Stenka Razin’s Rebellion
In 1670 – 1671, peasants, runaway serfs, and Cossacks, rose against the Russian aristocracy and Tsarist authority, and rebellion erupted along the lower Don river on Russia’s southwestern frontier. Led by Cossack leader Stepan Timofeyovich Razin, better known to history as Stenka Razin (circa 1630 – 1671), the uprising was the first of three major peasant eruptions that shook the Russian state in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Cossacks – members of semi military, democratic, self governing communities along Russia’s southern and southwestern frontiers – were not agriculturists, but made their living from tolls on merchant shipping on the Don and Volga rivers as it traversed their lands. In exchange for guarding Russia’s southern frontiers, the Russian authorities subsidized the Cossacks and tolerated their de facto independence.
During the 1650s and 1660s, wars, epidemics, and crop failures, led to widespread misery and impoverishment in Russia, and many serfs fled their oppressive masters to the Don region. Russian authorities sought to forcibly retrieve the runaway serfs, but the Cossacks resisted. When the authorities responded by cutting off the Cossacks’ subsidies and food supplies, they took to arms.
In 1667, Stenka Razin organized a Cossack regiment to resist the Russian embargo, and that May, he attacked a Russian caravan in which both the Russian Tsar and Patriarch of the Orthodox Church held stakes. The enraged authorities had him declared an outlaw and criminal. Unconcerned, Razin led his men to loot Persian settlements along the Caspian Sea, and by the time he returned to the Don region, he was a popular hero.
Razin then organized about 7000 peasants and runaway serfs, and led them in a revolt on behalf of Russia’s serfs and peasants. The uprising gained widespread popularity, and in May of 1669, the peasant army captured Astrakhan and Tsaritsin (modern Volgograd) after the cities’ populations opened their gates to Stenka 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, forming into bands and attacking landowners and government officials.
Razin sought to establish a Cossack republic along the Volga as a preliminary step to marching on Moscow, which he aimed to seize in order to “eliminate the nobles and officials who obstruct the common people“. However, the rebels’ plans were thwarted at the city of Simbrisk, which they failed to capture. After two vicious battles in its vicinity, Razin’s forces were routed and nearly extirpated by the vengeful government forces, while Razin fled back to the Don.
Notwithstanding the defeat at Simbrisk, Razin’s emissaries stirred further uprisings farther north. His proclamation of an intent to found a republic, extending the Cossacks’ absolute equality throughout the whole of Russia, found receptive ears among the downtrodden peasantry and serfs. Soon, armed peasants were gathered in bands on the outskirts of Moscow and around Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles to the east, seeking deliverance from their yoke.
Once the government gathered its strength, however, the lightly armed 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 were massacred, including about 100,000 in the Novgorod region alone. By 1671, the revolt was over, and in April of that year, Stenka Razin was captured. He was taken to Moscow, where he was executed by quartering in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral.