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The Peasants Are Revolting

In September, 1773, three months before American colonists dumped tea in Boston harbor, Russian serfs in the Ural mountain region rose up and demanded emancipation from bondage.

Discontent had been brewing among the serfs since 1762, when Tsar Peter III passed legislation that many serfs (mistakenly) interpreted as the first step toward their emancipation. Several months later, Peter was murdered and his wife, later known as Catherine the Great, ascended the throne.

As far as the serfs were concerned, Catherine’s rule wasn’t so great. One of her first acts on ascending the throne was to annul Peter’s legislation. Instead of gaining their freedom, serfs suffered from increasing burdens of compulsory service and imaginative taxation. Serfs were even taxed for wearing a beard. (A sure fire way of solving the financial crisis. Write your congressman today.)

As conditions worsened, rumors spread that Tsar Peter wasn’t dead  and that he would return to complete the emancipation of his people. Between 1762 and 1774, multiple imposters appeared claiming to be the murdered tsar. (I picture this as a variation on the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “I’m not dead yet”.) The most successful of these pretenders was Yemelyan Pugachev, who led the serf revolt in 1773-4.

Pugachev was welcomed as a liberator by many serfs, who rose in the name of the “true tsar”, Peter III. Violent bands of serfs roamed the countryside. Landowning nobles were killed or put to flight. In the end, Pugachev’s Rebellion accomplished nothing. Pugachev was defeated by imperial troops a year after the initial rising and sent to Moscow in a cage. He was tried several months later and executed. Without its leader, the revolt collapsed.

Pugachev’s only permanent legacy was a historical adventure novella by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter, in which Pugachev is portrayed as a larger than life romantic villain. (Pushkin also wrote a serious history of the revolt in which Pugachev is a thug “with no other merits, except for some military expertise and extraordinary audacity.”  Poetic license is a wonderful thing.)

Pugachev’s Rebellion failed, but discontent among the serfs continued. Russian peasants revolted more than 500 times between Pugachev’s defeat and Tsar Alexander II’s edict  declaring their emancipating in 1861.

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