Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Down the Volga - Marq de Villiers 1991

There are many stereotypes and misconceptions about Kazan Tatars in the excerpt below, but there is a benefit to awareness of the non-Tatar perception. What have they been taught and mis-taught? How much has Kazan and Tatarstan changed since Gorbachev and 1991?

Kilometer 1,750


"I woke up in the morning on the Rus and we were in Kazan. The previous night, as the boat plowed steadily eastward past Marinnskii Posad, past Volzhsk and Zelenodolsk, I lay in my bunk reading about Ivan the Terrible and his capture of Kazan in the sixteenth century, a story of heroism, cunning and great barbarity. Ivan had caused the best carpenters of Uglich, a thousand kilometers away, to construct a fort, which they floated down the Volga and erected across from the Tartar headquarters, where the Kazanka and Volga Rivers joined. Ivan brought with him as a lucky talisman the cross of Dmitri Donskoy, the thirteenth-century Moscow prince who had become the archetypal Russian hero by actually defeating the Golden Horde in battle, and at the end of September he began his assault.

His imported fortress was thrown up overnight, held together by wooden pegs; the army, which had come separately by land from Moscow with Ivan himself at its head, was immense, more than a hundred thousand men under arms; it stormed the Tartar stronghold, took the citadel, massacred all the males (he didn't have time for his favorite sport, impaling, so he contented himself with evisceration followed by a messy beheading). He enslaved the women, first turning them over to his soldiers, then passing them to the slave factors from the East. Most of the small children were butchered - too much trouble to do anything else with them. The mosques were pulled down, the fortress razed and the Tartar remnants scattered. Well, it wasn't as if the Horde didn't have it coming. The Horde had indulged in its own atrocities; by the time the great Tartar leader Tamerlane died in 1405, towns from Hormuz in India to Chistopol on the Volga lay in ruins for defying him, ruins marked by towers made from the skulls of his victims.

To celebrate his famous victory, Ivan built the Cathedral of St. Basil in Moscow's Red Square, now the backdrop for tourist snaps, its candy-cane domes and towers twinkling in the thin Moscow sunlight. The legend has it that Ivan put out the eyes of his master builder so he'd never be able to duplicate the cathedral's magnificence. No one knows if it's true, but it would have been perfectly in character. Whenever Ivan was drunk thereafter, which was often, he'd sing a song about the conquest of Kazan and Astrakhan.

I pushed aside the curtains in my cabin and stared outside at an altogether more prosaic sight. Two of the American tourists padded by in their slippers on their morning jog; on the embankment below, the old women were slowly sweeping several acres of tarmac with birch brooms. We were moored in front of the Kazan river terminal building, an edifice in white stone and glass, with Tartar motifs picked out in the stone and the name Kazan in Rued on the top in Russian and Tartar. There was no other sign of activity. The inevitable row of small kiosks, for beer, candies and newspapers, had been set up behind the terminal building, surrounding its parking lot. Only the newsstand was open, and I went down to buy my usual guides to a new town: the local newspapers and a street map. I sat on a bench to read Kazanskaya Pravda while I waited for breakfast to be served on board. There was a strong editorial opinion on page one in support of Lithuania's demands for independence; and there was a photograph of a demonstration that had taken place the previous day in favor of "Tartar self-sufficiency". So, I thought, the long fight still isn't over. Olearius reported that Kazan "lies most picturesquely 7 versts inland from the Volga, on several hills. The surrounding plain is inundated in the spring by the Volga and the river Kazan." He visited the city to see what he could buy, but found nothing at the market except some fruits, especially melons as large as pumpkins, and old, putrid fish "that gave off a stench so foul we were unable to go by it without holding our nose." The city is now perched on the banks of the river itself, the spring flooding controlled by the dams of the Volga Cascade. I visited the same market Olearius did, and though I found no melons, pumpkin-sized or smaller, I found the same putrid fish and held my nose just as Olearius did. The locals were amused. The "putridness" was deliberate; this fish was a local delicacy, akin the infamous Bombay Duck of India.

In the countryside, in these post-Ivan centuries, there are now only ghosts of Tartar greatness, ruined places and secret shrines where Tartars gather in summer, hidden by the trees from prying Russian eyes, a pathetic remnant of a proud people making pilgrimages to the burial places of their heroes. Such places existed in Olearius's time, and they still do. One was the ruin of an old Tartar town, now in the middle of a copse on a kolkhoz, and Kazan Tartars visit it at midsummer. A group of students took me there one morning for lunch; to them, unlike the country folk the mood of the place is no longer nostalgic or sad; it's just a place for picnics. I saw nothing much, only grass tufts where cold stone had been and a glade where traders had bargained, trading kumquat preserves for intricate carvings from Kosmodemyansk.

