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Prominent Russians: Stepan (Stenka) Razin

circa 1630 – 1671

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The free land of the Cossacks

Of the four great rebellions that Russia experienced between 1600 and 1800 (‘peasant wars’ as some historians say), the one led by the Stenka Razin has evoked the most popular feeling and memories, and the name of Stenka Razin has come to signify the very essence of Russian folk spirit.

The free land along the Don river always attracted runaways from the southern and central areas of the Russian state. Here they were protected by the unwritten law – "There is no extradition from the Don'. The government needed the Cossacks' services in the defence of the southern borders and therefore had to put up with such self-government of the land.

The Don Cossacks had some autonomy from the Russian State and resented any governmental interference in their affairs. They cherished freedom and independence, and at times fought to defend these privileges. The Cossack class was subdivided into the well-to-do and the poor.

Characterising the one and the other, historian Dmitry Ilovaysky wrote: «…the well-to-do were more inclined to uphold the existing order and display obeyance to the Muscovite government, while the poor were a restless rabble, always on the look out for an opportunity to take a swing at someone else’s expense. Due to the constant stream of escaped serfs, the number of poor Cossacks grew startlingly fast, and this vast mob lacked a worthy leader, who would unite them in an attack and plundering raid on the state.» Eventually, such a leader did emerge, i.e. Stepan Razin.

The rise of Stepan Razin

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Stepan Timofeevich Razin, also known as Stenka Razin, originated from Zimoveyskaya stanitsa (Cossack settlement) and was born to an old Cossack family that lived on the Don River. His mother was said to be a captive Turkish woman. Razin’s family status within the community often put him into situations that taught him to become a shrewd negotiator. He served his people with distinction and won their trust and respect.

He was a born leader, who understood the mood of the peasant class. His charisma drew people to him and influenced their behavior. Yet those who knew him described sudden mood swings, especially when he was drunk, that led to violence. The most popular example is his (legendary, and memorised forever in a popular folk song) sacrifice of his mistress, a Persian princess, whom he throws into the Volga River for the sake of Cossack solidarity.

Razin the rebel

Stepan Razin's life as a rebel began abruptly enough at the age of 37, in April of 1667, when his brother had been executed by the Russian army for disobeying orders. Stepan came to a conclusion that the grievances and injustices of the Cossacks and peasantry were enough that they would be willing to actively rebel against the regime.

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In April 1667, he led a group of about one thousand Don Cossacks to the Volga River for the purpose of brigandage. When Russian government officials heard of this, they attempted to stop Stepan, but he wouldn’t listen. He seized trading vessels belonging to the Tsar and the Patriarch, appropriated their rich cargoes, and released political prisoners bound for Astrakhan and Terki. When the pirates sailed past the major fortress at Tsaritsyn, the guns remained silent. Thus he acquired the reputation of invincibility.

Pirating in the waters of South Russia

He established his base of operations on an island at the head of the Terek River, which allowed him to intercept merchant ships bound for Russia via the Volga. Lured by the bountiful traffic of the Shah of Persia, he decided to attack the coastal towns of Persia. The first one was Derbent, a prosperous port on the western coast of the Caspian Sea.

In July they arrived at Yaitsk, a well-defended town on the Yaik River (nowadays called the Urals River) surrounded by a thick stone wall. Stepan and 40 Cossacks disguised themselves as pilgrims and requested permission to pray in the cathedral. Once inside, they overpowered the guards, threw open the gates, and soon occupied the town without a fight. When the garrison commander and 170 soldiers refused to join the pirates, they were slaughtered.

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After wintering at Yaitsk, in the spring of 1668, Razin returned into the Caspian Sea. As many as one thousand Cossacks took part in this campaign, which struck not only at the shipping on the Caspian, but also attacked commercial settlements and towns of the Caucasus along the western shore, from Derbent south to Baku. By the summer of 1668 Razin had a 2-thousand army. The seized values Razin people exchanged for the Russian prisoners, who then reinforced the army.

The campaign against Persia

The Shah of Persia ordered one of his commanders to pursue and eliminate the Cossack pirates. At Baku Stepan and his men took more than one hundred prisoners and seven thousand sheep. While they celebrated, Persian troops attacked. More than four hundred Cossacks were slain, but Stepan escaped.

After wintering along the southern Caspian shore in Persia, Razin's band resumed the campaign in 1669 along the eastern shore among the settlements of the Turkmen population of Central Asia. In the summer Cossacks crushed the fleet of the Persian Shah consisting of 70 ships at Svinoy Island (southward of Baku), which was regarded by historians as one of the biggest Russian victories in the Caspian Sea. That complicated the Russian-Persian relations strongly and aggravated the government against the Cossacks.

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Stepan’s last pirate raid took place when he captured two Persian merchant vessels laden with treasures that included thoroughbred horses, a gift from the Shah of Persia to Czar Aleksey Mikhailovich Romanov. The Russian navy pursued Stepan, but neither they nor the pirates wished to do battle. Instead, Stepan accepted a full pardon on condition that he returns to the Don River, surrenders his guns and the horses, releases any imprisoned Persians, and turns over all Russian soldiers who had joined the pirates.

