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.

The Great Sea

As so often happens when I pick up a history book, I was recently whacked over the head by a factoid that was both obvious and illuminating: the name Mediterranean literally means "the sea between the lands". It's a good name, but it's by no means the only name that sea has gone by. The ancient Egyptians called it the Great Green. The Romans, always a bit grabby, simply called it "Our Sea". For the Ottomans it was the White Sea (At the height of the Ottoman Empire, Europeans referred to it less happily as the "Muslim lake." And, as historian David Abulafia points out in the introduction to his excellent history of the Mediterranean, his Jewish ancestors called the Mediterranean the "Great Sea."

Abulafia tackles history on a grand scale in The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean

Abulafia takes the reader on a journey that begins with Neolithic Sicily in 22,000 BC and ends with the transformation of the Mediterranean into a tourist destination after 1950. Summarizing his subject as "those who dipped their toes into the sea, and, best of all, took journeys across it," he considers islands, ports and wind patterns, sailors and merchants, the exchange of goods, religions and ideas, and the rise and fall of empires. He tells new versions of old stories: the fall of Troy, the founding of Carthage, the mysterious origins of the Etruscans, the emergence of Dubrovnik as the "Jewel of the Sea", the impact of the Barbary Corsairs, and the building of the Suez Canal.

Comparison with French historian Fernand Braudel's groundbreaking The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II is inevitable.  Abulafia deals the question head on. He describes Braudel's work as horizontal history, focused on cultural continuity based on regional geography.  In contrast, he claims that his own work is vertical, emphasizing change over time. . In fact, the two books differ in both scope and focus.  Where Braudel concentrates on the hinterlands that support the Mediterranean shore, Abulafia focuses on the sea and the men who crossed it.

Whether horizontal, vertical, or upside down, The Great Sea deserves a place on the shelf next to Braudel's classic work


A version of this review was previously published in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Wonders & Marvels–and me!

For those of you who don't know it, Wonders & Marvels is one of the best history sites on the web.  Holly Tucker, the author of Blood Work, has put together a lively community "for curious minds who love history, its odd stories and good reads". In addition to book reviews and guest posts by historians with interesting stories to tell, she's now added a group of regular contributors.  I'm thrilled to be included.

In addition to writing about whatever has caught my fancy here on History in the Margins, I'll be writing one article a month for Wonders and Marvels, usually about Middle Eastern and Islamic history.  My first piece is up.  I hope you'll click the link and check it out.  Poke around while you're there.  It's a great place for the historically minded to hang out.