Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Rebel, Freedom Fighter, Champion of the Poor
By Cindy Vallar
Stepan Rasin by Vasily Surikov (1906)
Seventeenth-century Russia suffered from excessive taxation, loss of liberty, widespread poverty, and dislocated peasantry. Unlike many, the Don Cossacks had some autonomy from the Russian State. They resented any governmental interference in their affairs. They cherished freedom and independence, and at times fought to defend these privileges. Although they fished in the Don River, hunted in the Steppes, and herded sheep, cattle, and horses, circumstances forced some to turn to piracy in order to survive. Light and easily maneuvered boats allowed them to quickly strike the coastal settlements, then flee before anyone mounted a defense against them. Since Moscow profited from the trade with Persia, the State erected a gallows in 1632 to hang Cossack pirates and to wipe out piracy.
Stepan Timofeevich Razin, also known as Stenka Razin or Rasin, was born to an old Cossack family that lived on the Don River. His family’s status within the community put Stepan into situations that taught him to become a shrewd negotiator. He served his people with distinction and as a result won their trust and respect. For some reason, however, he developed an intense hatred for men of privilege and authority. His brother’s execution for deserting his regiment may have precipitated Stepan’s rebellion, but no documentation supports this theory.
Jan Struys, a Dutch sailor, described Stepan in 1669 as “a brave man as to his person, and well-proportioned in his limbs, tall and straight of body, pock-pitted, but only so as did rather become rather than disfigure him, of good conduct, but withal severe and cruel.” He was a born leader, who understood the mood of the peasant class. His charisma drew people to him and influenced their behavior. Yet those who knew him described sudden mood swings, especially when he was drunk, that led to violence in which he killed innocent people. During one such event, he supposedly drowned his mistress because she couldn’t go to war with him.
In April 1667, he and about one thousand Cossacks put to sea for adventure and plundering on the Caspian Sea. When Russian government officials heard of this, they attempted to stop Stepan, but he wouldn’t listen. He seized trading vessels belonging to the tsar and the patriarch, appropriated their rich cargoes, and released political prisoners bound for Astrakhan and Terki. When the pirates sailed past the fortress at Tsaritsyn, the guns remained silent. Thus he acquired the reputation of invincibility. Reinforcements swelled his ranks until he commanded twenty thousand men. He established his base of operations on an island at the head of the Terek River, which allowed him to intercept merchant ships bound for Russia via the Volga. His initial successes failed to provide enough to feed his motley crew, so he decided to attack the coastal towns of Persia.
Derbent was a prosperous port on the western coast of the Caspian Sea. When Razin and his men attacked, the inhabitants were surprised. Although they fought back, they were ill matched for the Cossacks, who slaughtered defenders and innocents alike. In July they arrived at Yaitsik, a well-defended town surrounded by a thick stone wall. Stepan and forty pirates disguised themselves as pilgrims and requested permission to pray in the cathedral. Once inside, they overpowered the guards, threw open the gates, and with their comrades soon occupied the town without a fight. When the garrison commander and one hundred seventy soldiers refused to join the pirates, they were slaughtered.
The Shah of Persia ordered one of his commanders to pursue and eliminate the Cossack pirates. At Baku Stepan and his men took more than one hundred prisoners and seven thousand sheep. While they celebrated, Persian troops attacked. More than four hundred pirates were slain, but Stepan and others escaped to mount additional raids along the southern coast of the Caspian. They often disguised themselves as merchants and gained the trust of the local townspeople before turning on them and plundering their houses and shops.
Throughout the winter the pirates lived in the swampy forests on the Mian Kaleh Peninsula between Farahabad and Astrabad. Repeated attacks by the Persians and insufficient food and water gradually diminished the pirates’ numbers.
