Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia

Don Cossack leader Stenka Razin led one of the largest and most brutal peasant and Cossack rebellions against serfdom in Russian history. The rebellions ended with the brutal—and spectacular—deaths of Razin and countless followers. Razin remains a part of Russian and Ukrainian folklore.

Summary of Event

The Stenka Razin rebellion, an important peasant and Cossack uprising, became one of the legendary events (along with the later Pugachev uprising in 1773-1774) of popular resistance to serfdom. The Cossacks, whose name comes from the Turkic term meaning free warriors, appeared primarily in the sixteenth century as frontier warriors fighting the Tatars in southern Russia (now called the Ukraine, or the borderland). Living as free men and warriors, the Cossacks settled along the Dnieper, Don, and Volga Rivers and attracted slaves and peasants fleeing serfdom. [kw]Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia (Apr., 1667-June, 1671)
[kw]Russia, Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in (Apr., 1667-June, 1671)
[kw]Uprising in Russia, Razin Leads Peasant (Apr., 1667-June, 1671)
[kw]Peasant Uprising in Russia, Razin Leads (Apr., 1667-June, 1671)
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr., 1667-June, 1671: Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia[2300]
Social issues and reform;Apr., 1667-June, 1671: Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia[2300]
Russia;Apr., 1667-June, 1671: Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia[2300]
Ukraine;Apr., 1667-June, 1671: Razin Leads Peasant Uprising in Russia[2300]
Razin, Stenka
Peasant uprising, Russia (1667-1671)

The Dnieper Cossacks, or Zaporozhe Host (Beyond the Cataracts Host), established a fortified camp (sich) on Khortitsa Island and chose its leaders (hetman) in an assembly (rada). The Don Cossacks were also concentrated on an island fortress—Cherkassk, and chose a leader, the ataman, during an assembly (krug). The Cossacks generally disliked agriculture because they associated it with serfdom.

The Cossacks had an uneasy relationship with both the Polish and Russian governments. While they valued their independence, many Cossacks entered into Polish or Russian service. Dnieper Cossacks who served the Polish government were called “registered Cossacks.” The Russian government relied upon the Don Cossacks for military support against the Crimean Tatars and paid the Cossacks an annual subsidy (zhalovanie) in coin and kind. As thousands of Russian peasants and slaves fled to the Don (between 1645 and 1670, the population rose to twenty-five thousand), the Don Cossacks split into two major groups. The older community, which was located “downstream” and controlled the best fishing and hunting areas, dominated the assemblies. Its members received Muscovite subsidies and grain. The newer refugees, known as the “upstream” or “naked ones,” could not enter the assemblies and were denied the best fisheries and hunting territories. The “naked ones” were a volatile group and quickly joined Razin, but the split between “upstream” and “downstream” Cossacks would prove fatal to Razin’s rebellion, as the older, more traditional Cossacks remained loyal to Moscow.

The spread of Russian serfdom Serfdom, Russia was a major cause of Razin’s rebellion. During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), an earlier Cossack rebellion led by Ivan Bolotnikov Bolotnikov, Ivan (1606-1607) almost toppled the government. Serfdom was fully legalized in the 1649 law code (Ulozhenie). The Thirteen Years’ War (1654-1667) Thirteen Years’ War (1654-1667) between Russia and Poland devastated Ukraine. By 1667, perhaps as much as one-fifth of the Ukrainian population had perished from war, famine, and plague Famine;Ukraine
Population decreases;Ukraine . The debasement of Russian coinage caused the 1662 Copper Riot Copper Riot (1662) and resulted in the torture and exile of hundreds from Moscow. Many peasants refused to pay their taxes and would run off to the borderlands. At the same time, the 1666 Church Council irrevocably split the church into one of Orthodoxy and one of dissident Old Believers. Czar Alexis Alexis was confronted with the Razin rebellion when the government was recovering from war and trying to bring order to the church.

Razin was from an old established Cossack family near Cherkassk. As a “downstream” Cossack he participated in a delegation to Moscow to discuss the annual subsidy. Like many other Cossacks, he traveled to the Solovetsky monastery in the White Sea to pray at the shrines of Saints Savva and Zosima. It is not clear why Razin rebelled and championed the poorer “upstream” Cossacks, but rebellion ran in his family. His brother and uncle led rebel brigades, and his mother was executed during the uprising. There is also a tale about the Russian execution of another brother, which may explain a motive of vengeance. Razin was noted for his drinking and violent temper, but he also was charismatic, courageous, and appeared possessed of magical qualities.

As he robbed merchants on the lower Volga, Razin, somewhat in “Robin Hood” fashion, is said to have promised freedom and safety to those who joined him. What may have begun as simple pirating soon mushroomed into open rebellion. Russian troops sent against him either were defeated or defected. From the spring of 1668 to the summer of 1669, Razin continued to raid the area around the Caspian Sea and even defeated—although with high casualties—a Persian fleet. Razin acquired an aura of invincibility. Passing safely through Astrakhan and Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd) on the lower Volga River, he reached the Don with a growing reputation. In a year of grain shortages and diminished subsidies, Razin’s followers rapidly grew. Impressed perhaps by the weaknesses of the Russian government in Astrakhan and Tsaritsyn, Razin was joined by hundreds of Dnieper Cossacks and raised the banner of rebellion, perhaps hoping to gain control of the lower Volga. He always expressed his loyalty to Czar Alexis but he called for the removal of treasonous nobles (boyars), the restoration of the subsidy, and freedom for slaves and serfs.

