Saturday, August 13, 2011

Pugachev the Raving, Raven

"That's just the beginning. We'll give Moscow a real shaking yet."

"At Ozernaya an old Cossack woman would wander along the Yaik everyday, pulling the floating corpses to the bank with her crutch and chanting "Isn't that you, my child? Is it you, my Stevie? Is it your black curls that the fresh water is washing?" And seeing an unfamiliar face, would gently push the corpse away."

"What's this?" said Pugachev. "You want to betray your sovereign?" "What is to be done?" the Cossacks answered, and suddenly rushed him.

"Who are you?" he asked the pretender. "Emelian Ivanov Pugachev," he answered. "How did you dare, you raving thief, to call yourself the sovereign?" "I'm not a raven," replied Pugachev, playing on words and expressing himself, as was his habit, in allegory; "I'm a raven's chick, and the raven himself is still flying."

Twenty one years ago I read Alexander Pushkin's The History of Pushkin for a Russian history course at Georgetown University. The book stayed with me. Although I couldn't have been impressed with its illustrious author--Russia's most famous poet, Alexander Pushkin, a name I didn't yet know--I loved the short book. Who wouldn't have been impressed with this well-told tale of outlandish courage, bloody rebellion, and almost picaresque adventure? Pushkin's The History of Pugachev is a matter-of-fact description the Cossack insurgency which shook the foundations of Catherine the Great's empire at roughly the same time as the American colonies were doing the same to George II's Great Britain.

Emilian Pugachev, pretending to be the murdered Peter III, forged a loose and chaotic alliance between a host of dissatisfied elements in the Russian empire, including Cossacks, serfs, and Asiatic nations such as the Kalymks and Bashkirs. With this alliance, Pugachev managed to conquer the imperial stronghold of Kazan, and temporarily disabled Catherine's authority over the huge expanse of land that lay between the Volga and the Urals. With unbelievable personal daring, Pugachev seemed to be everywhere, and eyewitness accounts often placed him on the front lines of his many encounters with tsarist troops. In Pushkin's awed if condemnatory account, Pugachev's forays in unaffected Russian lands, while ordinarily unsuccessful in the face of regular Russian troops, almost always led to large-scale social upheaval. Wherever Pugachev went, Cossack soldiers defected from Catherine's cause and serfs took revenge on their masters.

As a class, the rural gentry suffered grievously from the great social conflagration. Pugachev, who was never really master over the Cossack leaders who exploited his royal mystique, was eventually defeated, betrayed, and turned over to the crown's representatives to be executed. For all his triumphs, Pugachev, whose forces were disorganized, ill-equipped, and untrained, turned out to be no match for the professional Russian armies sent out from the West to subdue him.

Pugachev's Revolt had a long-lasting impact on Russian history. In the wake of the revolt, which had been contemporaneous with conflict with Turkey and Europe, Catherine turned away from social reform and toward a closer alliance with the nobility. Pushkin, living not so long after Catherine the Great's death, seems to sense the historical import of the episode. While Pushkin's Pugachev is a rogue, his meets with so many successes because the serfs (especially factory serfs) are so mightily oppressed by the local gentry. Were this not so, why did Pugachev (or any of dozens of his representatives) only have to appear in an area for the serfs to rise up to join the insurgency.

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