Peasant War Under the Leadership of E. I. Pugachev

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peasant War Under the Leadership of E. I. Pugachev


(1773–75), a peasant war against feudal oppression in Russia. The Pugachev uprising covered a huge area, including the Orenburg region, the Urals, the Ural Region, Western Siberia, and the Middle and Lower Volga regions. The movement involved up to 100,000 active insurgents—members of the Russian peasantry, the toiling strata of the cossacks, and the non-Russian nationalities.

In the Peasant War under Pugachev the toiling people struggled against feudal oppression, but they were intent on preserving a system of state authority to which they had been accustomed from time immemorial—that is, a monarchy headed by a “good tsar.” During the years preceding the Pugachev uprising, antifeudal actions took many different forms of social protest. Major uprisings involved up to 250,000 seignorial and monastery peasants, as well as peasants who worked in the mines and factories. Disturbances broke out among the Kalmyks, Bashkirs, and other nationalities from the Trans-Volga Region. In September 1771 an uprising of the urban lower strata flared up in Moscow (the “plague riot”). In January 1772 the perennial unrest among the toiling cossacks of the Iaik Host flared up into an uprising against the highest ranking elders. Disturbances occurred among the cossacks of the Volga and Don stanitsy (large cossack villages) in 1772. Catherine II’s government, relying on military force, had difficulty in maintaining popular submission to authority. The Turkish War of 1768–74 further complicated the situation, for the heavy burdens of war intensified popular discontent.

The Peasant War began in September 1773 on the steppes of the left bank of the Volga, when the Iaik cossacks led by the Don cossack E. I. Pugachev rose against the government. As early as August 1773, Pugachev gathered reliable cossack supporters in the khutors (privately owned homesteads) near Iaitskii Gorodok (present-day Ural’sk). Even at this stage he envisioned the possibility of attracting the enserfed peasantry to the uprising. Responding to the naïve monarchist illusions to which the people clung, Pugachev began to call himself Emperor Peter III. By mid-September 1773 preparations for the uprising had been completed. Pugachev organized the first insurgent detachment, which was made up of 80 cossacks. On September 17 he published a manifesto in which he bestowed centuries-old cossack freedoms and privileges on cossacks, Tatars, and Kalmyks serving in the Iaik Host. The insurgents approached Iaitskii Gorodok on September 18, but, lacking artillery, they refrained from storming the fortress. From Iaitskii Gorodok, Pugachev undertook a campaign against Orenburg. Along the way the detachment was reinforced by cossacks, soldiers, Tatars, Kalmyks, Kazakhs, seignorial peasants, and peasants who worked at plants in the Urals. Khlopusha (A. T. Sokolov) joined forces with Pugachev, becoming his faithful assistant. Cannons, arms, and munitions were seized from fortresses along the upper Iaik that surrendered to Pugachev. On October 5 the insurgents besieged Orenburg with up to 2,500 fighters and 20 cannons. They held it under siege for nearly six months.

Rumors about the insurgents’ victories aroused spontaneous disturbances among the seignorial peasants, the peasants who worked in the mines and factories, and the non-Russian population of Orenburg Province. Pugachev drew them into the ranks of the insurgent troops and created new centers of the uprising. From Berskaia Sloboda (Pugachev’s headquarters, located 7 versts [7.49 km] from Orenburg) messengers were dispatched to villages and plants with copies of Pugachev’s manifestoes. They declared eternal liberty for the people, proclaimed the people’s liberation from forced labor for landlords and factory owners, from taxes, and from obligations, offered them land, called for the destruction of the advocates of serfdom, and proclaimed religious freedom. A significant part of Orenburg Province fell into the hands of the insurgents, who were joined by thousands of volunteers. On Pugachev’s instructions the peasants took along rations and fodder, and they were supplied with cannons, arms, and ammunition from the Urals factories. By the beginning of December 1773, there were up to 25,000 fighters and 86 cannons in the insurgent detachments near Orenburg. To govern the troops Pugachev created a military collegium, which, to a certain degree, functioned as the administrative and political center of the uprising.

