When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts

Khalid Elhassan - November 24, 2017

Most people today grew up and live in societies in which concepts such as egalitarianism and equal treatment before the law are established tenets of governance and social organization that are, even when not actually practiced, at least widely preached as a hoped for ideal and aspiration. Throughout most of recorded history, however, the majority of mankind lived in highly stratified societies with stark class divides, in which a relatively small aristocratic elite lorded it over a mass of oppressed, exploited, and cowed commoners.

Most said commoners were peasants, tied to the land and toiling in conditions of de facto peonage and serfdom for the betterment of their social betters, who seldom bothered to conceal their contempt for the peasants, whose very occupation’s name was often used as a pejorative. Social custom and religion, with its promise of a better life in a world to come, did much to reconcile the peasants to their lowly lot in this world. If that failed, the nobility’s monopoly of government and access to organized and disciplined military force often sufficed to cow the peasantry and keep it in line.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
German Peasants War. Steam Images

However, sometimes conditions got so bad, and the oppression and injustice grew so unbearable, that the peasants snapped, and notwithstanding the poor odds of success and the high risk of massive and vicious retaliation at the end of the road, took to arms and rose up in revolt. Throughout history, most such uprisings ended in failure and widespread massacre, as the forces of the landlords and nobility exacted bloody vengeance on the despised peasants who dared challenge the natural order. Nonetheless, such rebellions continued to erupt whenever the agrarian class could take it no more.

Following are twelve of history’s greatest peasant revolts.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Red Eyebrows Uprising. The History of China

Red Eyebrows Uprising

Between 2 and 11 AD, the Yellow River in China underwent disastrous course changes that led to floods and famines and widespread dislocation and hardship. Amidst the turmoil, civil war erupted in 8 AD when Wang Mang, a government official, overthrew the Early Han Dynasty which had reigned over China for two centuries, and founded the short-lived Xin Dynasty in its stead.

The political turmoil, natural disasters, hardships and hunger, took place against a backdrop of resentful peasantry, whose main grievance was a rise in debt slavery and a steady consolidation of agricultural land into large tracts controlled by powerful magnates. The former independent yeoman peasant owners of those plots were reduced to tenant farmers or serfs, tilling what had once been their own holdings on behalf of others, or were kicked off the land altogether and reduced to a life of itinerant wanderers.

In response to the turmoil and dangers, and to protect the interests of the peasants, a secret society, whose leader spoke through mediums, organized bands of armed Chinese peasants known as the Red Eyebrows. They took their name from the color of the eyebrows of their members, who painted their faces to look like demons, and in 15 AD, they initiated their first acts of armed resistance. The Red Eyebrows’ popularity steadily grew, and by 17 AD, their armed defiance had become a widespread peasant revolt that came to be led a Fan Chong.

In the imperial palace, Wang Man proved politically incompetent, and in 19 AD, he responded to the peasant revolts of the Red Eyebrows and others by raising taxes. That only fueled and supercharged the various rebellions, which soon consolidated into a massive insurrection as the disparate rebel bands united under the banner of the Red Eyebrows and the leadership of Fan Chong.

In 23 AD, the Red Eyebrows played a key role in the defeat and overthrow of Wang Man and the extirpation of his Xin Dynasty. That allowed an opening for Liu Xuan, a member of the Han royal family, to reestablish the Han Dynasty and declare himself emperor. His rule did not sit well with the Red Eyebrows, however, so they overthrew him, and placed a child Han descendant on the throne as a puppet emperor, while they ruled China in his name.

However, while militarily brilliant, the Red Eyebrows proved incompetent at governance, and their misrule soon led to widespread revolts. Their puppet emperor was overthrown and replaced by another Han descendant, Liu Xiu, who forced the surrender of the Red Eyebrows and brought their movement to an end, then went on to found the Later Han Dynasty, which reigned for two centuries.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Yellow Turban Rebellion. YouTube

Yellow Turban Rebellion

In 161 AD, China was ravage by a plague that killed about a third of the population and severely sapped the Han Dynasty government’s ability to cope with mounting troubles. The central government was further weakened by the rise of powerful palace eunuchs, who gained considerable influence over the emperor and abused their proximity to the fount of power to enrich themselves, eroding imperial prestige in the process.

