Led by Kondraty Bulavin, a democratically elected Cossack leader, the Bulavin Rebellion (1707 – 1708), also known as the Astrakhan Revolt, was the second of three major peasant revolts that rocked Russia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As with the Stenka Razin uprising, the revolt was triggered by tensions between Moscow and the independent Cossacks, caused in no small part by the central authorities’ attempt to stem the tide of serfs fleeing their oppression in Russia to the freedom of the Cossack frontier lands, and to recover the fugitives for their aristocratic masters.
In the runup to the revolt, various aspects of the radical westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter the Great scandalized Russia and were seen as an affront by its pious peasantry to their Orthodox faith. That, piled atop the serf peasants’ preexisting grievances and the oppression and injustice under which they groaned, led to widespread discontent, and many voted with their feet by escaping to the Cossack lands, where they could toil and practice their faith in freedom.
Pressure from landlords mounted on the government to recapture the fugitives serfs and restore them to their masters, and in 1707, Peter the Great ordered a census in Cossack settlements to identify and return the fleeing peasants. An expedition to carry out the Tsar’s decree was seen by the Cossacks as a threat to their freedoms, and on the night of October 8th, 1707, Bulavin led a Cossack band which fell upon the expedition and wiped it out.
That was the spark for a widespread, if inchoate, peasant revolt that aimed to march on Moscow, not to fight the Tsar, but to free him from evil counselors whom many peasants assumed were keeping the Tsar ignorant of their plight. Others, of a more religious bent, believed that the real Tsar was hidden away, and the person claiming to be Peter the Great and implementing the radical westernizing reforms that offended their Orthodox faith was actually the antichrist.
Although the peasant 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, with the result that much of the armed resistance was frittered 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, allowing Peter to amass a 32,000 man to deal with the peasants. That force steadily stamped out the revolt, and eventually, with the rebellion collapsing amidst devastating defeats, a faction of Bulavin’s followers turned against the rebel leader and assassinated him on July 7th, 1708, after which the uprising quickly ended.