Pugachev’s Revolt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A major rebellion in the 1770’s seriously threatened the social fabric and political institutions of Russia during the rule of Empress Catherine the Great. The crisis revealed widespread discontent and anger among the population on the southeastern Russian border.

Summary of Event

Much of Russian history consists of the story of the expansion of the small region surrounding Moscow to its eventual size as a large empire. This expansion was achieved by wresting territory from Russia’s neighbors, Sweden, Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and the Mongols. Russians penetrated into the regions to their southeast and east, including the Ural Mountains and two major rivers—the Don River and the Volga River—where Cossacks and other nomadic tribes lived. These groups periodically resisted the imposition of Russian control by raising the banner of rebellion. One such rebellion, conducted by Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev and his followers, shook the very foundations of the Russian state before the revolt collapsed. [kw]Pugachev’s Revolt (Sept., 1773-Sept., 1774) [kw]Revolt, Pugachev’s (Sept., 1773-Sept., 1774) Pugachev’s Revolt (1773-1774)[Pugachevs Revolt] Cossacks Russian Empire [g]Russia;Sept., 1773-Sept., 1774: Pugachev’s Revolt[2040] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept., 1773-Sept., 1774: Pugachev’s Revolt[2040] [c]Government and politics;Sept., 1773-Sept., 1774: Pugachev’s Revolt[2040] Pugachev, Yemelyan Ivanovich Catherine the Great Voltaire

Pugachev, born in the Cossack region near the Don River, absorbed the desire for independence from Russian authority. He had military experience as a soldier, serving in the Russian army during the Seven Years’ War and the Russian-Turkish War. However, his independent ways and controversial schemes got him into periodic trouble with the authorities, and he was imprisoned on several occasions. In May, 1773, Pugachev escaped from prison in Kazan and began a new phase of his colorful and dramatic life.

Pugachev returned to Cossack territory and recruited followers who had grievances against the established order. He built on the effects of discontent in the region that the Russian military had ruthlessly suppressed in 1771 and 1772, so his message of resistance found a receptive audience. By the peak of his revolt, it is estimated that Pugachev had as many as fifteen to twenty thousand men under his command. These included Cossacks who sought to maintain their traditional ways, army deserters, serfs who had fled their owners to escape the hardships of life as virtual slaves on landed estates, and tribal groups in the region (such as the Bashkirs and Kirgiz) who wished to maintain their nomadic way of life.

Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev.

(Library of Congress)

Workers in the oppressive mines and factories in the Urals also looked to Pugachev as a leader who could improve their lives. Those who opposed the prevailing dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church Orthodox Church, Russian known as the Old Believers, rallied to his cause, as did tribal Muslims who resisted Christianity as the official faith of Russia. His supporters represented a wide range of social and ethnic types, but they all agreed in the desire for freedom from discrimination and oppression. They hoped this would come through a popular and sweeping revolt that would oust the government and existing authority. Pugachev issued several manifestos promising the end to serfdom, free land to everyone, ethnic rights, and religious tolerance. He also claimed to be Czar Peter III, the deposed and murdered husband of Catherine the Great, whom he declared to be a usurper of the throne. Although not true, his royal claim was believed by many who joined his movement.

The uprising began in September, 1773, when Pugachev’s forces attacked government outposts at the important towns of Yaitsk and Orenburg on the Yaik River, east of the Volga River. The rebellion quickly spread, gaining support and volunteers. Although most were militarily untrained, his men obtained many weapons, including more than one hundred cannon, to use in their campaigns against government centers and Russian forces sent to crush the revolt. In a number of engagements in late 1773 and early 1774, the rebels defeated troops sent to capture them.

Widespread violence against landowners and their families became a common and tragic aspect of the rebellion, for the rebels saw them as visible and handy symbols of oppression and hardship in their daily lives. Accounts of pillage, rape, and murder created widespread panic when the rebels approached. At one point, the rebel army appeared to be heading toward Moscow. In response to this imminent threat, Catherine seriously considered leaving her capital of St. Petersburg and going to Moscow to assist in its defense.