His power and influence with the general populace was such, though, that those terms were difficult to enforce. Although Stepan did surrender his Persian captives, he kept all his ships and the majority of his guns. He did not turn over any deserters as well. This success whetted the appetite of the Cossacks for further conquest.

In the beginning of October, 1669 Razin returned through Astrakhan to the Don with the riches and memories of their long and exhilarating adventure that provided the material for songs and legends that would be handed down for generations. He was met triumphantly. Inspired with the luck, he started preparations for a new campaign, this time “for a kind Tsar against traitors-boyars”.

The Russian Robin Hood

In March of 1670, Razin announced to the Cossack krug (assembly) that he intended to return to the Volga, but instead of sailing against the Turks or the Persians to the south, this time he pledged to go “into Rus against the traitorous boyars and advisers of the Tsar.”

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The march of Cossacks alone the Volga to the north grew into peasant disorders. Cossacks remained a military core of the rebel army. Tales of Stepan’s exploits were told again and again. He welcomed the homeless and destitute peasants that flocked to his camp as brothers.

As time progressed the rebel army grew, but since his followers revered the Tsar, Stepan was careful never to speak out against the monarch. “I will not raise my sword against the Great Sovereign. I would rather cut off my own head with it or be drowned in the river.” Instead he blamed their problems on the boyars, the nobility, “who have barred our way to the sea and the Volga, and we have thus become naked and hungry.”

But with the influx of great masses of fugitive peasants, peoples of the Volga Region – Mordva, Tatars, Chuvashis, – the social structure and orientation of the movement changed strongly.

In May 1670, the seven thousand strong army of Razin seized the city of of Tsaritsyn. The citizens freely opened its gates and threw the slain governor into the river. And at the same time he defeated the government troops sent from Astrakhan and Moscow. To easily vanquish other garrisons, Razin had deserters pose as reinforcements to gain entry to the towns. At Astrakhan deserters helped the Cossacks scale the walls during the night.

The next morning they dragged the governor to the top of the bell tower and threw him off the parapet. Those officers who remained faithful to the Tsar suffered even worse fates. Having set Cossackself-government in Tsaritsyn and Astrakhan and promised to divide property equally, Razin went northward. In June and July, the townsfolk of Saratov and Samara opened their gates to the Cossacks, while the garrisons surrendered and joined the rebel army.

For two months, local rebels controlled virtually all of the vast territory within a rectangle bordered roughly on four corners by the major towns of Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Simbirsk, and Tambov. Numerous troops led by atamans M. Osipov, M. Haritonov, V. Fedorov, Alena (a nun) and others acted there. The frightened government declared mobilization and in August, 1670 a 60-thousand army was moved to the Middle Volga.

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In September, 1670 the army of Razin approached Simbirsk and laid a month's siege with four unsuccessful assaults. After Stepan divided his forces to garner more territory in the beginning of October, he governmental army led by Yury Baryatinsky made a surprise attack on his camp, defeated the main body of Razin's troops and joined the Simbirsk garrison commanded by Ivan Miloslavsky. Twice wounded, Razin fled. It was his first defeat, and it meant the loss of his aura of invincibility. Razin with a small troop left for the Don where he hoped to muster a new army.

The suppression of the revolt and Razin´s execution

The peasant uprising was crushed in January of 1671 by the combined efforts of five Tsarist armies coordinated by Prince Yury Dolgorukov from a command post in the midst of the region at Arzamas. Fearing the loss of their freedom and autonomy, a group of Cossack elders devoted to the Tsar in the spring of 1667 betrayed the location of Razin's camp on the Don to the ataman (chieftain) Kornilo Yakovlev.

Yakovlev's forces captured Stenka Razin in May and brought him and his brother Frol in an iron cage to Moscow. On 6 June 1671, after torturous interrogation Stepan was executed (quadrupled) in Red Square. His head and limbs were mounted on stakes and the rest of his body was fed to the dogs. According to some sources, Frol Razin sat in a prison for five years before he was beheaded. Stepan’s mother and uncle were also executed.

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In November, 1671, Astrakhan, the last bastion of the rebels, fell. The participants of the revolt were subject to severe repressions. Trained troops hunted down exhausted and fleeing rebels, who were impaled on stakes, nailed to boards, torn to shreds, or flogged to death. 11 thousand people were executed in the town of Arzamas alone.

Thus the state succeeded eventually in destroying Stepan Razin and in imposing its will upon the townsfolk, peasantry, the military, and the rambunctious Russian and non-Russian Volga frontier population. Czar Aleksey Mikhailovich learned several valuable lessons from Stepan Razin. He imposed strict discipline on his troops. He made certain they received their pay on a regular basis and forbade their excesses. Securing a tighter reign on the Don Cossacks, he employed these warrior horsemen on behalf of the Russian State.

Razin´s legacy

Nonetheless, in spite of being anathematised by the Russian Orthodox Church, the name of Stenka Razin became an enduring promise of relief to the oppressed. Although his attempt to gain greater freedom for the Cossacks had the opposite effect, he became a martyred hero whose memory was immortalized in folklore. Stenka Razin became a champion of the poor, a Russian Robin Hood, a legend among the people, many of whom hoped that he would rise after death to lead them in final emancipation from tyrannical oppressors.

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