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The Pugachev Revolt

The Revolutionary Masses

Russia’s peasant population was held in the condition of economic slavery by means of coercion, arbitrary punishment and sheer brutality. In the words of R.Charques:  

Punishment of the serf in the presence of the landlord. 18th-century engraving

‘The everyday conditions of existence for the peasantry steadily became more brutalized in the golden age of the nobility.  The discipline of serfdom was maintained more than all else by corporal punishment; never was the practice of flogging in Russia so extensive, never was the knout considered so sovereign a remedy for peasant failings’.

Although serfdom was not exactly slavery, the absence of any civil and political rights, the lack of any legal protection against landlords or government officials meant that in reality serfs were often treated as chattels. The trade in serfs flourished, continuing throughout Catherine’s reign, both in private sales and the public auction of serfs.  Human being were openly offered for sale in the newspapers as may be seen from the following advertisements: 

To be sold: a barber, and in addition to that four bedsteads, an eiderdown and other domestic  chattels.


To be sold: banqueting tablecloths and also two trained girls and a peasant.


To be sold: a girl of sixteen of good behavior and  a second-hand slightly used carriage.  

Did Catherine make an attempt to face the problem of serfdom?  Hardly. In fact, she extended serfdom to the Ukraine where the land was distributed among the nobility, many of them the special recipients of her bounty. However well intentioned she might have been, Catherine faced the same dilemma that confronted any ruler, who wanted to reform Russia’s ’Peculiar Institution’ of serfdom: the entire class of the nobility depended for their livelihood on  the ownership of people. The whole society was so organized that it seemed impossible to deprive the nobility of their sustenance without bringing the state to the ground.  Catherine’s victorious wars and her brilliant court, the spread of Western culture, with its consequent improvement of the standards of living of the upper classes - all had to be provided at the expense of the serfs.  The ‘Peculiar Institution’ was getting worse all the time.

This was the situation which led to the greatest of Russian peasant rebellions - the Pugachev revolt of 1773.  Pugachev was a Don Cossack,  a former convict and deserter from the Russian army. He raised the revolt in the provinces east of the Volga and was soon leader of an army of serfs, laborers from the mines and factories of the Urals and Cossacks.

Pugachev chained after his arrest 

The rebels wanted the division  of the landlords’ estates among the peasants. In  Pugachev’s own words: ‘We shall behead every noble in the land and take over the land for ourselves.’ Pugachev led his army into the valley of the Volga  and sacked several important towns.  Nobles and landlords were tortured and killed, buildings set on fire, estates plundered.  With great difficulty the troublesome areas were brought under control.  Pugachev was caught and brought in an iron cage to Moscow, where he was tried and executed in 1775.   

Pugachev's rebellion had sent a powerful signal to the ruling classes about the magnitude of the discontent among the peasants. His ghost continued to haunt the autocracy, while the spirit of his revolt would inspire those later revolutionary activists who believed in the innately anti-authoritarian and insurrectionary nature of the Russian masses.

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