Beyond the palace, northern China endured a famine in the plague’s aftermath, which forced many peasants to migrate to the south, creating a labor surplus there that was ruthlessly exploited by large landowners. That led to an agrarian crisis, and the peasants’ plight was further worsened by crushing taxes imposed to pay for border garrisons, as well as fortifications along the Silk Road.

In response, a secret peasant society named the Yellow Turbans, after the color of the scarves its adherents wrapped around their heads, was formed. It was led by a healer practicing medicine and magic named Chang Chio, who espoused a mystic philosophy encapsulated in a book titled The Way of Peace. Chio amassed a large following, and organized his adherents under 36 disciples, who preached the overthrow of the Han Dynasty in veiled language.

They girded for war, organized the peasants into military units, and in 184, the Yellow Turban Rebellion began. The armed peasants were so numerous that at their mere sight, the imperial armies broke and fled without a fight. In response, the imperial government issued a call to arms, and across China, freelance regional warlords raised private armies.

It took two decades, but the warlords’ private armies eventually suppressed the peasant revolt, defeating the Yellow Turbans in a series of battles, and killing their leader, Chang Chio, whose corpse was beheaded. Saved from the peasant revolt, the now severely weakened imperial government had to contend to with the warlords and their private armies.

Warlordism led to a breakdown of central government, and proved just as dangerous to the Han Dynasty as had the Yellow Turbans. Within a few years of the peasant revolt’s suppression, the Han Dynasty came to an end after over four centuries of near-continuous rule, and China was broken into smaller kingdoms ruled by competing dynasties.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Lothair I, who courted the Stellinga. Wikimedia

Stellinga Uprising

The Stellinga Uprising of 841 to 845, which took its name from a word meaning “comrade” or “companion”, 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 peasant 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 s a restoration of the rights they had enjoyed in the days of paganism in exchange for their support to put him on the throne of East Francia – the future Kingdom of Germany.

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“. While the writer, a royal chaplain, was biased against the rebels, the rebels apparently turned on the oppressive aristocracy, which turning of the worm was seen as an alarming inversion of the natural order.

Lothair was defeated in 841, and eventually signed a truce with his brothers. The victor, Louis the German marched against the insurrectionists, defeated them militarily, and had the captured Stellinga leaders executed. The Saxon nobility then returned to their land under the protection of Louis the German’s armies, and subjected their peasantry to a reign of terror and retaliatory vengeance that stamped out the insurrection by 843.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Suppression of the Flanders Peasant Revolt at the Battle of Cassel, August 23rd, 1328. Wikimedia

Flanders Peasant Revolt

The Flanders Peasant Revolt of 1323 – 1328 was a massive uprising of peasants and burghers in Flanders, that was one of the most violent insurrections of the Middle Ages. The revolt was sparked by a recent imposition of onerous taxation by Flanders’ new ruler, count Louis I, and by his unpopular pro-French policies, which were 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 which they sensed were now under threat. The peasants found willing allies in the cities’ burghers, whose struggle to keep and expand their hard-won liberties was threatened by Flanders’ count, and his ally, the king of France.

Following a poor harvest in 1323, scattered rural riots erupted late that year, with peasants refusing to pay taxes to count Louis. Soon, the rioters coalesced into larger bands, led by prosperous farmers, local gentry, and the mayor of Bruges. The count, lacking military force, negotiated a peace with the rebels in 1324, recognizing the legitimacy of their complaints.

The rebels returned to the warpath, however, following the murder of a commoner by a knight, and count Louis’ arrest of 6 Bruges burghers. The count was captured and brought to Bruges, where several of his leading adherents were executed in 1325. After negotiations, combined with pressure from the king of France, count Louis was released in 1326, and a peace treaty was ratified soon thereafter.

