Historical Tales: 8—Russian - Charles Morris

A Struggle for a Throne

While the armies of Catharine II. were threatening with destruction the empire of Turkey, and her diplomats were deciding what part of dismembered Poland should fall to her share, her throne itself was put in danger of destruction by an aspirant who arose in the east and for two years kept Russia from end to end in a state of dire alarm. The summary manner in which Peter III. had been removed from the throne was not relished by the people. Numerous small revolts broke out, which were successively put down. St. Petersburg accepted Catharine, but Moscow did not, and on her visits to the latter city the political atmosphere proved so frigid that she was glad to get back to the more genial climate of the city on the Neva.

Years passed before Russia settled down to full acceptance of a reign begun in violence and sustained by force, and in this interval there were no fewer than six impostors to be dealt with, each of whom claimed to be Peter III. Murdered emperors sleep badly in their graves. The example of the false Dmitris, generations before, remained in men's minds, and it seemed as if every Russian who bore a resemblance to the vanished czar was ready to claim his vacated seat.

Of these false Peters, the sixth and most dangerous was a Cossack of the Don, whose actual name was Pugatchef, but whose face seemed capable of calling up an army wherever it appeared, and who, if his ability had been equal to his fortune, might easily have seated himself on the throne. The impostor proved to be his own worst foe, and defeated himself by his innate barbarity.

Pugatchef began his career as a common soldier, afterwards becoming an officer. Deserting the army after a period of service, he made his way to Poland, where he dwelt with the monks of that country and pretended to equal the best of them in piety. Here he was told that he bore a striking resemblance to Peter III. The hint was enough. He returned to Russia, where he professed sanctity, dressed like a patriarch of the church, and scattered benedictions freely among the Cossacks of the Don. He soon gained adherents among the old orthodox party, who were bitter against the religious looseness of the court. Finally he gave himself out as Peter III., declaring that the story of his death was false, that he had escaped from the hands of the assassins, and that he desired to win the throne, not for himself, but for his infant son Paul.

The first result of this announcement was that the impostor was seized and taken to Masan as a prisoner. But the carelessness of his guards allowed him to escape front his prison cell, and he made his way to the Volga, near its entrance into the Caspian Sea, where he began to collect a body of followers among the Cossacks of that region. His first open declaration was made on September 17, 1773, when he appeared with three hundred Cossacks at the town of Yaitsk, and published an appeal to orthodox believers, declaring that he was the czar Peter III. and calling upon them for support.

His handful of Cossacks soon grew into an army, multitudes of the tribesmen gathered around him, and in a brief time he found himself at the head of a large body of the lowest of the people. The man was a savage at heart, betraying his innate depravity by foolish and useless cruelties, and in this way preventing the more educated class of the community from joining his ranks.

Yet he contrived to gather about him an army of several thousand men, and obtained a considerable number of cannon, with which he soon afterwards laid siege to the city of Orenburg. Both Yaitsk and Orenburg defied his efforts, but he had greater success in the field, defeating two armies in succession. These victories gave him new assurance. He now caused money to be coined in his name, as though he were the lawful emperor, and marched northward at the head of a large force to meet the armies of the state.

His army was destitute of order or discipline and he woefully deficient in military skill, yet his proclamation of freedom to the people, and the opportunities he gave them for plunder and outrage, strengthened his hands, and recruits came in multitudes. The Tartars, Kirghis, and Bashkirs, who had been brought against their will under the Russian yoke, flocked to his standard, in the hope of regaining their freedom. Many of the Poles who had been banished from their country also sought his ranks, and the people of Moscow and its vicinity, who had from the first been opposed to Catharine's reign, waited his approach that they might break out in open rebellion.

The outbreak had thus become serious, and had Pugatchef been skilled as a leader he might have won the throne. As it was, his followers showed a fiery valor, and, undisciplined as they were, gave the armies of the empire no small concern. Bibikof, who had been sent to subdue them, failed through over-caution, and was slain in the field. His lieutenants, Galitzin and Michelson, proved more active, and frequently defeated the impostor, though only to find him rising again with new armies as often as the old ones were crushed, like the fabulous giant who sprang up in double form whenever cut in twain.

