The Revolutionary Masses
population was held in the condition of economic slavery by means of coercion,
arbitrary punishment and sheer brutality. In the words of R.Charques:
‘The everyday conditions of existence for the peasantry steadily became
more brutalized in the golden age of the nobility. The discipline of
serfdom was maintained more than all else by corporal punishment; never
was the practice of flogging in Russia so extensive, never was the knout
considered so sovereign a remedy for peasant failings’.
serfdom was not exactly slavery, the absence of any civil and
political rights, the lack of any legal protection against landlords
or government officials meant that in reality serfs were often
treated as chattels. The trade in serfs flourished, continuing
throughout Catherine’s reign, both in private sales and the public
auction of serfs. Human being were openly offered for sale in the
newspapers as may be seen from the following advertisements:
To be sold: a barber, and in
addition to that four bedsteads, an eiderdown and other domestic
To be sold: banqueting
tablecloths and also two trained girls and a peasant.
To be sold: a girl of sixteen of
good behavior and a second-hand slightly used carriage.
Catherine make an attempt to face the problem of serfdom? Hardly.
In fact, she extended serfdom to the Ukraine where the land was
distributed among the nobility, many of them the special recipients
of her bounty. However well intentioned she might have been,
Catherine faced the same dilemma that confronted any ruler, who
wanted to reform Russia’s ’Peculiar Institution’ of serfdom: the
entire class of the nobility depended for their livelihood on the
ownership of people. The whole society was so organized that it
seemed impossible to deprive the nobility of their sustenance
without bringing the state to the ground. Catherine’s victorious
wars and her brilliant court, the spread of Western culture, with
its consequent improvement of the standards of living of the upper
classes - all had to be provided at the expense of the serfs. The
‘Peculiar Institution’ was getting worse all the time.
This was the
situation which led to the greatest of Russian peasant rebellions -
the Pugachev revolt of 1773. Pugachev was a Don Cossack, a former
convict and deserter from the Russian army. He
raised the revolt in the provinces east of the Volga and was soon
leader of an army of serfs, laborers from the mines and factories of
the Urals and Cossacks.
The rebels wanted the division of the landlords’ estates among the
peasants. In Pugachev’s own words: ‘We shall behead every noble in the
land and take over the land for ourselves.’ Pugachev led his army into
the valley of the Volga and sacked several important towns. Nobles and
landlords were tortured and killed, buildings set on fire, estates
plundered. With great difficulty the troublesome areas were brought
under control. Pugachev was caught and brought in an iron cage to
Moscow, where he was tried and executed in 1775.
rebellion had sent a powerful signal to the ruling classes about the
magnitude of the discontent among the peasants. His ghost continued
to haunt the autocracy, while the spirit of his revolt would inspire
those later revolutionary activists who believed in the innately
anti-authoritarian and insurrectionary nature of the Russian masses.