When insurrection broke anew in 1328, following the French king’s death, the count of Flanders called upon the new king, Phillip VI, for military aid. A French military expedition was organized, which defeated the rebels at the Battle of Cassel later that year. Taking hostages for the Flemish burghers’ good behavior, Philip VI returned to France, where he executed the mayor of Bruges. Back in Flanders, count Louis set about punishing the defeated rebels and stamping down the last embers of resistance.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Illustration of the Jacquerie from a manuscript by Jean Froissart. Ricardo da Costa

The Jacquerie

The Jacquerie was a French peasant revolt in northern France in 1358, that got its name from the nobility’s habit of contemptuously referring to all peasants as Jacques or Jacques Bonhomme, after a padded over-garment worn by them called a “jacque”. The uprising was led by a well off peasant named Guillaume Cale, from Beauvais, about 50 miles from Paris.

France at the time was undergoing a rough patch following the outbreak of the Hundred Years War, with the peasantry, upon whose toil all rested and through whose fields the armies marched and pillaged, enduring the roughest patch of all. Their overlords, the French nobility, were not doing well, either, and their prestige had sunk to a low ebb after decades of humiliating defeats. Early in the century, France’s aristocrats had turned tail and fled at the Battle of the Spurs, leaving the infantry commoners to be slaughtered, and more recently, they had suffered catastrophic defeats at the hands of the English in the Battles of Crecy and Poitiers.

The latter battle was particularly humiliating because the nobility allowed the French king’s capture. Its aftermath was also particularly onerous upon the peasantry, because the English demanded a huge ransom for the king’s release, which ransom was ultimately squeezed from the peasants. Finally, the French nobility failed in their basic function and the raison d’etre that justified their high status, of protecting the populace from enemy depredations. Unchecked by the peasants’ aristocratic overlords and supposed protectors, bands of English and Gascon mercenaries roamed the countryside, pillaging and raping, at will.

Matters came to a head on May 21st, 1358, when peasants from a village near the Oise river killed a knight, then roasted him on a spit and forced his children to eat his flesh. The revolt spread quickly, as peasants razed local castles and slaughtered their inhabitants, and soon, the disparate rebel bands in the countryside began coalescing under the leadership of Guillaume Cale, who then joined forces with Parisian rebels under Etienne Marcel.

The revolt burned hot, but it also burned out quick, and the undisciplined and untrained rebels were soon routed once the militarily trained and better armed nobles organized and set out to suppress the revolt. The Paris uprising collapsed after its leader was assassinated, while Guillaume Cale, with his peasant army assembled to meet that of the nobles, unwisely accepted an invitation for truce talks with the armed nobles’ leader, Charles the Bad of Navarre. Cale was treacherously seized when he showed up, tortured, and beheaded. The now-leaderless peasant army was then ridden down by knights and routed, after which the peasants were subjected to massive collective reprisals and a reign of terror in which around 20,000 were killed.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The death of Wat Tyler. Antiwar Songs

English Peasants’ Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt, also known as Wat Tyler’s Rebellion after one of its main leaders, was a major uprising across much of England that rocked the kingdom in 1381. The revolt’s roots traced back to mid century, in the aftermath of the Black Death which killed a third to a half of England’s population. The depopulation led to a severe labor shortage, which enabled surviving workers to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions, particularly from landowners desperate to have their fields tilled. Landowners and employers responded by getting the government to enact the Statute of Laborers in 1351, fixing wages at pre Black Death rates, and discontent amongst peasants and the laboring classes had simmered ever since.

The discontent came to a boil in 1381, with the enactment of an unpopular poll tax, and that May, officials attempting to collect the tax in Essex were violently resisted. The resistance spread, catching the government of the then 14 year old king Richard II by surprise with its vehemence and speed, as rebels seized and burned court and tax records, emptied the jails, and visited rough justice upon unpopular landlords and employers who fell into their hands.

Then, demanding an end to serfdom, a lowering of taxes, and the dismissal of unpopular officials and judges, the disparate rebel bands coalesced and marched on London. On June 13th, a Kentish contingent under Wat Tyler entered the city, where they massacred Flemish merchants, destroyed the palace of an unpopular uncle of the king, and seized the Tower of London. The king’s chancellor and his treasurer, deemed responsible for the introduction of the hated poll tax, were captured and beheaded.

