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The Stenka Razin Rebellion under review

Painting showing a man reclining in an open boat while other man row

Stenka Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea, Vasily Surikov, 1906Stepan, aka Stenka, Razin led a 17th century attack on outposts of the Russian state, and it looks different from the vantage point of Moscow or the Caspian sea.  I’m currently reading about rebels and pirates in Qing China, and Razin was both.  This “rebellion” began as maritime looting and pillaging, but inspired political insurrection in its last months.  From the perspective of Moscow, whether Tsarist or Communist, Razin’s rebellion was a threat to the social order coming from the margins of the Empire.  From the perspective of a World Historian I see the Rebellion as an event at the center of Eurasia.  A quick look at this event which has fascinated Russians for generations reveals Imperialism and its discontents. Moreover, discussing the varied interpretations of the Rebellion creates opportunities for students to think historically.  I may just be searching for a justification to play The Execution of Stenka Razin, a terrific Shostakovich Cantata, in class (you won’t regret listening).  But, I think the music and lyrics provide an opportunity for students to practice sourcing analysis.

Map of Eurasia showing Russian, Ottoman, Safavid, Mughal, and Qing Empires
Eurasian Land Empires, from Philips Atlas of World History via the Internet Archive.

The Stenka Razin’s Rebellion began as raiding in the Caspian Sea and later proceeded up the Volga River.  It happened amid the major Eurasian land empires of the time (1670-71 CE), targeting two: Safavid Persia and Russia. While teaching European history I saw, or glimpsed, this event as a challenges to the early modern Russian state, and this is also part of how it fits into the AP World History (KC 4.3 III).  But, it also shows the continuing vitality of steppe peoples in World History, and provides a vantage point for analyzing land-based imperialism.

In his book Elusive Empire historian Matthew Romaniello shows that Stepan Razin’s rebellion was actually two related, but not interdependent, events: attacks on Muscovite outposts on the lower Volga led by Razin and rebellions by Muscovite subjects. Razin was a Cossack leader, as such not a Muscovite subject, but a free ally of the Tsar.  For three years before invading Muscovy, he led large raiding parties in pillaging around the Caspian.  Razin’s invasion up the Volga succeeded for a short time.  His maritime force of thousands captured a few Muscovite outposts and inspired local rebellions, especially among peasants who had recently been forcibly relocated by the Muscovite state.  Within a few months, the armed forces of this state suppressed the revolt and captured Razin.  

Resistance to the Russian Empire came from those threatened by its expansion, free Cossacks and newly coerced laborers.  Romaniello explains

This was a protest against Muscovite colonial policy, led by its most recent (and continuing) victims. The violence in the north [of the lower Volga] was on a smaller scale, because the region had been long since settled, with communities there more than a century old. In the south, however, the settlers used Razin’s arrival as an opportunity to expel the government which had so recently victimized them (187).

Their resistance was futile. Romaniello concludes that the speedy suppression of this revolt demonstrated the consolidation of Russian control over the lower Volga, a process that began with Muscovite victory over the Khanate of Kazan in the 1552 (179). Romaniello’s central argument in Elusive Empire is that early modern Russia’s consolidation of territorial gains was slow and contingent.  The term and concept of “consolidation” is difficult for many of my students. Discussing the course of this rebellion could be a useful vehicle for working on this concept, while reviewing expansion of land empires and continued independence of some steppe peoples, such as the Cossacks.

Movie poster with a bearded man holding a woman in a dress over his head.
Movie poster of the first Russian film Stenka Razin by Vladimir Romashkov via Wikipedia

The complexity of the Stenka Razin Rebellion has made it a vehicle for all kinds of ideas For instance, a traditional Russian folk song imagines male comradery as the central feature of the Cossack band.  The misogynist story describes a drunken Razin throwing an abducted Persian princess into the Volga to reassure his men that he remains one of them (recording and lyrics on Wikipedia).