In June 1669 Menedi Khan and thirty-seven hundred Persians attacked the Cossacks at sea. The Persian commander chained his ships together in an attempt to encircle and fire upon the smaller, lower Cossack vessels. A lucky shot from the pirates, however, ignited the magazine of the Persians’ flagship. When that vessel exploded, all but three of their ships sank because they were chained together. Many Persians lost their lives, and the pirates took many prisoners, including the khan’s son. The Cossack deaths totaled five hundred, but more were wounded. Weary but rich, they headed home.
Stepan’s last pirate raid took place two months later when he captured two Persian merchant vessels laden with treasures that included thoroughbred horses, a gift from the Shah of Persia to Tsar Alexis Romanov. The Russian navy pursued Stepan, but neither they nor the pirates wished to do battle. Instead, Stepan accepted a full pardon on condition that he return to the Don River, surrender his guns and the horses, release any imprisoned Persians, and turn over all Russian soldiers who had joined the pirates. His power and influence with the general populace was such, though, that those terms were difficult to enforce. Although he did surrender his Perisan captives, Stepan kept all his ships and the majority of his guns, as well as the thoroughbreds. He did not turn over any deserters.
Tales of Stepan’s exploits were told again and again. He welcomed the homeless and destitute peasants that flocked to his camp as brothers. As time progressed the pirates became a rebel army, but since his followers revered the tsar, Stepan was careful never to speak out against his sovereign. “I will not raise my sword against the Great Sovereign. I would rather cut off my own head with it or be drowned in the river.” Instead he blamed their problems on the boyars, the nobility, “who have barred our way to the sea and the Volga, and we have thus become naked and hungry.” (Avrich, Paul. Russian Rebels, page 79)
Although branded a brigand and renegade, the peasants saw Stepan as a liberator. Tsaritsyn freely opened its gates and threw the slain governor into the river. To easily vanquish other garrisons, Razin had deserters pose as reinforcements to gain entry to the towns. At Astrakhan deserters helped the Cossacks scale the walls during the night. The next morning they dragged the governor to the top of the bell tower and threw him off the parapet. Those officers who remained faithful to the tsar suffered worse fates.
With more than two hundred thousand followers, Razin marched on Moscow. At Simbirsk, his forces met seasoned troops loyal to the tsar. There was a savage battle and a protracted siege that lasted a month. After Stepan divided his forces to garner more territory, tsarist reinforcements made a surprise attack on his camp. Twice wounded, he fled. It was his first defeat, and he lost the aura of invincibility. Trained troops hunted down exhausted and fleeing rebels, who were impaled on stakes, nailed to boards, torn to shreds, or flogged to death.
Fearing the loss of their freedom and autonomy, Cossack elders captured Razin and one of his brothers, and delivered them to Moscow. After Tsar Alexis interrogated Stepan, executioners flogged him, separated his legs and arms from the joints, branded him with a hot iron, then shaved his head and dripped freezing water on it. On six June 1671, Stepan was executed in Red Square. His head and limbs were mounted on stakes and the rest of his body was fed to the dogs. Stepan’s brother, sat in a prison for five years before he was beheaded. Stepan’s mother and uncle were also executed.
Tsar Alexis learned several valuable lessons from Stepan Razin. He imposed strict discipline on his troops. He made certain they received their pay on a regular basis and forbade their excesses. Securing a tighter reign on the Don Cossacks, he employed these warrior horsemen on behalf of the Russian State.
Although Stepan Razin’s attempt to gain greater freedom for the Cossacks had the opposite effect, he became a martyred hero whose memory was immortalized in folklore. He became a Russian Robin Hood who faced death bravely, just as the Scottish William Wallace had done in his refusal to submit to the English over three centuries earlier.
Avrich, Paul. Russian Rebels 1600-1800. W.W. Norton, 1972.
Riasanovksy, Nicholas. V. A History of Russia. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Sorobey, Ronald B. “Cossack Pirates of the Black Sea,” Military History. June 2003,
pages 27-32, 77.
Ure, John. The Cossacks: an Illustrated History. Overlook Press, 2002.
© 2004 Cindy Vallar
Published 1 June 2004
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