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."

You Might Also Like

Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

Maria's War: A Soldier's Autobiography

This astonishingly gripping autobiography by the founder of the Russian Women’s Death Battallion in World War I is an eye-opening documentary of life before, during and after the Bolshevik Revolution.
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
White Magic

White Magic

The thirteen tales in this volume – all written by Russian émigrés, writers who fled their native country in the early twentieth century – contain a fair dose of magic and mysticism, of terror and the supernatural. There are Petersburg revenants, grief-stricken avengers, Lithuanian vampires, flying skeletons, murders and duels, and even a ghostly Edgar Allen Poe.
Moscow and Muscovites

Moscow and Muscovites

Vladimir Gilyarovsky's classic portrait of the Russian capital is one of Russians’ most beloved books. Yet it has never before been translated into English. Until now! It is a spectactular verbal pastiche: conversation, from gutter gibberish to the drawing room; oratory, from illiterates to aristocrats; prose, from boilerplate to Tolstoy; poetry, from earthy humor to Pushkin. 
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
Fearful Majesty

Fearful Majesty

This acclaimed biography of one of Russia’s most important and tyrannical rulers is not only a rich, readable biography, it is also surprisingly timely, revealing how many of the issues Russia faces today have their roots in Ivan’s reign.
Woe From Wit (bilingual)

Woe From Wit (bilingual)

One of the most famous works of Russian literature, the four-act comedy in verse Woe from Wit skewers staid, nineteenth century Russian society, and it positively teems with “winged phrases” that are essential colloquialisms for students of Russian and Russian culture.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955