In October 1773 the tsarist government organized a punitive detachment (3,500 men with ten cannons), which was led by General V. A. Kar. He and his troops came to the assistance of besieged Orenburg at the beginning of November, but in the battle of November 7–9 near the village of Iuzeeva, Kar was routed. In November other punitive detachments bound for Orenburg from Simbirsk and Siberia were also defeated. Between November 1773 and the beginning of January 1774 the uprising embraced the Southern Urals, eastern Kazan Province, Western Siberia, and western Kazakhstan. The people of Bashkiria, led by Kinzia Arslanov and Salavat Iulaev, rebelled against the tsarist government. Major centers of the insurgent movement developed near Ufa (I. Chika-Zarubin), Ekaterinburg (I. Beloborodov), Cheliabinsk (I. Griaznov), Samara (I. Arapov), Zainsk (V. Tornov), Kungur and Krasnoufimsk (I. Kuznetsov and Salavat Iulaev), and Iaitskii Gorodok (M. Tolkachev). Lacking a unified plan of action and having no strong ties with the remote regions of the uprising, the military collegium was unable to exercise leadership over the entire territory covered by the uprising. Preoccupied with the siege of Orenburg and Iaitskii Gorodok, Pugachev gave up the idea of undertaking a campaign to the Volga Region, which was prepared for an uprising. This decision limited the base of the Peasant War and gave the government time to gather military forces. In December 1773, a punitive corps made up of 6,500 men and 30 cannons and headed by A. I. Bibikov was sent to the regions affected by the uprising. It defeated the insurgents a number of times near Samara, Kungur, and Buzuluk. Pugachev was unable to assist his advance-guard detachments, which were no match for the tsarist troops. They retreated along the entire front.

Only after the fall of Buzuluk did Pugachev move some of his forces from the vicinity of Orenburg and try to halt any further advance by the enemy. For a decisive battle he chose the heavily fortified Tatishcheva fortress near Orenburg. The insurgents were routed on March 22, losing all their artillery and suffering major losses. On March 24 the corps commanded by Lieutenant Colonel I. I. Mikhel’son defeated the insurgents near Ufa, and within a short time Mikherson captured Ataman I. Chika-Zaru-bin. Having lifted the siege of Orenburg, Pugachev retreated to Sakmarskii Gorodok, where he engaged in another battle with the punitive troops on April 1. However, he suffered great losses, for several of his prominent assistants were taken prisoner (M. Shigaev, T. Padurov, A. Vitoshnov, M. Gorshkov, and I. Pochitalin). Pugachev went into hiding in the Urals.

By mid-April 1774 the major centers of the uprising had been crushed, but individual detachments were active in the Trans-Kama region, in Bashkiria (Salavat Iulaev’s troops), in factories in the Southern Urals (I. Beloborodov), and on the Orenburg steppes (A. Ovchinnikov). Pugachev energetically prepared a new insurgent army, using the surviving centers of the uprising in Bashkiria and the industrialized Urals. Having assembled up to 5,000 fighters, he seized the Magnitnaia fortress (May 6) and joined forces with Beloborodov’s and Ovchinnikov’s detachments. He advanced up the Iaik River and took the Troitskaia fortress by storm (May 19), but he was routed on May 20 and returned to the Urals. Pursuing Pugachev, Mikhel’son’s corps defeated him a number of times. But Pugachev skillfully applied the tactics of guerrilla warfare, evading his pursuers each time and saving the main forces from final defeat. Once again he assembled detachments of thousands of men. Forced out of the industrialized Urals by mid-June 1774, Pugachev decided to lead his detachments toward Kazan, seize the city, and undertake the long planned campaign against Moscow. On July 12 the insurgent detachments stormed Kazan. Although they seized the suburbs and the city, they were unable to take the fortress, in which the remnants of the Kazan garrison were ensconced. In the evening of July 12 the insurgents were defeated by Mikhel’son’s corps, which had arrived just in time to save Kazan. Another battle for the city took place on July 15. Having lost all his artillery, as well as up to 2,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner, Pugachev withdrew to the north and crossed over to the right bank of the Volga at Sundyr’.

