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.