The song formed the basis of one of the first Russian narrative movies, viewable on Wikipedia. Since the film is only ten minutes, its poster (right) tells most of the story.  Students should note that the film was made during Tsarist rule and presents Razin as a “brigand”, despite the folk song only referring to him as a Cossack.  According to historian Michael Khodarkovsky, “Muscovite scribes and clerks portrayed the rebels as traitors and brigands.”  This official depiction continued through to the end of the Tsarist state.  Students may need a definition of brigand, but they should grasp why the state would define Razin as a outlaw.

The painter Vasily Surikov also presented Stepan Razin without political content (image above).  Surikov identified as Cossack by ancestry and grew up on the margin of the Russian Empire in Siberia. His painted Razin on the Caspian in realistic style as a brooding man, neither hero nor villain.

Twelve years later, in the wake of the Russian Revolutions, Razin appeared in a very light on a Russian canvas.  Boris Kustodiev portrayed Razin as a hero, a view maintained by later Soviet historians and writers.

Man standing heroically in open boat lit by sunlight
Stepan Razin on the Volga, Boris Kustodiev,, 1918

A Marxist interpretation informs the 1964 poem The Execution of Stenka Razin by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. The poet sets the scene of Razin’s execution with crude caricatures of the Tsar and nobility:

They are bringing Stenka Razin!
The tsar is milking a little bottle of malmsey [sweet wine],
before the Swedish mirror, he squeezes a pimple,
and tries on an emerald seal ring-
and into the square… They are bringing Stenka Razin!
Like a little barrel following a fat barrel
a baby boyar rolls along after his mother,
gnawing a bar of toffee with his baby teeth.
Today is a holiday! They are bringing Stenka Razin!

Most World History students will not know boyars were Muscovite nobles, but they should see the Communist influence on this interpretation.  Later in the poem Razin proclaims his opposition to the boyars, his only sin: not opposing them enough.

Before you, the people, I repent,
but not for what the tsar’s scribe wanted.
My head is to blame.
I can see, sentencing myself:
I was halfway against things,
when I ought to have gone to the very end.
No, it is not in this I have sinned, my people,
for hanging boyars from the towers.
I have sinned in my own eyes in this,
that I hanged too few of them.
I have sinned in this, that in a world of evil
I was a good idiot.
I sinned in this, that being an enemy of serfdom
I was something of a serf myself.
I sinned in this, that I thought of doing battle
for a good tsar.

Here Razin is a class warrior, who regrets having not recognized the Tsar as integral to class oppression.  In Soviet hands Razin the free Cossack for whom “peasant” would have been an insult became an avenger of the serfs. The actual Razin did appeal to disaffected peasants to join him by rising against their lords, and like many rebels proclaimed that he was loyal to the true monarch. But, the Soviet interpretation strips Razin of complexity, particularly glossing or omitting his years of Caspian piracy.

Yevtushenko’s poem provided the lyrics for Shostakovich’s Cantata. The powerful music  (seriously, if you haven’t listened yet, I encourage you to start) adds to the presentation of Razin as a martyred here, a chorus represents the people of Moscow reproaching Razin for softness toward the social hierarchy.   Although this incident on the Volga in the late 17th century was minor in the course of World History, I am intrigued with the possibilities of using the variety of representations–folk song, orchestral music, poem, early film, paintings, and scholarly writing–to review a key concept and practice historical thinking. And, like me, some kids would really enjoy the music.

Works Cited

Khodarkovsky, Michael. “The Stepan Razin Uprising: Was It a ‘Peasant War’?” Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, vol. 42, no. 1, 1994, pp. 1–19. Neue Folge,

Romaniello, Matthew P. The elusive empire: Kazan and the creation of Russia, 1552-1671. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

One reply on “The Stenka Razin Rebellion under review”

Mr. B, this makes me understand a bit more about why communism formed in Russia during this time period. The people hated their nobles, the boyars so much they used involenary pillaging by a pirate as an opportunity to push out the overbearing Russian state. In later years the Russian people would even see him as a hero, writing poems and films celebrating his pirating ways. We can see this is most likely due to a hate for the boyars and not their love of Razin since the painter Vasily Surikov who lived far away from the politics painted him as a normal man.

Also, do you have a song for every major event in history?!

Let me know what you think!

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