Stenka Razin – A Cossack who scared the tsar

Today we introduce you to Stenka Razin, an intrepid Cossack who at times controlled large parts of southern Russia and became a folk hero.

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Today we would like to introduce Stepan “Stenka” Rasin. Rasin succeeded in rebelling against the tsar and the nobles on the Volga, controlling large parts of southern Russia and causing fear and terror in today’s Kazakhstan and Iran. The rise of Stenka Razin (which is often spelled with a “s”) resulted in the largest uprising of the 17th century in Russia, often referred to as the Peasant War. Stenka Razin became a legend and a Russian Robin Hood. In the Soviet period the Razin myth played an important role. So there are enough reasons to take a closer look at Stepan Rasin. We introduce him, his life and the myth and show which places in Russia are connected with Stepan Razin.

The Don Cossacks

The Cossacks were free equestrian units that lived in the southern steppes of Eastern Europe and were mainly Russian, Ukrainian and Russian serfs who escaped their masters. They lived along the Dnepr, Volga and Don rivers, among others, and quickly became a myth. The free, supposedly also carefree life of a Cossack attracted not only escaped serfs but also many adventurers, as a result of which the Cossack associations grew larger and larger in the pre-modern period. Their relationship with the central power was ambivalent. Sometimes the Cossacks rebelled against their rulers, sometimes they took on the function of a kind of free army, for example to prevent an advance of the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim Tatars allied with it.

The numerically largest group among the Cossacks were the Don Cossacks. As the name suggests, they lived on the Don River in southwestern Russia, a stream that today runs only a few kilometers east of the Russian-Ukrainian border and then flows into the Sea of Azov, a tributary of the Black Sea. At the head of the Don Cossacks was a so-called ataman (also known as hetman in the West). In the course of time, the Don Cossacks occupied a prominent position in the Tsarist Empire and participated, among other things, in the colonization of Siberia, fought against Napoleon. Today, however, we will look at a chapter in which the relationship between the central power and the Don Cossacks was anything but good.

Russia in the 17th century

The 17th century marked a period of chaos in Russian history, also called the “time of turmoil” or “Smuta”. In 1598, Fyodor I, the last tsar from the Rurikid dynasty, died childless. The following years were marked by a total of five rulers on the tsar’s throne and the temporary capture and occupation of Moscow by Polish troops. It would take until 1613 before the Romanovs finally seized power and established a ruling dynasty. Their first two representatives, Mikhail and Alexei, pursued a policy of centralizing power in Moscow. Alexei I was to rule the country for over 30 years.

Stabilization, wars and reforms

But the following years were still hardly calmer than the previous ones. Wars against Swedes, Poles, and Muslim Tatars bled the country further and further, and high levies were imposed on the peasants. After minor and major uprisings in Moscow, Tomsk, Pskov and Novgorod, Tsar Alexei introduced the Sobornoye Ulozheniye, a kind of basic law that was to last into the 19th century and entailed, among other things, the reintroduction of serfdom. Building on this legal foundation, the tsarist empire continued to expand, among other things winning over Kyiv and Smolensk from Poland in the west. The empire also continued to expand in the east, and the conquest of Siberia took place precisely at that time.

The Old Believers

Alexei’s rule, however, also led to a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The so-called Old Believers did not accept a reform catalog of the church and were persecuted as a result. Many people fled to the Danube Delta (where their descendants still live today) or to the south of the empire, where the tsar’s rule had not yet been established and he relied on the Cossacks as a protective force. And exactly these Old Believers, who were against the tsar, should later become an essential factor in Rasin’s fight for Russia’s south. Not only they, but also many other peasants moved to the “Wild South” to escape the control of the central state and to live a free life.

Stepan Razin and his rise

Little is known about the historical person Stenka Rasin and his early life. This is not unusual for that time with the usual meager sources, but worth mentioning insofar as the Rasin myth could thus take on even greater features. His parents came from the vicinity of Voronezh in southern Russia. Especially about the origin of Stenka Rasin’s mother is unclear, possibly she was Ukrainian or Turkish. Rasin, who was probably born in 1630, was first mentioned in the sources in 1652, when he undertook a pilgrimage to the distant Solovetsky monastery.

First raids

At first Razin’s trail then gets lost, but in 1661 he undertook a diplomatic mission that led him to the Kalmyks, the only Buddhist and Mongolian-speaking people in Europe who still live in southern Russia (Lenin’s father, for example, was Kalmyk). It is not until six years later that Razin is mentioned again in a document, when he suddenly appeared with other Cossacks on the Volga River, where, as a highwayman, he extorted a kind of toll from ships sailing along the Volga. Such an action was not unusual for a Cossack, raids, robberies of noblemen and rich merchants were quite common. Around the same time, Razin’s brother Ivan was executed as a deserter by the central power, which must have permanently disturbed Stepan’s relationship with the tsardom.

Razin subsequently rose higher and higher, and due to the disastrous living conditions in the countryside, more and more peasants joined him.

Painting “Stepan Razin on the Volga” by Boris Kustodiev (1910)

Stenka Razin and the raid of the Don Cossacks

Now Razin saw his great hour come and he succeeded in a first coup, the destruction of a large convoy, which consisted of rich merchants and military and should have brought numerous treasures to Moscow. Equipped with rich booty and some ships, Stenka Razin now sailed along the Volga with 35 ships. The most powerful river in Russia was secured by numerous forts, which Razin’s Cossacks were able to take by storm. He was hailed by many as a liberator who fought the Russian nobles (the boyars) and received ever increasing crowds. The following words are said to have been said by Stenka Razin at that time:

I will not force you to join me, but whoever decides to come with me will be a free Cossack. I have come to fight the boyars and the rich lords. But I will treat the poor and simple people as brothers.