The appearance of the insurgents in that area touched off a large-scale peasant uprising that was supported by the non-Russian nationalities of the Volga region (Chuvash, Mordovians, Mari, and Tatars, for example). In July, Pugachev issued a manifesto calling for the liberation of the peasants from serfdom, the gratuitous transfer of land to the people, and the extermination everywhere of the nobility and gentry. The insurgents’ forces grew. In addition to the main insurgent army, numerous peasant detachments of hundreds and thousands of fighting men were active in the Volga Region. The movement embraced the majority of districts along the Volga, approached the borders of Moscow Province, and posed a real threat to Moscow, where unrest grew among the urban lower strata, factory workers, and household serfs. Conditions were ripe for a march on Moscow by the insurgent army. Pugachev, however, decided against this course of action. Abandoning the regions where the scope of the peasant movement was broadest, he planned to move south with his main forces to the Don, where he hoped to find reinforcements among the Don cossacks. Once reinforced, he would undertake a march on Moscow. Advancing southward, his detachments met the support of the common people everywhere. The insurgents took Kurmysh on July 20, Alatyr’ on July 23, Saransk on July 27, Penza on August 2, Petrovsk on August 4, and Saratov on August 6. Assembling volunteers among the peasants, townspeople, and cossacks, Pugachev moved farther and farther south, leaving behind dozens of local, uncoordinated detachments. The departure of the main forces of the insurgents gave the punitive troops the opportunity to rout the peasant movement, detachment by detachment, in the Middle Volga Region and to force Pugachev into the sparsely populated areas of the Lower Volga Region.

In August 1774, Catherine II assembled up to 20 infantry and cavalry regiments, cossack units, and gentry corps for the struggle against the insurgents. Pugachev’s troops succeeded in taking Dmitrievsk (now Kamyshin) and Dubovka and in winning over the Kalmyks, but the rebels’ attempt to take Tsaritsyn by storm failed. Many Don cossacks deserted Pugachev at this point, and the Kalmyks abandoned him. Pursued by Mikhel’son’s corps, Pugachev withdrew to Chernyi lar, having lost hope of fomenting a rebellion among the Don cossacks. The last major battle took place on August 25 at Solenikova Vataga. Betrayed by a group of conspirators—Iaik Cossack elders—the insurgents lost their artillery at the beginning of the battle. Pugachev was routed. He fled to the Trans-Volga steppes but was soon captured, and on September 15 he was brought to Iaitskii Gorodok.

The investigation of Pugachev was carried out in Iaitskii Gorodok, Simbirsk, and Moscow, where other prominent figures in the Peasant War were also brought. In accordance with a court sentence, Pugachev, Perfil’ev, Shigaev, Padurov, and Tornov were executed on Jan. 10, 1775, in Bolotnaia Square in Moscow. The rest of the accused were subjected to corporal punishment and exiled to hard labor. Chika-Zarubin was executed in February 1775 in Ufa. The Peasant War did not end with the defeat of the main insurgent forces. Until November 1774, Salavat Iulaev’s detachments were active in Bashkiria. Peasants of the Middle Volga Region and the central provinces continued to fight. In the Lower Volga Region the movement was suppressed only around the summer of 1775. Repressive measures were taken on a mass scale against the population of the Volga Region and Orenburg Province until mid-1775.

The defeat of Pugachev’s uprising was inevitable, as was the defeat of all peasant movements in the epoch of feudalism. Nonetheless, the Peasant War of 1773–75 dealt a blow to the foundations of serfdom. The reasons for its defeat were rooted in the spontaneous and uncoordinated character of the movement, which lacked a clearly conceived program of struggle for a new social system. Pugachev and his military collegium were unable to organize an army for a successful struggle against government troops. The ruling class and the state fought against the spontaneous movement of the people with a regular army, established administrative and police bodies, stable finances, and the church. They also received substantial support from the rising Russian bourgeoisie (plant and factory owners and merchants).

After the Peasant War of 1773–75 the government of Catherine II, endeavoring to prevent another peasant movement, strengthened the machinery of state on the local level, increasing its punitive powers. Certain economic measures were taken to defuse the peasant problem. The regime of gentry reaction which established itself after the war was unable, however, to suppress the country’s peasant movement, which gained strength especially at the end of the 18th century. Under the influence of the Peasant War the ideology of antiserfdom took shape in Russia (A. N. Radishchev and N. I. Novikov, for example).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.