Prince Galitzin defeated him twice, the last time after a furious battle six hours in length. Pugatchef, abandoned by his followers, now fled to the Urals, but soon appeared again with a fresh body of troops. Between the beginning of March and the end of May, 1774, the rebel chief was defeated six or seven times by Michelson, in the end being driven as a fugitive to the Ural Mountains. But he had only to raise his standard again for fresh armies to spring up as if from the ground, and early June found him once more in the field. Defeated on June 4, he fled once more to the hills, but in the beginning of July was facing his foes again at the head of twenty-two thousand men.

Only the cruelty shown by himself and his followers, and his ruthlessness in permitting the plunder and burning of churches and convents, kept back the much greater hosts who would otherwise have flocked to his ranks. And at this critical moment in his career he committed the signal error of failing to march on Moscow, the principal seat of the old Russian faith which he proposed to restore, and where he would have found an army of partisans. He marched upon Kasan instead, took the city, but failed to capture the citadel. Here he was making havoc with fire and sword, when Michelson came up and defeated him in a long and obstinate fight.



He now fled to the Volga, wasting the land as he went, burning the crops and villages, and leaving desolation in his track. Men came in numbers to replace those he had lost, and an army of twenty thousand was soon again under his command. With these he surprised and routed a Russian force and took several forts on the Volga, while the German colonies of Moravians which had been established upon that stream, and were among the most industrious inhabitants of the empire, suffered severely at his hands. In the town of Saratof he murdered all whom he met.

As an example of the character of this monster in human form, it is related that hearing that an astronomer from the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg was near by, engaged in laying out the route of a canal from the Volga to the Don, he ordered him to be brought before him. When the peaceful astronomer appeared, the brutal ruffian bade his men to lift him on their pikes "so that he might be nearer the stars." Then he ordered him to be cut to pieces.

The end of this carnival of murder came at the siege of Zaritzin. Here Michelson came up on the 22nd of August and forced him to raise the siege. On the 24th the insurgents were attacked when in the intricate passes of the mountains and encumbered with baggage-wagons, women, and camp-followers. Though thus taken at a disadvantage, they defended themselves vigorously, the mass of them falling in the mountain passes or being driven over the cliffs and precipices. Pugatchef continued to fight till his army was destroyed, then made his escape, as so often before, swimming the Volga and vanishing in the desert. Only about sixty of his most faithful partisans accompanied him in his flight.

Michelson, failing to reach him in his retreat, took care that he should not emerge into the cultivated districts. But in the end the Russians were able to capture him only by treachery. They won over some of their Cossack prisoners, among them Antizof, the nearest friend of the fugitive. These were then set free, and sought the desert retreat of their late leader, where they, awaited an opportunity to take him by surprise.

This they were not able to do until November. Pugatchef was gnawing the bone of a horse for food when his false friends ran up to him, saying, "Come, you have long enough been emperor."

Perceiving that treachery was intended, be drew his pistol and fired at his foes, shattering the arm of the foremost. The others seized and bound him and conveyed him to Goroduk in the Ural, the locality of Antizof's tribe. Michelson was still seeking him in the desert when word came to him that the fugitive had been delivered into Russian hands at Simbirsk, and was being conveyed to Moscow in an iron cage, like the beast of prey which he resembled in character.

On the way be sought to starve himself, but was forced to eat by the soldiers. On reaching Moscow he counterfeited madness. His trial was conducted without the torture which had formerly been so common a feature of Russian tribunals. The sentence of the court was that he should be exhibited to the people with his hands and feet cut off, and then quartered alive. With unyielding resolution Pugatchef awaited this cruel death, but the sentence, for some reason, was not executed, he being first beheaded and then quartered. Four of his principal followers suffered the same fate, and thus ended one of the most determined efforts on the part of an impostor to seize the Russian throne that had ever been known. The undoubted courage of the man was enough to prove that he was not Peter III. Had he combined military capacity with his daring he could readily have won the throne.