On the surface the Russian serf appeared
easy going but he harbored a strong hostility to those in authority.
This hostility was often expressed in the form of serf uprisings.
During the first half of the l9th century, serf insubordination on landlord estates increased greatly. Sometimes entire villages or even several estates and villages were involved. Arson-in the form of burning the manor house-and the occasional murder were committed. The most common protest was refusal to work or to pay taxes. In many cases, instead of trying to improve their conditions on the estate between themselves and their landlord, serfs ran away at night. By leaving they hoped to find freer and better land elsewhere. If the local situation was bad enough, a military detachment was sent in to restore order and to round up those who had run away. Floggings then became part of the punishment. The worst troublemakers were exiled to Siberia.
The object of the serfs' hatred was not the tsar, who controlled the system of serfdom, but the landlords. The tsar placed greater tax burdens on the landlords. The landlord in turn placed greater duties and obligations on the serfs. Because the serf uprisings were usually spontaneous, they were disorganized, poorly-led, poorly-equipped. They were easily put down by the tsar's army.
Many among the nobility were against
Peter's demands for bringing change to Russia. The Streltsy, or
royal guards, tried to eliminate Peter as tsar. They tried to
put Peter's half-sister, Sophia, in power. They believed Sophia
would restore a more conservative element to the country.
Wanting to make an example of those involved in the revolt, Peter brutally suppressed the Streltsy Rebellion. For her part in the plot, Sophia was forced to become a nun. For sympathizing with the conservative element, his wife was later forced to enter a convent too. Those suspected of having a part in the rebellion were interrogated. In an attempt to get some of the leaders to talk a sharpened stake was pierced through their bodies. This was usually done in front of the other leaders. More than one thousand rebels were executed. Some were hung at public hangings. Some had their heads cut off before large crowds. Some were buried alive. Mutilated bodies were put on display as a lesson to all who dared to oppose the tsar.
Throughout Peter's reign, there were many nobles and groups of peasants who were against Peter's ideas and changes but he allowed no opposition. Nobles were often jailed or beaten for daring to criticize the tsar. Even his son, Alexis, was executed when he opposed Peter's new ideas.
Over the years Peter created a POLICE STATE, where the tsar and his men organized and tried to control every aspect of the people's lives. It became difficult to oppose him. By crushing all opposition, Peter made himself the unchallenged master of all Russia!
Years of oppression and misery for
the serfs resulted in an attempt to overthrow Catherine's government.
In 1774, EMELIAN PUGACHEV, led a rebellion of Ural Cossacks in
order to end autocracy and to end serfdom.
Pugachev and his Cossacks were joined by serfs, workers from factories and from mines, peasants running from the law and military deserters. The rebellion spread rapidly over a large area of eastern European Russia and moved towards Moscow. Military forts were seized. Villages and manor houses went up in flames. Entire towns were looted and destroyed. Fortunately for Catherine, her troops remained loyal and did not join the rebellion. They captured Pugachev and put down the rebellion.
The results of the Pugachev Rebellion had a great influence on Catherine. To maintain greater control of her subjects and to prevent future peasant rebellion, a new system of local government was introduced. Each province was under the rule of a noble who maintained law and order. Landlords placed tighter controls on their peasants.
Catherine's plans for gradual abolition of serfdom were buried with the Pugachev Rebellion. She attempted to clamp down on her subjects to avoid future uprisings. As Catherine and the gentry grew closer together, she gave them more privileges, power and land. More and more the peasants' conditions were, if anything, even worse than before.
An uprising that occurred on the
first day of Nicholas' reign, December 14, 1825, resulted in his
determination to maintain his beliefs in strong autocratic rule
and to stop the new revolutionary movement.
The Decembrist Rebellion resulted in 3000 mutineers gathering in St. Petersburg on the day Nicholas became tsar of Russia. The leaders were the founding members of the new intelligentsia. They were well educated and had traveled extensively in Western Europe. Many had been officers of the royal army. They were unhappy with the autocracy. They especially disliked the failure of Alexander I to live up to his promises of reforming the autocracy and abolishing serfdom. The leaders of the rebellion were arrested and were hanged or sent into exile.
Eventually,the criticism towards Alexander turned to violence and secret revolutionary groups were formed. One of the outstanding revolutionary groups of the 1860s and 1870s, called the NARODNIKI, believed that the tsar would never bring about change in Russia. Therefore, change would have to come through the peasants. Many of the Narodniki were members of the new middle class who favoured educating the peasants as a method of bringing about change.
The Narodniki differed, though, in their methods of bringing about change. Some wanted to use violence. Some did not. They differed in the kind of government they wanted Russia to have. The group favouring violence came to dominate more and more. Dozens of terrorist acts-shootings and bombings-occurred. In response, Alexander tightened his controls.
Thousands of optimistic young students, dreamers and angry young men and women (many of the nobility class) tried to get the peasants to take action by "going to the people". The revolutionaries dressed like peasants and labourers; they talked about change and revolution. Many of the peasants were suspicious of the revolutionaries and reported them to the government officials. Many revolutionaries were arrested and tried. Some were acquitted but most were sent to Siberia.
Questions - see the section in the question booklet entitled Rebellions