The Cossacks took Tsaritsyn, brutally killing its defenders. For several weeks, they plundered noble and merchant homes. Rather than march north, Razin turned south toward Astrakhan. Many of the town garrison troops (streltsy) suffered from inadequate and infrequent pay. They often proved untrustworthy and opened their towns to the Cossacks. In 1669, Razin and some ten thousand followers approached Astrakhan, a center of salt production and Moscow’s major trade entry point to Persia. The defending streltsy were unreliable, and the city fell to Razin. He governed through Cossack assemblies, looted churches and homes, and tortured and murdered government and military officials.

In the summer of 1670, Razin proceeded up the Volga and took Saratov and Samara (Kuybyshev) without a struggle as poor townsfolk and streltsy, greeting him with the traditional welcome of bread and salt, opened the gates. Russian administration was replaced by Cossack assemblies, officials were executed, prisoners were released from jails, and tax records were destroyed. Proclamations (so-called seditious letters) written by lower clergy, who lent a religious fervor to the rebellion, called for the deaths of the “bloodsuckers” of the peasantry; thousands responded, burning manor homes. Landlords, who fled to the towns, were killed by Cossacks or townsmen. Some Finnish tribesmen, fearing further loss of their autonomy and resenting forced Christianization and the confiscation of their lands, joined the rebellion.

Yet Turkic tribes—often rivals to the Cossacks—held back or participated with token numbers. The bulk of Razin’s followers consisted of Cossacks, peasants, poor townsfolk, vagrants, convicts, and streltsy. Women played an important role as well, sometimes leading rebel troops. Razin was seen as a deliverer, a messiah—one who was the true “father” of his people. Using these beliefs, he put forward a claimant to the throne—the dead son of Alexis, Czarevich Alexis Alekseevich, now “miraculously” still alive and in Razin’s camp. He also had an imposter posing for the ousted Patriarch Nikon, whom Razin cast as an opponent of the boyars. This strategy may have alienated Razin from many Old Believers, who opposed Nikon’s church reforms.


By September, 1670, Razin’s followers numbered some twenty thousand, but they were undisciplined and given to looting and acts of vengeance. The government called upon seasoned and well-equipped troops to return from the war in Poland. While Razin besieged Simbirsk, other Cossack detachments took a number of towns and spread the revolt throughout the middle Volga. Simbirsk was defended by loyal troops, however, and was strengthened by reinforcements and superior artillery and cavalry. Razin was wounded in the head and leg and almost killed. Hundreds of Cossacks were captured and then hanged, shot, or quartered. Simbirsk (Ulianovsk) was the turning point in the rebellion. Pitched battles continued into the winter of 1670-1671, but the Cossack army dwindled as tens of thousands suffered brutal repressions. The methods of government executions defy description: impalement, quartering, disemboweling, beheading, tearing by flesh hooks. Hanging was the simplest of deaths. Bodies and amputated limbs hung on hooks. Whole villages were burned and decimated.

Razin eventually made his way back to his fortress, Kagalnik Island, on the Don. In April, 1671, the “downstream” Cossacks captured the fortress and turned Razin and his brother over to the Russians. Razin was brought to Moscow, personally questioned by the czar, and tortured. Razin’s limbs were pulled out of joint, his body burned with a hot iron, and he was beaten with a knout (a flogging whip). On June 16, 1671, in Red Square, he was quartered, his head and limbs were mounted on stakes, and his body was thrown to dogs. His mother and uncle were also executed, while his brother was killed years later after Czar Alexis’s death.

Legends and songs of Razin’s rebellion became part of a traditional folklore of Russian and Cossack peasant resistance, and there are many landmarks in his name along the Volga. Also, a stirring symphonic poem, Stenka Razin (1885), by Russian composer Aleksandr Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865-1936), is a musical memorial to his turbulent life.

Further Reading

  • Avrich, Paul. Russian Rebels, 1600-1800. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. The best analysis available in English of Razin and of other Cossack rebellions.
  • Gordon, Linda. Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in Sixteenth-Century Ukraine. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983. A history of Cossack rebellions and their social consequences.
  • Longworth, Philip. Alexis: Tsar of All the Russias. London: Franklin Watts, 1981. A basic history of the reign of Alexis.
  • Longworth, Philip. The Cossacks. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970. A good, well-documented historical introduction to the Cossacks.
  • O’Brien, C. B. Muscovy and the Ukraine: From the Pereiaslavl Agreement to the Truce of Andrusovo, 1654-1667. University of California Publications in History 74. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. A study of war and diplomacy in Ukraine prior to the Razin rebellion.
  • Ure, John. The Cossacks: An Illustrated History. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2002. This illustrated text includes information about Razin’s rebellion.
  • Vernadsky, George. The Tsardom of Moscow, 1547-1682. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. Volume 5 of Vernadsky’s A History of Russia. A standard history by a Russian-born, American historian, supplemented with maps, an extensive bibliography, and a glossary of Russian terms.

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