The king agreed to meet Wat Tyler and his contingent on the outskirts of London to hear their demands, but Wat Tyler was treacherously killed at the meeting. The young king then claimed that he would be the rebels’ leader, and promising reforms and agreeing to their demands, convinced them to disperse. As soon as sufficient military force was available, however, the king reneged, and the peasants were brutally suppressed. When a peasant delegation reminded the king of his promises, he contemptuously dismissed them, sneering “Villeins ye are, and villeins ye shall remain!

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
James Fiennes, Lord Saye, brought before Jack Cade. Wikimedia

Cade’s Rebellion

In 1450, Jack Cade, an Irishman of unknown occupation and little known background residing in Kent, organized a rebellion among peasants and small proprietors angered by oppressively high taxes and a recent steep rise in prices, coupled with widespread corruption and abuse of power by the royal advisors and officials of the weak and hapless king Henry VI. The rebellion gathered steam, and soon became a major popular revolt and peasant uprising that shook England and terrorized its government and aristocracy.

Cade had been living in Sussex until 1449, when he fled to France to escape a murder charge. He returned to England under an assumed name in 1450, and settled in Kent. That June, he emerged as the leader of a rebellion against the royal government, and calling himself John Mortimer, identified with the king’s rivals, the York branch of the royal family.

Cade issued a manifesto, demanding the removal of several royal ministers, and the recall of Richard, Duke of York, from Ireland, where he was a virtual exile. A royal army sent to the suppress the rebels was defeated in Kent, after which the insurrectionists’ rapidly increasing host marched on London. They captured the city on July 3rd, 1450, along with the hated royal treasurer, James Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele, whom the rebels executed.

Despite Cade’s attempt to maintain discipline, once they entered London, many rebels took to looting. The lawlessness led Londoners to turn on the rebels, expelling them from the city on July 6th, after a battle at London Bridge. To end the revolt, the government persuaded most rebels to disperse by issuing royal pardons. Cade fled, but was tracked down a week later, wounded in a skirmish with royal forces, and captured. He was taken to London, but died of his wounds en route, his death marking the end of the rebellion. While the revolt failed, it contributed to a breakdown of royal authority and prestige that set the stage for the Wars of the Roses.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The execution of Georghe Doja. Wikimedia

Hungarian Peasant Rebellion

Georghe Doja (1470 – 1514) was a Transylvanian nobleman and soldier of fortune who led a rebellion in 1514 – a fierce but eventually unsuccessful uprising of downtrodden Hungarian peasants against their rapacious overlords. After the peasant revolt was put down, Doja went down in history as both a notorious criminal and as a Christian martyr.

After making a name for himself in wars against the Ottoman Turks, Doja was appointed by Pope Leo X to lead a Crusade. About 40,000 volunteers gathered beneath his banner, comprised in the main of peasants, friars, and parish priests – medieval society’s lowest rungs. The Hungarian nobility however neither supplied the Crusaders nor offered military leadership – which was unseemly, since military leadership was the main justification for the aristocracy’s elevated status. Before long, the gathered throng started voicing its collective grievances against the overbearing nobles, and at harvest time, the peasants refused to return and reap their lords’ fields.

The nobles tried to seize the peasants by force and compel them to toil, but that did not sit well with Doja. Siding with the serfs against his own class, he led the Hungarian peasants in a violent rebellion that morphed into a war of extermination against the landlords. Hundreds of castles and aristocratic manors were put to the torch, while thousands of the gentry were killed, often tortured to death or executed in a variety of gruesome ways, such as crucifixion or impalement.

The rebellion was finally crushed, and the peasantry were crushed with it, as they were subjected to a reign of terror and a wave of retaliatory vengeance by the nobles. Over 70,000 were tortured to death, and the peasants as a class were condemned to perpetual servitude, permanently bound to the soil, fined heavily, had their taxes sharply hiked, and the number of days they had to work for their landlords was increased.

Doja was himself captured and condemned to a fiendishly cruel death. Accused among other things of having sought to become king, he was sentenced to sit on a hot iron throne, while a heated iron crown was affixed to his head. Next, bloody hunks were torn out of his body, and nine of his chief lieutenants, starved beforehand, were forced to eat his flesh.

