Jemeljan Pugatscheff

Jemeljan Pugatscheff—the Fictitious Peter III

The reign of Catherine II. fills one of the darkest pages of Russian history. This lustful and ambitious empress waded to the throne through her husband's blood—bloodshed was necessary to establish her rule; infamous cruelties characterised her whole reign, and no princess ever succeeded in making herself more heartily detested by her subjects than the vicious daughter of Anhalt Zerbst. Plot after plot was concocted to oust her from her high estate; and impostor after impostor appeared claiming the imperial purple; but the empress held her own easily, and suppressed each successive rebellion without difficulty, until Pugatscheff appeared at the head of the Cossacks, and threatened to hurl her from her throne, and dismember the empire.

Jemeljan Pugatscheff Was the son of Jemailoff Pugatscheff, a Cossack of the Don, and was born near Simonskaga. His father was killed on the field of battle, and left him to the care of an indifferent mother, who deserted him and sought the embraces of a second husband. An uncle, pitying the lad's desolation, carried him to Poland, where he picked up the French, Italian, German, and Polish languages, and distinguished himself by his aptitude for learning. After a time he returned to Russia, and took up his abode among the Cossacks of the Ukraine, who, attracted alike by his bodily vigour and his mental accomplishments, elected him one of their chiefs. He was not, however, contented with the comparative quiet of Cossack life, and longed for some greater excitement than was afforded by an occasional raid against the neighbouring tribes. Accordingly, taking advantage of the law promulgated by Peter III.,—that any Russian might leave the country and enter the service of any power not at war with the empire,—he entered the army of the King of Prussia. On the conclusion of peace he obtained a command in the Russian army, and served for a considerable time. At last his regiment was relieved, and Pugatscheff was allowed to return home. On his return he found the Cossacks of the Ukraine gravely dissatisfied with the government and the empire. The viciousness of the court had been reported to them; they were oppressed both by the clergy and the judges, and they only wanted a leader to break out into open revolt. Pugatscheff saw the golden opportunity, and presented himself. But spies were numerous, the garrisons were strong, and it was necessary to proceed with caution. In order the better to conceal his designs, he entered the service of a Cossack named Koshenikof, and after a short time succeeded in gaining the adhesion of his master to his cause. The friends and kinsmen of Koshenikof were one by one, under oath of secrecy, informed of the plot, and by degrees the rebellious scheme was perfected. Pugatscheff was elected chief; and as he bore a strong resemblance to the murdered emperor, it was resolved that he should present himself to the people as Peter III. Accordingly, rumours were assiduously circulated that the emperor was still alive; that a soldier had been killed in his stead; and that although he was in hiding, he would shortly appear, and would avenge himself upon his enemies. Thousands listened and believed, and only waited for the first sign of success to join the movement. But the government was on the alert. Pugatscheff and his master were suspected and denounced; and while the latter was arrested, the former with difficulty escaped. In a few days, however, he succeeded in surrounding himself with 500 adherents, and marched at their head to the town of Jaizkoi, which he summoned to surrender. The answer was sent by 5000 Cossacks who had orders to take him prisoner. Strong in his faith in his fellow-countrymen, Pugatscheff advanced towards this formidable force, and caused one of his officers to present them with a manifesto explaining his claims, and his reasons for taking up arms. The general in command seized the document, but the men, who had no great love for the empress, insisted that it should be read. Their request was refused, and 500 of them at once deserted their standards and joined the ranks of the rebel chief. Alarmed by this defection, the Russian general withdrew to the citadel, while Pugatscheff encamped about a league off, hoping that further desertions would follow, and that the place would fall into his hands. In this he was disappointed; for his fellow-countrymen, although disloyal at heart, did not wish to commit themselves to a desperate undertaking which might involve them in ruin, and were disposed to wait until some success had attended the insurrection. The 500 who had precipitately chosen the rebellion had induced about a dozen of their officers to join them; but these men, suddenly repenting, refused to break their oath of allegiance, and were at once hanged from the neighbouring trees. Finding further persuasion fruitless, Pugatscheff wisely refrained from any attempt to reduce the fortress, and marched his band towards Orenburg. On the way he secured large accessions to his force, and in a few days found himself at the head of 1500 men. With this army he attacked the fortified town of Iletzka, which offered no resistance—the garrison passing over to him. The commandant consented to share in the enterprise with his followers, but Pugatscheff wanted no commandants or men of intelligence who might interfere with his schemes, and gave orders for his immediate execution. The cannon captured at Iletzka were then pointed against Casypnaja, which yielded after a brief struggle. Thus fortress after fortress fell into the hands of the reputed emperor, who gladly received the common soldiery, but mercilessly slew their leaders.

