Childhood & Early Life
Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev was born in 1742 in Zimoveyskaya, (Volgograd Oblast in present times), Russia, to a landowner father who belonged to the ‘Don Cossack’ community. He had three siblings, and he was the youngest son of the family.
He did not attain any formal education and at 17 years of age, he enrolled in the military.
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Around 18-19 years of age, he signed up with the Russian army to fight in the last few battles of the ‘Seven Years’ War’.
After his return to home in 1762, he spent some time at his native village before rejoining the army on his next assignment. In 1764, he fought in the Russian campaign against Poland.
From 1768, he was part of the Russian forces in the ‘Russo-Turkish War’.
From 1769-70, when he was fighting at Bender, Moldova, he is said to have lied to his fellow soldiers that his sword was a gift from ‘Peter The Great’ of Russia, who he claimed to be his godfather. After the war, he returned home in an invalid condition.
From 1770-73, he is said to have roamed the areas under the control of an old Russian religious sect called ‘Old Believers’ who influenced his thinking in a major way.
In early 1773, he was imprisoned in Kazan on charges of army desertion, but managed to escape. He is said to have been captured often, but always escaped. In September, he started a revolt against the serfdom of Ural Cossacks claiming to be Catherine II’s late husband, Emperor Peter III.
The ‘Pugachev Rebellion’ soon spread across Russia and gathered strength of nearly one million when a number of peasants, mine and factory workers, clergy and people of different Slavic nationalities joined in.
Throughout the rebellion, people continued to join him until his army was, at one point, strong enough to march to Moscow. He continued to gather soldiers, mostly peasants, from the towns and villages that he passed through.
In January 1774, Catherine sent forth her army to crush the rebellion. In the next few months, Pugachev lost a few towns like Tatishchevo and captured others like Saratov while crossing the Volga river and gathering support from his fellow Don Cossacks. On September 3, he was captured at Volgograd.
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By 1775, he had managed to escape from prison with a few of his comrades but one of them betrayed him to the Russian authorities. As a result, he was re-captured and taken to Moscow, reportedly in a cage.
The rebellion that he had started, masquerading as Emperor Peter III, fought for peasants’ freedom from levies and taxes, the ownership of their lands and equal status for landowners and peasants. He also supported brutal action against the opponents of his policy.
Throughout the war, thousands lost their lives on both sides and the rebellion had a long-lasting effect on the Russian empire. Brutal acts of violence were inflicted upon the soldiers and their families by both the government as well as the rebelling side.
Family & Personal Life
At 18 years of age, he married Sofya Nedyuzheva, a young Cossack woman. They had five children, of whom only three survived infancy.
In 1775, at 33 years of age, he was beheaded in Moscow. His house was said to have been burnt down and his family sent into exile after his death.
In 1775, Catherine II instructed the renaming of his birthplace from Zimoveyskaya to Potemkinskaya and Yaik river to Ural river, in order to wipe out his name from history.
In 1790, he and his rebellion were mentioned in Alexander Radischev (Radishchev)2’s most famous work ‘Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow’.
In 1834, Alexander Pushkin authored a detailed account of the rebellion in his book, ‘The History of Pugachev.’
In 1836, the rebellion that he sparked was described in a fictional format in the novel ‘The Captain’s Daughter’, authored by Alexander Pushkin.
In the 1860s, his name was attributed to a widely used term, ‘Pugachevs of the University’, to describe those who subscribed to the Russian ‘Nihilist Movement’.
In 1917, the village of Potemkinskaya was renamed to Pugachevskaya in his honour.
In 1991, the museum, ‘Yemelyan Pugachev’s House Museum’, was founded.
An important square in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, was renamed ‘Pugachev Square’.
Many Russian thinkers have credited him with paving the way for Alexander II’s success in abolishing serfdom, almost a century after the peasant rebellion.
A term ‘Pugachevshchina’ has been coined by noted authors to refer to Russian people’s increased inclination towards rebellion.
Before his beheading, he is believed to have gone down on his knees and asked his people to forgive him.