April 14, 2016

Russia's Favorite Rebel and His Bloody Capture Turn 345

Russia's Favorite Rebel and His Bloody Capture Turn 345

345 years ago, the Razinshchina came to an end. The two-year uprising, led by the Cossack Stepan (“Stenka”) Razin, was like a violent wave, surging north from the stormy Caspian Sea, spilling over the banks of the Volga, wreaking havoc, then retreating nearly as swiftly as it had arrived.

For over two centuries, the rebellious Razin has been the inspiration for writers and painters, who have glorified and magnified the Cossack, turning him into a romantic hero. As an exceptionally brave, desperate and smart leader, Razin incited his followers to rebellion by making clear that their fight was not with the tsar, but with the corrupt boyars and voyevodas, and he promised freedom to all who joined in his struggle. They were fighting, he said, against “bad boyars, those rotten traitors” and to institute the absolute equality of Cossackdom.

Doesn't get much more romantic than the Stenka Razin film poster

But concealed behind the romantic figure of Razin is a rather more complex reality about the causes and effects of revolt in Russian history. Russia had four major uprisings that in Soviet times were called “peasant wars.” Yet the truth is that in the two most significant revolts – those led by Bolotnikov and Razin –  it was the Cossacks, not the peasants, who were the driving force and main combatants. The freedom-loving Cossacks were loyal to the Tsar, as he subsidized and supported their existence, in exchange for the Cossacks’ defense of Russia. But they were also quick to revolt against those they saw to be traitors to the crown.

The seventeenth century has been aptly dubbed “the century of revolts.” From famine to military debacles to government tension, the entire region was a powder keg. And Stepan Razin and his band of brigands would be the fuse.

After getting his start heading up a community of robbers along the Volga (exacting tribute from passing vessels) Razin and his band headed south to plunder towns along the Caspian, especially in Persia. Returning to Russian shores in 1669, Razin and his band sailed into Astrakhan aboard ships outfitted with silk sails. That’s when the pillaging began.  

By 1670, Razin’s once motley and loosely-organized group of brigands had become a more or less orderly regiment, baptized by fire and fiercely devoted to their leader. In May, under cover of reporting to Cossack headquarters, Razin stormed the towns of Cherkassk and Tsaritsyn with some 7000 troops. The government strongholds of Cherny Yar and Astrakhan fell in June.

Razin's Rebellion hits Astrakhan. 

In the “tradition” of mass uprisings in Russia, the only law in effect was the rule of violence. Thus, the so-called “struggle for social transformation” (per Soviet-speak) of such rebellions was usually nothing more than a bloody and merciless criminal terror. The Razin uprising was no exception. Insurgents rallied around the Cossack detachments and traitorous government troops. Impoverished serfs joined Razin’s army without a second thought, inspired, among other things, by the possibility of painting the town red or getting their hands on local landlords’ property.

When Astrakhan was taken, Razin killed the city’s voyevoda himself and Astrakhan was subjected to a three-week rampage of bloodletting. The city was also declared a Cossack republic with Razin its sovereign. Hoping for mercy, authorities in Samara and Saratov surrendered their cities without a fight.

It was at Simbirsk, in October 1670, that Razin’s forces finally faltered. Razin was gravely wounded in the battle, which proved a turning point. Meanwhile, all across Western Russia peasants were rising up and slaughtering their landlords and voyevodas. So although Stepan and his brother Frol were captured on April 14, 1671, in Kagalnik, pockets of resistance continued throughout 1671.

The end of the story was quite predictable. Stepan Razin was taken to Moscow in shackles, severely tortured (and interrogated by Tsar Alexei), and quartered alive on Red Square’s Lobnoye Mesto on June 6, 1671. His head and limbs were mounted on stakes and his torso thrown to the dogs.

No, that's not Stenka Razin. But that is what Lobnoye Mesto looks like today (or, in 2012).

And so, according to “Russian tradition,” reprisal against the insurgents was more savage even than their own behavior in the towns and lands they had taken.

There is no end to interpretations of the Razin rebellion. Some see it as the logical result of overbearing central authority, excessive taxation and conscription; others as a struggle between the dregs and pinnacles of society; others still as simple banditry that overflowed into rebellion by tapping into deep-seated resentment. Surely it was all these things, as well as a pitched battle of the center against the frontier, in which regional autonomy eventually gave way to increasingly centralized and autocratic rule – something that was happening throughout Europe in the seventeenth century.

This aspect was keenly felt by the Cossacks. In August 1671, envoys from Moscow arrived in the Don and administered an oath of fealty to the tsar. For the Cossacks who had followed Razin, his rebellion ended up spelling the beginning of the end of their way of life.

Image credit: Wikimedia (all)

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Russian Life, under the title "Stenka Razin and the Russian State."

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