By this time the news had spread abroad throughout Southern Russia that Peter III. was not dead, but was in arms for the recovery of his throne and for the redress of the grievances under which his people were suffering. Crowds of Cossacks heard the intelligence with joy, and hastened to cast in their lot with the army of Pugatscheff. Talischova, a powerful fortress, defended by 1000 regular troops, fell before his assault; and the false Peter soon found himself possessed of numerous strongholds, a formidable train of artillery, and a fighting force of 5000 men. Considering himself strong enough to attempt the reduction of Orenburg, the capital of the southern provinces, he marched against it. Here, however, he encountered a stubborn resistance, and attack after attack was repulsed with heavy loss. These repeated failures did not discourage the pretender or his adherents. The Cossacks continued to flock to his banners, and when General Carr, who had been despatched from Moscow to suppress the revolt, arrived in the neighbourhood of Orenburg, he found the rebel chief at the head of 16,000 soldiers. An advanced guard, which was sent to harass his movements, fell into the hands of Pugatscheff, who nearly exterminated it, and straightway hanged the officers who were made captive, according to his usual custom. Emboldened by his success, he attacked the main body, and ignominiously defeated it in the open field; and Carr, panic-struck, fled to the capital, leaving General Freyman, if possible, to oppose the advance of the revolutionists. The result of this decisive victory was soon apparent. Province after province declared in favour of the pretender, chief after chief placed his sword at his service, and Pugatscheff began to play the emperor in earnest. He conferred titles upon his most distinguished officers, granted sealed commissions, and constructed foundries and powder manufactories in various places.

Catherine, by this time thoroughly alarmed, despatched another army to the Ukraine under General Bibikoff, an experienced and resolute officer. He arrived at Casan in February 1774, and issued a manifesto, exposing Pugatscheff's imposture, and calling upon the rebels to lay down their arms. Pugatscheff replied by another manifesto, declaring himself the Czar, Peter III., and threatening vengeance against all who resisted his just claims. He also caused coin to be impressed with his effigy, and the inscription "Redivivus et Ultor." In the meantime he continued to lay siege to Orenburg and Ufa. But Bibikoff was not a man to remain inactive, and lost no time in attacking him. Again and again he was defeated, the siege of the two strongholds was raised, and on more than one occasion his army was dispersed, and he was left at the head of only a few hundred followers. But, if the Cossack hordes could be easily dissipated, they could rally with equal ease; and on several occasions, when the rebellion seemed to be completely crushed, it suddenly burst out afresh, and Pugatscheff, who was supposed to be hiding like a hunted criminal, appeared at the head of a larger force than ever. Thus at one time scarcely 100 men followed him to a retreat in the Ural Mountains: in a few days he was at the head of 20,000 men, and took Casan by storm, with the exception of the citadel, which resisted his most determined attacks. Here he perpetrated the greatest atrocities, until the imperial troops arrived and wrested the town from his grasp, seizing his artillery and his ammunition. For a time his position appeared desperate, and he fled across the Volga, but only to re-appear again at the head of an enormous force, and, as a conqueror, fortress after fortress yielding at his summons. At length a Russian army under Colonel Michelsohn overtook him and gave him battle. Pugatscheff held a strong position, had 24 pieces of artillery and 20,000 men, but his raw levies were no match for the regular troops. His position was turned, and a panic seized his followers, who deserted their guns and their baggage, and fled precipitately, leaving 2000 dead and 6000 prisoners behind them. Pugatscheff himself made for the Volga, closely pursued by the Russian cavalry, who cut down the half of his escort before they could embark. With sixty men he succeeded in escaping into the desert, and at last it was evident that his game was played out. The only three outlets were soon closed by separate detachments of the imperial troops, and the fugitives were thus confined in an arid waste without shelter, without provisions, and without water. The situation was so hopeless that each man only thought of saving himself, and Pugatscheff's companions were not slow to perceive that their sole chance of life lay in sacrificing their leader. Accordingly, they fell upon him while he was ravenously devouring a piece of horseflesh—the only food which he could command—and, having bound him, handed him over to his enemies. As Moscow had shown some sympathy for him, he was carried in chains to that city, and was there condemned to death. Several of his principal adherents likewise suffered punishment at the same time.

On the 23d of January 1775, Pugatscheff and his followers were led to the place of execution, where a large scaffold had been erected. Some had their tongues cut out, the noses of others were cut off, eighteen were knouted and sent to Siberia, and the chief was decapitated—his body being afterwards cut in pieces and exposed in different parts of the town. He met his fate with the utmost fortitude.