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Pugachev's Rebellion (or the Cossack Rebellion) of 1774-75 was the principal revolt in a series of popular rebellions that took place in Russia after Catherine II seized power in 1762. It began as an organized insurrection of Yaik Cossacks headed by Emelyan Pugachev, a disaffected ex-lieutenant of the Russian Imperial army, against a background of profound peasant unrest and war with the Ottoman Empire. After the initial success, Pugachev assumed leadership of an alternative government in the name of the assassinated Tsar Peter III and proclaimed an end to serfdom. This organized leadership presented a challenge to the imperial administration of Catherine II.
The rebellion managed to consolidate support from various groups including the peasants, the Cossacks and Old Believers priesthood and its administration claimed, at one point, control over most of the territory between the Volga River and the Urals. One of the most significant events of the insurrection was the Battle of Kazan in July 1774.
Government forces failed to respond effectively to the insurrection at first, partly due to logistic difficulties and a failure to appreciate its scale, but the revolt was crushed towards the end of 1774 by General Michelsohn at Tsaritsyn. Pugachev was captured soon after and executed in Moscow in January 1775. Further reprisals against rebel areas were carried out by General Peter Panin.
As the Russian monarchy contributed to the degradation of the serfs, peasant anger ran high. Peter the Great ceded entire villages to favored nobles, while Catherine the Great confirmed the authority of the nobles over the serfs in return for the nobles' political cooperation. The unrest intensified as the 18th century wore on, with more than fifty peasant revolts occurring between 1762 and 1769. These culminated in Pugachev's Rebellion, when, between 1773 and 1775, Emelyan Pugachev rallied the peasants and Cossacks and promised the serfs land of their own and freedom from their lords.
Under the guise of Peter III, Pugachev built up his own bureaucracy and army which copied that of Catherine's. Some of his top commanders took on the pseudonyms of dukes and courtiers. Zarubin Chaika, Pugachev's top commander, for example, took the guise of Zakhar Chernyshev. The army Pugachev established, at least at the very top levels of command, also mimicked that of Catherine's. The organizational structure Pugachev set up for his top command was extraordinary, considering Pugachev defected as an ensign from Catherine's army. He built up his own War College and a fairly sophisticated intelligence network of messengers and spies. Even though Pugachev was illiterate, he recruited the help of local priests, mullahs, and starshins to write and disseminate his "royal decrees" or ukases in Russian and Tatar languages. These ukazy were copied, sent to villages and read to the masses by the priests and mullahs. In these documents, he begged the masses to serve him faithfully. He promised to grant to those who followed his service land, salt, grain, and lowered taxes, and threatened punishment and death to those who didn't. For example, an excerpt from a ukase written in late 1773:
From the very beginning of the insurgency, Pugachev's generals carried out mass recruitment campaigns in Tatar and Bashkir settlements, with the instructions of recruiting one member from every or every other household and as many weapons as they could secure. He recruited not only Cossacks, but Russian peasants and factory workers, Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvash. Famous Bashkir hero Salawat Yulayev joined him. Pugachev–s primary target for his campaign was not the people themselves, but their leaders. He recruited priests and mullahs to disseminate his decrees and read them to the masses as a way of lending them credence.
Priests in particular were instrumental figures in carrying out Pugachev–s propaganda campaigns. Pugachev was known to stage –heroic welcomes– whenever he entered a Russian village, in which he would be greeted by the masses as their sovereign. A few days before his arrival to a given city or village, messengers would be sent out to inform the priests and deacons in that town of his impending arrival. These messengers would request that the priests bring out salt and water and ring the church bells to signify his coming. The priests would also be instructed to read Pugachev–s manifestos during mass and sing prayers to the health of the Great Emperor Peter III. Most priests, although not all, complied with Pugachev–s requests. One secret report of Catherine–s War College, for example, tells of one such priest, Zubarev, who recruited for Pugachev in Church under such orders. –[Zubarev], believing in the slander-ridden decree of the villainous-imposter, brought by the villainous Ataman Loshkarev, read it publicly before the people in church. And when that ataman brought his band, consisting of 100 men, to their Baikalov village, then that Zubarev met them with a cross and with icons and chanted prayers in the Church; and then at the time of service, as well as after, evoked the name of the Emperor Peter III for suffrage.– (Pugachevshchina Vol. 2, Document 86. Author's translation)
In 1773 his army attacked Samara and occupied it. His greatest victory came with the taking of Kazan, by which time his captured territory stretched from the Volga to the Ural mountains. Though fairly well-organized for a revolt at the time, Pugachev's main advantage early on was the lack of seriousness about Pugachev's rebellion. Catherine the Great regarded the troublesome Cossack as a joke and put a small bounty of about 500 rubles on his head. But by 1774, the threat was more seriously addressed; by November the bounty was over 28,000 rubles. The Russian general Mikhelson lost many men due to a lack of transportation and discipline among his troops, while Pugachev scored several important victories, even killing General-Anshef Aleksandr Bibikov.[dubious ]
By late 1774 the tide was turning, and the Russian army's victory at Tsaritsyn left 9,000-10,000 rebels dead. Russian General Panin's savage reprisals, after the capture of Penza, completed their discomfiture. By early September, the rebellion was mostly crushed. Emelyan Pugachev was betrayed by his own Cossacks when he tried to flee in mid-September 1774. He was caught and executed on January 10, 1775, in Moscow.
Following the rebellion, several changes were made to the Russian government. Provinces became more numerous, certain political powers were broken up and divided among various agencies, and elected officials were introduced.
The popular interpretation of the insurgency was that Pugachev's men followed him out of the desire to free themselves from the oppression of Catherine's reign of law. However, there are documents from Pugachev's war college and eye witness accounts that contradict this theory. While there were many who believed Pugachev to be Peter III and that he would emancipate them from Catherine's harsh taxes and policies of serfdom, there were many groups, particularly of Bashkir and Tatar ethnicity, whose loyalties were not so certain. In January of 1774, for example, Bashkir and Tatar generals led an attack on the City of Kungur. During the revolt the nomadic Kazakhs took the opportunity to raid the Russian settlements. Pugachev's troops suffered from a lack of food and gunpowder. Many fighters deserted including one general who left the battle and took his entire unit with him. One general wrote in a report to his superior, V. I. Tornova, "For the sake of your eminence, we humbly request that our Naigabitskiaia Fortress is returned to us with or without a detachment, because there is not a single Tatar or Bashkir detachment, since they have all fled, and the starshins, who have dispersed to their homes, are presently departing for the Naigabanskaia fortress." (Dokumenty i Stavki E. I. Pugacheva, povstancheskikh vlastei i ucherezhdenii, 1773-1774. Moskva, Nauka, 1975. Document number 195. Author's translation)
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