The rebels’ successful attack on the important city of Kazan in July, 1774, dealt a blow to the government, but the occupation was brief. The signing of a peace agreement with Turkey that summer ended one of the Russian-Turkish Wars (1768-1774), permitting the government to give more attention to the internal crisis. From that time, Russian forces were generally successful in their confrontations with the rebels, as they moved southward toward the Volga River region. Although Pugachev did capture Samara later in the year, he failed to take Tsaritsyn. The end of the rebellion came in mid-September, 1774, when several of Pugachev’s commanders seized Pugachev and turned him over to the Russian authorities with the promise that they would be spared from punishment.

Pugachev was taken to Moscow in an iron cage and extensively questioned about the origins and purposes of the rebellion. He admitted the falsity of his claim to be Peter III. Tried secretly in December, Pugachev was sentenced to death by beheading and cutting his limbs from his body, to be displayed in Moscow as a warning to other possible dissidents. Catherine agreed to this judgment, saying that Pugachev “lived like a scoundrel and will die like a coward,” but she also admitted that he was “a bold and determined man.” The sentence was carried out in Moscow on January 10, 1775, before a large crowd, along with several of Pugachev’s associates. After the gruesome execution and public display, the body parts were burned.

The government sought to eradicate the memory of Pugachev and the revolt. Punishments were severe, including slitting noses and cutting out tongues. Many went to Siberian exile camps for the remainder of their lives. In the spring of 1775, Catherine issued an amnesty for the lesser participants and ordered that the rebellion should never be mentioned again. Other government decrees ordered the total obliteration of his Cossack village and prohibited the use of the Pugachev name, even by members of his family, who were sent into exile. Several town and river names in areas involved in the rebellion also were changed to names still used today.


Catherine the Great hoped to be recognized and remembered as an “enlightened monarch” who adopted progressive reforms for Russia. The empress worried that the Pugachev Rebellion and her response would jeopardize the positive reputation she tried to establish. She was very well read and knew the views of Western intellectuals regarding philosophical, political, legal, and social issues. In Catherine’s correspondence with the noted French philosopher Voltaire and other Westerners, she sometimes admitted the need to make changes in her country. Her fame in this regard, however, generally rests more on what she said than what she did in practice. Catherine realized that talking of reform was far easier than its implementation. Philosophers could write on paper, she wrote, while her policies affected millions of people. In fact, during her long reign, the repressive laws expanding the harsh conditions of serfdom actually increased.

Serious outbreaks such as Pugachev’s revolt greatly reduced Catherine’s willingness to consider meaningful social and political reforms for Russia. She feared that making concessions to her opponents might create more unrest, with possible fatal consequences for the nation. Catherine’s correspondence with Voltaire revealed that she would suppress any threats to her autocratic power. She realized the danger this revolt created but characterized Pugachev as little more than a common robber or thief. This attitude failed to recognize or accept that the rebellion represented far more serious social problems that had to be resolved to avoid repetition. By the time of Catherine’s death in the 1790’s, the violence of the French Revolution further convinced her of the need to maintain complete power over the population. The result was that any chance of reform in Russia had virtually ended.

The Pugachev rebellion illustrated the severe problems the peasantry and other lower social classes faced in Russia. Despite its suppression, the long-term impact of this violent upheaval failed to eliminate discontent among large segments of the population. Later radical leaders, such as Vladimir Ilich Lenin, asserted that the best solution to numerous problems was to eliminate the monarchy. Thus the memory of this eighteenth century crisis indirectly played a role in the final catastrophe of the early twentieth century, when the 1917 Revolution overthrew the last Russian czar, Nicholas II.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, John T. Autocratic Politics in a National Crisis: The Imperial Russian Government and Pugachev’s Revolt, 1773-1775. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. Describes the government’s response to the rebel threat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Puts the rebellion in the broader context of Catherine’s rule and her desire to be known as an enlightened despot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Emperor of the Cossacks: Pugachev and the Frontier Jacquerie of 1773-1775. Lawrence, Kans.: Coronado Press, 1973. Detailed coverage of the rebel army and military aspects of the revolt, within the broader context of European revolutions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Avrich, Paul. Russian Rebels, 1600-1800. New York: Schocken, 1972. Excellent coverage of the topic in manageable length.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Madariaga, Isabel. Catherine the Great: A Short History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Solid summary of the rebellion in paperback.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dixon, Simon. Catherine the Great. New York: Longman, 2001. Analysis of Catherine’s governing principles, objectives, and effects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Troyat, Henri. Catherine the Great: A Biography. New York: Meridian, 1994. Colorful portrayal of the monarch and her nation.

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Categories: History