In the meantime, however, the tsar heard about Stepan Rasin’s “tour”, the destination of which was the Caspian Sea. Andrei Unkovsky, the governor of Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad and now Volgograd), had entrenched himself in the city and refused to allow Razin to enter Tsaritsyn. Attempts at negotiation failed as Razin threatened to raze the city to the ground, and so he was able to pass by the important Russian fortress unmolested. Now he succeeded in one of his greatest pranks: After reaching the Caspian Sea, he drove along the Ural River into what is now Kazakhstan and captured the city of Jaizk (now Oral), disguising himself as a pilgrim and opening the city gates to his troops once inside the city.

Wintering in Kazakhstan

The capture of Jaitsk, where many troops and parts of the city population joined, was so important because he had now taken up winter quarters far away from the Tsar’s troops. Stepan Rasin stayed here until the spring of 1668, when he embarked on his greatest raid, which led him to Persia, among other places, and was to last 18 months. He left only a small part of his men in Jaitsk, which is why the city could be taken by troops loyal to the tsar in his absence.

The journey to Persia

Rasin now headed south. At first, he failed to capture a fortress in what is now Dagestan, so he continued his journey to what is now Azerbaijan and captured the port of Baku on the then Persian-controlled Abşeron Peninsula. Razin now traveled deep into the interior of Persia to the shah’s court in Isfahan and asked the shah for land in return for loyalty to the Persians. He had probably realized that he would have no future in Russia as “enemy of the state No. 1.” It is not known why no agreement was reached with the Shah, but Stepan Razin turned around and went back to the Caspian Sea, where he plundered several Turkmen villages on the eastern side.

Return to Russia

In the meantime, Razin’s activities had become too much for the Shah, and he sent his fleet to put a stop to the rebellious Cossack. Razin, however, succeeded in capturing part of the fleet and had reached the height of his power. Then there was a strange turn of events. Probably fearing more peasants would join the Cossacks, the tsar pardoned Razin and he sailed to Astrakhan, Russia’s gateway to the Caspian Sea on the lower Volga.

The uprising

Instead of continuing his voyage to home waters on the Don, however, he captured Cherkassk, an important Cossack center, and especially Zaryzin, today’s Volgograd. In June 1679, Stenka Razin, who had meanwhile turned back, reached Astrakhan, plundered the rich trading city and killed all who stood in his way. He declared Astrakhan a Cossack republic and made a foolhardy plan to capture first all the cities on the Volga and then Moscow. At least in the case of Saratov and Samara this succeeded, but then Razin’s move came to a halt and he was driven out. Razin, however, had already sent envoys to Nizhny Novgorod, Veliky Novgorod and other cities, calling for revolution and promising the inhabitants a free Cossack republic.

This painting by contemporary history painter Sergei Kirillov shows Stepan Rasin on the way to his execution. Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral can be seen in the background. (Source: Sergei Kirillov, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The end of Stenka Rasin

Razin’s star, however, had finally sunk, and most attempts to win the people over to his ideas soon failed. The Don Cossacks disowned him and more and more cities sided with the tsar. They did this probably also because the tsarist troops knew no mercy and proceeded just as brutally and ruthlessly as Razin’s men, several massacres occurred. Finally it was the Cossacks themselves who captured Stenka Razin in the fortress of Kagalnik. Razin was handed over to the tsar’s troops and on 6/6/1671 he was publicly quartered on the Red Square. His legend, however, would live on to this day.

Stenka Razin and his role in the Soviet Union

In the early years of the Soviet Union, Stepan Razin and other Cossack leaders who rebelled against the tsar were glorified and used for propaganda. They were seen as ideal role models for a popular uprising against the tsarist oppressors. With their ideals of a free society, they were ideally suited to place their own machinations in a long tradition of uprisings. Later, interest in Stenka Razin waned somewhat. In any case, it was difficult to identify too much with the Cossacks. After all, they had actively opposed the Bolsheviks in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. In addition, Rasin had fought against the nobles rather than the tsar, and had even asked the tsar’s forgiveness when he was executed.

Stepan Rasin in art

Nevertheless, countless writings on Razin were written and the Razin motif was especially popular in music, although there were many folk songs sung about Stenka Razin even before the Communists took power. In 1908, for example, Razin was the subject of one of the first Russian short films, which dealt with an episode in which he drowned a Persian princess in the Volga River in gratitude for rich booty (in the meantime, however, historians doubt that such an episode actually took place).

The song “From Beyond the Wooded Island” (“Iz-za ostrova na strezhen”) from the film was known years before and is still one of the best-known folk songs in Russia. It has been reinterpreted countless times since then, including in the West. One of the most well-known singers to perform it was Ivan Rebroff. However, the most famous artist to deal with Razin was Dmitri Shostakovich, who thematized the last moments in the life of the famous Cossack leader in his Opus 119 (“The Execution of Stepan Razin”).

Book recommendations

You want to discover the many Russia sights or want to find out more about the country? Then we recommend the following books!

This international bestseller is a true masterpiece and gets very close to what people reffer to as the “Russian soul” by focusing on the cultural history of the country.

Planning a trip to Russia? Then the Lonely Planet travel guide with lots of information about tourist attractions in Russia and many practical tips is a good choice.

You want to feel the magic of Saint Petersburg and its surroundings? This book is full of information and beautiful pictures and take you to the glorious past of the Tsar’s empire.

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Markus Bingel has studied and worked in Poland, Ukraine and Russia for a long time. As a travel book author, he is drawn to the countries of the “Wild East” several times a year – and he is still fascinated by this region every time. As co-founder of Wild East, he would like to introduce you to the unknown, exciting and always surprising sides of Eastern Europe.

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