The aristocratic backlash backfired, however, and twelve years later the Ottoman Turks invaded Hungary and had a relatively easy time conquering what was still a bitterly divided country. As to Doja, the revolutionary aspects of his life were drawn upon heavily during the communist era in Romania, his land of birth. Likewise in Hungary, where Doja is the most popular street name in villages, and a main avenue and metro station in Budapest bear his name.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Rebellious peasants surrounding a knight. Wikimedia

German Peasants War

The German Peasants War of 1524 – 1525 was Europe’s largest popular uprising prior to the French Revolution of 1789. For generations, German peasants had experienced a steady curtailment of their ancient rights to fish, hunt, bear arms, or collect wood from common lands, while their noble overlords’ exactions grew increasingly more onerous. The conflict was reportedly, and perhaps apocryphally, sparked by the countess of Lupfen’s orders to her serfs to stop tending their crops in order to collect snail shells for her to use as thread spools. Neglecting their fields and crops meant starvation, so the peasants took up arms.

Wherever and however the uprising 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, in which a captive being forced to run a gauntlet between rows of peasants wielding clubs and whips was considered to be at the milder end of the spectrum.

Many were inspired by changes brought about by the Reformation, recently launched by Martin Luther, and invoked divine law to support peasant rights and freedom from oppression by the nobles 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 Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Muntzer, supported the peasants and the justice of their cause. Martin Luther, however, knowing on which side his bread was buttered, wanted nothing to do with the rebels and sided with the nobility, going 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, military training, artillery, or cavalry, doomed them to ultimate defeat. As with most peasant uprisings, the revolt was crushed once the forces of reaction gathered their strength, and the peasantry were subjected to widespread retaliatory vengeance in which over 100,000 were massacred. Notwithstanding the revolt’s failure, it had a lasting impact on history, as The Twelve Articles – the document listing the peasants’ demands – has been described as an inspiration for the French Revolution and a model for America’s Bill of Rights.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
The execution of Stenka Razin. Encyclopedia of Sfaety

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.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Kondraty Bulavin’s house in Starocherkask. Wikimedia

Bulavin Rebellion

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.

When the Lower Class Fights Back: 12 of History’s Greatest Peasant Revolts
Pugachev’s Court, by Vasily Perov, 1879. Art Hive

Pugachev Rebellion

The Pugachev Rebellion (1773 – 1775), also known as the Peasants War, was the third and greatest of Russia’s major peasant revolts between 1670 to 1775. It was led by Emilian Pugachev, a former Russian army lieutenant, and posed an existential threat to Tsardom against a backdrop of deep resentment by the peasantry of Russia’s exploitative government and aristocracy.

During the reign of 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, and to pay for them, Russia’s landlords turned to their peasant serfs, increasing their tax burdens and squeezing them dry. That led to protests, increased incidences of serfs fleeing their landlords’ lands, and rebellions, with over 160 localized peasant uprisings recorded throughout the Russian Empire between 1762 to 1772.

In 1773, the discontent erupted into a massive peasant revolt, sparked by word that Tsar Peter III, who had been assassinated in 1763, had escaped death and was hiding amongst the Cossacks from Tsarina Catherine the Great, 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 before deserting to wander southern Russia among Orthodox religious fundamentalists known as Old Believers. With them, Pugachev hatched a plan to pose as the deceased Peter III, and 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.

Promising a repeal of an unpopular poll tax and forced labor, Pugachev amassed a large peasant army, supported by Cossacks, Tartars, and other non-Russians, and in 1773, crushed a Russian army sent to put down the rebellion. As the rebels marched deeper into Russian territory, promising 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 stretching from the Volga river to the Urals. In April, 1774, Pugachev suffered a defeat and was forced to flee to the southern Urals, where he raised a new army and returned to the fray, fighting a series of battles on the Steppe, particularly around the city of Kazan, which the rebels burned. After setbacks, the rebels retreated to the Volga river where, outside today’s Volgograd, they were defeated, after which Pugachev’s lieutenants betrayed him to the authorities. The Pugachev rebellion collapsed with the capture of its leader, who was taken to Moscow and executed in January of 1775.