was known as The Doctrine of Lapse.
The doctrine, which the British had invented out of nothing, boiled down to an East India Company policy to annex Indian rulers’ lands if they were “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir“. What constituted manifest competence, or whether a male heir was legally acceptable or not, was up to the British to decide. Unsurprisingly, they often decided in ways that suited them best. When she was informed that the foreign Raj sought to seize her adopted child’s inheritance, Lakshmi Bai vowed “I shall not surrender my Jhansi!” That became her war cry in the subsequent revolt against the British.
In 1857, Indian sepoys, native troops in British service, mutinied, and their revolt quickly spread throughout northern India. Lakshmi Bai was declared regent of Jhansi, and she governed it in the name of her son, the princely state’s underage heir. She raised troops and joined the rebels, and disgruntled natives from across India flocked to her standard to offer their support and fight under her command. She led her forces in a series of successful engagements that asserted her command and consolidated her rule. Eventually, the British sent an army to recapture Jhansi. When they demanded her surrender, she replied: “We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”
The British surrounded Jhansi, and a fierce battle ensued, in which Lakshmi Bai personally led her troops and offered stiff resistance. British heavy artillery eventually reduced her fortifications and breached the city walls. When Jhansi was about to fall, the Rani led a small force in a ferocious attack that cut its way to safety. She personally fought through the British siege lines with her child strapped to her back. She escaped, reached other rebel forces, and resumed the fight. She was finally killed in battle on June 17th, 1858, in an engagement against British cavalry.
The Flanders Peasant Revolt of 1323 – 1328 was a massive uprising of peasants and burghers in Flanders. It went down in history as one of the most violent insurrections of the Middle Ages. The rebellion was sparked by a recent imposition of onerous taxation by Flanders’ new ruler, Count Louis I. To make things worse, the count had also adopted unpopular pro-French policies. They were seen as detrimental to the financial interests of most in Flanders, whose economy revolved around trade with England.
The revolt was a class protest by peasants who had hitherto enjoyed self-government, a privileged form of land tenancy, and legal protections against aristocratic abuses. All of those rights were now threatened by the new ruler. The peasants found allies in the cities’ burghers. The urban dwellers’ struggle to keep and expand their hard-won liberties was also threatened by Flanders’ count, and his ally, the king of France. After a poor harvest in 1323, the revolt began with scattered rural riots that erupted late that year, when the peasants refused to pay taxes to Count Louis.
3. The Peasants of Flanders Won, but Their Victory Proved Short-Lived
Flanders’ peasant rioters soon coalesced into larger bands, led by prosperous farmers, local gentry, and the mayor of Bruges. Count Louis lacked sufficient military forces at the time, so he negotiated a peace with the rebels in 1324, and recognized the legitimacy of their complaints. The rebels returned to the warpath, however, after the murder of a commoner by a knight, and Count Louis’ arrest of six Bruges burghers. The count was captured and brought to Bruges, where several of his key adherents were executed in 1325. After negotiations, combined with pressure from the king of France, the count was released in 1326, and a peace treaty was ratified soon thereafter.
A new insurrection erupted in 1328 after the French king’s death, and the count of Flanders called upon the new king of France, Phillip VI, for military aid. A French military expedition was organized, which defeated the rebels at the Battle of Cassel later that year. King Philip took hostages for the Flemish burghers’ good behavior, then returned to France, where he executed the mayor of Bruges. Back in Flanders, Count Louis visited collective punishment upon the defeated rebels and stamped down the last embers of resistance.
2. Europe’s Biggest Popular Revolt Before the 1789 French Revolution
The German Peasants’ War of 1524 – 1525 was Europe’s largest popular revolt prior to the French Revolution of 1789. For generations, peasants in Germany had experienced a steady curtailment of their ancient rights to fish, hunt, bear arms, or collect wood from common lands. In the meantime, their aristocratic overlords’ exactions grew ever more burdensome. The conflict was reportedly – and perhaps apocryphally – sparked by the Countess of Lupfen’s orders to her serfs to stop work on their fields in order to collect snail shells for her to use as thread spools. To neglect their fields and crops meant starvation, so the peasants took up arms.
Wherever and however the revolt began, shared and widespread grievances ensured that it spread quickly among the peasantry. The pent-up resentments also ensured that when the peasants finally turned to violence against their noble lords, they turned to violence in a big way. Atrocities abounded, and a noble or landlord who fell into the rebels’ clutches was in for rough treatment. Upper-class captives were often forced to run a gauntlet between rows of peasants who wielded clubs and whips. Bad as that was, it was considered to be at the milder end of the spectrum of the violence dished out by the peasants.
1. A Medieval Peasant Revolt Whose Legacy Can be Felt to This Day
As the German Peasants’ War grew in scope and intensity, many were inspired by changes brought about by the Reformation, recently launched by Martin Luther. They invoked divine law to support the peasants’ rights and freedom from oppression at the hands of the aristocrats and landlords. The peasants’ demands were encapsulated in a manifesto titled The Twelve Articles of the Christian Union, which also provided biblical justification for the rebels’ cause. Some prominent Protestant reformers, such as Thomas Muntzer and Huldrych Zwingli, supported the peasants and the justice of their cause. Martin Luther, however, knew on which side his bread was buttered, and he wanted nothing to do with the rebels. Instead, he sided with the aristocrats and went so far as to pen a pamphlet titled Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.
The revolt spread quickly through Germany, and at its height, over 300,000 peasants were under arms. However, their lack of organization, artillery, cavalry, and nonexistent military training, doomed them to ultimate defeat. As with most peasant uprisings, the revolt was crushed once the forces of reaction gathered their strength. Once the rebellion was put down, the peasantry were subjected to widespread retaliatory vengeance in which over 100,000 were massacred. Despite the revolt’s failure, it had a lasting impact on history. The Twelve Articles – the document that listed the peasants’ demands – has been described as an inspiration for the French Revolution, and as a model for America’s Bill of Rights.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading