Peasant War of the Early 17th Century

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Peasant War of the Early 17th Century


in Russia, a civil war of the oppressed classes and estates of the towns and the countryside against the class of feudal lords and the feudal state that supported serfdom. The war was an open manifestation of the struggle between pro- and antiserfdom tendencies in the historical development of the nation—tendencies represented on the one hand by the feudal lords and on the other hand by the peasants, the townspeople, and the intermediate strata of the population.

The Peasant War of the early 17th century was caused by the exacerbation of interclass contradictions, owing to a sharp deterioration in the economic, social, and legal position of the popular masses. At the end of the 16th century the forms of exploitation of the peasantry changed: that is, the corvee and cash rent became more widespread. Simultaneously, the norms of exploitation expanded. The final stage in the formation of a statewide system of serfdom had begun.

In the latter half of the 16th century the system of debt servitude (kabal’noe kholopstvo) developed more rapidly, and the principle that a kabal’nyi kholop (debtor-serf) must serve until his master’s death was introduced in 1597. The economic and legal position of the enserfed peasantry grew more similar to that of the kabal’nye kholopy. There were a number of reasons for the deterioration in the condition of the broad strata of townspeople in the late 16th century, as well as for the sharpening of contradictions between the upper and lower strata in the posad (merchants’ and artisans’ quarter). State levies and obligations increased, the role of the local bodies of self-government declined as the power of the voevodas (military commanders or governors) increased, and, with the binding of the townspeople to taxpaying communes, the legal norms of serfdom were extended to the taxpaying strata of the towns.

During the same period the Russian pomeshchiki (landlords) increased their holdings, and the policy of Christianizing the non-Russian national regions (the Volga Region and parts of Western Siberia) became more intense. As the government colonized the southern regions during the 1580’s and 1590’s, the position of certain groups of sluzhilye liudi po priboru (servitors by contract)—including the strel’tsy (semiprofessional musketeers), pushkari (cannoneers and cannon-makers), and service cossacks—deteriorated sharply. Members of these groups were forced to build fortifications and enter the military service. Repressive measures were taken against the free cossacks on the Don and the Volga.

The Peasant War of the early 17th century was also caused by the worsening of conflicts within the class of feudal lords—for example, conflicts between different court groupings, between higher Muscovite officials and the provincial service dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry), and between clerical and secular feudal lords. These conflicts were both economic (for example, the struggle for land and disagreements about the means of enserfing the peasants, the pace at which they should be enserfed, and the limits to their bondage) and sociopolitical (disputes over the methods and level of participation in state administration and over the social and legal status of different groups of feudal lords). By the beginning of the 17th century conflicts within the ruling class led to a crisis in the system of government. The course of the Peasant War was greatly complicated by the Polish and Swedish intervention of the early 17th century.

In the 1580’s and 1590’s the spontaneous class struggle of the popular masses became more intense. The Peasant War was sparked by the events of 1601-03. Poor harvests, epidemics, and famine caused a mass flight of peasants and kabal’nye kholopy to the major towns and the southern regions. All social antagonisms became sharper, resulting in an escalation of the class struggle that was expressed in mass violence and looting. Al-though the government sent out large punitive detachments and made certain concessions to the peasants and kabal’nye kholopy in legislation written between 1601 and 1603, it proved unable to cope with the economic and social consequences of natural disasters.

First period (1603-05). The central event of the first period of the Peasant War was the uprising of peasants and kabal’nye kholopy under the leadership of Khlopka. It defined the basic territory on which the war was fought as well as the chief moving forces of the war (the peasants and kabal’nye kholopy).

The defeat of the insurgents in September 1603 led to a temporary decline in the movement. The second stage of the first period included the mass movement of 1604-05, which coincided with the appearance of an adventurist, the First False Dmitrii. In the autumn of 1604 there was a major uprising of peasants in the southwest (the volosts [small rural districts] of Komaritskii and Okolensk), as well as uprisings of townspeople and sluzhilye liudi po priboru in the southwest, the south, and the southeast (Chernigov, PutivP, Ryl’sk, Kursk, Belgorod, and the Volga towns). The free cossacks’ movement emerged at this time. By the spring of 1605, disturbances had enveloped the entire territory south of the Oka River. In May there was an uprising of datochnye liudi (rural and urban people with a lifelong military obligation) in the government army outside Kromy. Class uprisings of townspeople against feudal domains in the posad took place more frequently in the larger towns of the Trans-Moscow territory and the North. As a result of an uprising of the townspeople in Moscow on June 1, 1605, Godunov’s government fell.

As these movements continued under the slogan “For the lawful and good Tsarevich Dmitrii,” their basic social and political demands took shape: abolition of the existing system of feudal landownership and serfdom, elimination of the governmental system headed by the “unlawful tsar” Boris Godunov, and the physical extermination of its representatives and of the feudal lords who supported it. At this stage the social composition of the insurgent camp was defined. Peasants and kabal’nye kholopy, as well as townspeople, sluzhilye liudi po priboru, and free cos-sacks (who played an active, progressive role), took part in the uprisings. In addition, the insurgents were joined by a significant number of provincial nobles from the southern part of the country. The First False Dmitrii’s demagogic promises to meet the rebels’ demands and his accession to power in June 1605 led to a temporary decline in the Peasant War.

Second period (1606-07). During the spring of 1606 the war became more intense in the Lower Volga Region. The murder of the First False Dmitrii by boyar conspirators and the anti-Polish popular uprising in Moscow on May 17, 1606—events that were followed by Vasilii IV Shuiskii’s accession to the throne—gave impetus to the Peasant Uprising under the leader-ship of I. I. Bolotnikov (1606-07), which was the culmination of the Peasant War of the early 17th century. During Bolotnikov’s uprising class forces became sharply differentiated, with most of the aristocracy’s sympathizers withdrawing from the insurgents. The territorial extent of the war increased, the socioeconomic and political demands of the insurgents became more clearly defined and their organizational forms grew stronger, and signs of a degree of centralization occasionally appeared in the movement. The defeat of the rebels in October 1607 foreshadowed the ultimate failure of the Peasant War, although the fighting continued.

Third period (1608-15). The first stage of the third period of the Peasant War includes the events of 1608-10. Certain towns that had been caught up in the Bolotnikov Uprising remained undefeated, including Astrakhan, Kaluga, and Kozel’sk. In late 1607 and early 1608 there was a new upsurge in the peasant movement in the West and the southwest. Because of the military successes and demagogic agitation of the Second False Dmitrii, whose army included Zaporozh’e and Don cossacks and many of Bolotnikov’s supporters, and because of the disorganized condition of the system of local administration under the Shuiskii government, the Peasant War spread to new regions and embraced new population groups in 1608-09.

A mass movement of the peasants of Riazan’ territory began in the autumn of 1607, reached its peak in 1608, and continued until 1614. In the winter of 1608-09 and again in 1610 the uprisings of peasants, cossacks, strel’tsy, and the non-Russian peoples of the Central Volga Region reached their apogee. A large peasant detachment headed by S. Salkov was active near Moscow during 1608-09.

There were armed uprisings of monastery peasants and chernososhnye krest’iane (taxpaying state peasants) in the north from 1608 to 1610. In 1608 an active class struggle gripped many towns of the north, the Trans-Volga and Upper and Middle Volga regions, and central Muscovy. The class struggle of the lower social orders in Pskov, which was directed against the Shuiskii administration and against the city’s nobility, upper clergy, and wealthy merchants, was particularly acute. As a result of various uprisings, power repeatedly passed into the hands of representatives of the masses in Pskov between May and August 1609 and between February 1610 and December 1611. The “lesser people”(men’shie liudi) suffered their final defeat only in May 1612. The townspeople’s movement in Moscow during the summer and fall of 1610 (including the over-throw of Shuiskii in July) greatly influenced the political situation in the country.

The second stage of the third period of the Peasant War lasted from 1610 to 1613. Its characteristics were determined by the Polish intervention (beginning in 1609), the Swedish intervention (from 1611), and the antinational policies of the Second False Dmitrii. On the one hand, the social action of the peasants, townspeople, and other participants in the Peasant War was diverted into a struggle for national liberation. The class orientation of this struggle is evident in the fight against requisitions, rapacious taxation, and the proserfdom policies of Polish and Russian feudal lords in the Tushino camp (1609-10), as well as in the fight against the land and enserfment policies of the Polish interventionists (1610-13) and of the Swedish interventionists in the northwest (1611-15). On the other hand, between 1611 and 1613 the class struggle was also expressed in the internal delimitations among the various classes and social estates taking part in the national-liberation movement (for example, the conflicts within the First Militia and disagreements between the First Militia and the Second Zemstvo Militia).

The third stage of the third and concluding period of the Peasant War covers the cossack and peasant movement of 1613-15. Under the influence of I. M. Zarutskii’s cossack detachments, which arrived in the vicinity of Moscow in the summer of 1612 with peasants and kabal’nye kholopy who had become cossacks during the Peasant War, peasant uprisings gripped Riazan’ in late 1612 and the spring of 1613 and the Upper Don region in May and June 1613. During these uprisings local feudal lords were killed, their property was confiscated, and a great number of peasants left their estates and joined Zarutskii’s detachments. After meeting with a series of defeats, Zarutskii’s detachments went south to Astrakhan, where, relying on the support of Volga Cossacks, the urban lower classes, and the strel’tsy, Zarutskii was preparing for a new march on Moscow in 1614. He intended to rally his forces around the objective of transferring power to the tsarevich Ivan Dmitrievich (son of the Second False Dmitrii and Marina Mniszek). However, in April and May 1614 the strel’tsy and some of the townspeople and cossacks in Astrakhan went over to the government side, and Zarutskii and a detachment of Volga cossacks were forced to move north to the laik River, where they were finally defeated in June 1614.

In 1614 and 1615 dissatisfaction with government policies erupted into a movement of cossacks, peasants, and townspeople of me north, the Volga Region, and central Muscovy. They protested against the mass conversion of crown and state lands into pomest’ia (fiefs), the return to their former masters of peas-ants and kabal’nye kholopy who had fled to the cossacks or the towns, and the tax burden. Only in late 1614 did government troops manage to defeat the rebels in the northern towns of Vologda and Beloozero. In the spring and summer of 1615 government troops routed the main insurgent forces outside Moscow.

During the third period of the Peasant War the symptoms of its decline grew steadily. Even sporadic elements of centralization were completely lacking at this time, and class hostilities became increasingly localized and fractionalized. Contradictions in the aims and interests of the different social groups within the broad masses came into the open, leading to a splintering and narrowing of the social base of the Peasant War. This phenomenon was most clearly exemplified by the middle strata of the townspeople, who joined the provincial dvorianstvo in supporting the restoration of a strong central authority, and by the free cossacks, who abandoned the struggle in order to reinforce their former class rights. Many of the peasants and kabal’nye kholopy who had become cossacks during the Peasant War had moved into the lower ranks of the cossack ruling class or achieved the status of service cossacks. They wished to preserve their new social status. The insurgents’ failure to develop a positive pro-gram of economic and political reforms had a negative effect on the movement. All of these factors contributed to the defeat of the Peasant War.

The Peasant War of the early 17th century opened a new epoch of peasant wars and urban uprisings in Russian history and predetermined many of the characteristics of later uprisings. It also had a number of immediate results. The pace of enserfment was slowed and the exploitation of the peasantry temporarily reduced. The intensification of the class struggle during the war led to many changes in the social structure. In economic and sociopolitical terms, the various categories of feudal lords became more similar. The upper ranks of the ruling class were expanded by the inclusion of the elite of the provincial gentry, and the lower ranks of the ruling class came to include former members of the intermediate strata of the population. The district associations of the service dvorianstvo achieved greater political importance. Social differentiation grew more intense in the posad. At the same time, during the war and the national-liberation movement the increased role of the towns in politics resulted in the social and political consolidation of the townspeople. This was manifested in the strengthening of the towns’ elected bodies of self-government and in the growing role of the townspeople in the national assemblies. The number ofsluzhilye liudi po priboru increased significantly, and for a time they enjoyed greater political influence. As a result there was a greater representation of the social estates at high as well as at lower levels of government. (For example, participants in the national assemblies were elected, and their authority and composition were broadened.) Finally, major population shifts during the Peasant War contributed to the colonization of the country’s frontier regions.

Many aspects of the history of the Peasant War of the early 17th century are still considered debatable by Soviet historiography, including the chronological limits of the war, its historical importance, and the social composition of the rebels.


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