Tartar history has become mere legend, and the "wild saints of Batu" the mythical heroes the Horde carried into battle, are dressed up in picturesque detail to populate the stories of children; there are sporadic though feeble efforts to recapture the heroic moods of old; most of the Tartars have grievances against the Russians, but more of them share grievances against the Russians, but more of the Tartars have grievances against the Russians, but more of them share grievances with the Russians against Center, against the system, the apparat, against those who'd keep them down, against the bureaucrats who are blamed form the impoverishment of a proud people and the denuding of a fertile land. I sat with a man on the Volga embankment later, and he told me stories of the old days, how they'd pulled sturgeon from the Volga, three, four, five meters long - "one fish would be enough for a boatload of people for a whole journey," he said. "There are no fish like that any more. There's nothing like that any more."
"Well," I said, "I don't think this has much to do with Center. This has to do with the modern world. It's the same in our country." He didn't want to hear this. Center was the villain. Gorbachev and his people. Communists. I didn't know what the Russian was for "bum rap" so I let it go.

I'd spent a few hours earlier in the day at Kazan University. I knew it was the oldest in the Soviet Union (founded in 1804), that it had a strong English faculty and a powerful Green movement. But mostly I wanted to get a fix on Kazan and Tartar history.

Kazan historians, both Russian and Tartar, are scornful of the skulls-and-pillage popular image of the Mongol invaders. The stories of Tartar atrocities are mostly unreliable folk memories, fed by centuries of xenophobia and paranoia. Yet they themselves seem to recount the more lurid tales with some delight, so perhaps the revisionism needs revision too. In any case, when the first outriders of the Mongol empire under Batu appeared abruptly in European Russian in 1223, they swept all before them. The Russian principalities of the time were in a state of political anarchy. Kiev was in chaos. Petty dynastic quarrels between princes and dukes were frequent. The towns of the region were constantly at war, and they relied on a poorly equipped and ill-trained peasant militia that was no match for the skillful bowmen of Asia; it's not surprising that after Kiev and Vladimir and Suzdal fell without a struggle to the invaders, the Golden Horde was regarded by its opponents with superstitious awe; the hail of arrows that opened Russia to Mongol conquest must have seemed like a miraculous and deadly rain, and the wielders of the bows appeared as devils incarnate. Batu ranged along the Volga, upstream to the old Bulgar country of the Kama and trading town of Bolgari. His camp near the mouth of the Volga later came to be Sarai the Great, the capital of all the Horde.

The revisionist view of Russian-Mongol relations is somewhat different. It's accepted that Batu sacked Kiev in 1240 and left only two hundred houses standing of a city that had at the time made Paris seem like a primitive village. But , in the Kazan view, Muscovite apologists and monastic sources grotesquely over-estimated the destructiveness of the first raids, and at the same time over-sold the bravery of the resistance. The invaders were mostly interested in trade, not conquest, in facilitating and reviving trade routes that had been lost, and it was control of these routes they were after. A more cold-blooded look at the history traces the network of alliances the invader made, not only among the Muslim merchants working the upper Volga but among the Russian princelings themselves. Most of the occupied cities prospered under the Horde; and the new centers, such as Moscow and Tver, flourishes. In the Kazan view, the Tartars never tried to impose alien rule or foreign princes on the Russian people.

Some Tartar revisionists go further. They delight in describing in great detail the centuries of petty treacheries that were the daily lot of Russian towns. Twice in one afternoon I was asked if I understood how the Muscovite princes had allied themselves with the Tartars to impose their hegemony on Russia. Had I heard this? Did I know the details? No? Then they repeated the story I'd already heard in Tver of how Alexandr, the ruler of that city, was murdered by Ivan Moneybags of Moscow, who had enlisted the Horde as allies. This, I was told with an air of great satisfaction, was an absolutely typical story. It was how many Russian cities got where they were. It was how Moscow got where it is today...

The Khanate of Kazan, the rump that Ivan the Terrible conquered, was formed as a result of the disintegration of the Golden Horde. In 1437 Ula Mehmet was ousted from the Sarai Horde and started his own Khanate, building at Kazan the greatest fortress between Moscow and the Urals, with thirty thousand men in its garrison. Ivan the Terrible sacked it in 1552. And since then the Tartars, once feared as "Gog and Magog, devils incarnate, agents of Satan, as cruel as the wind," have been quiescent.

That morning I'd taken a three-hour tour of the city by bus. Our guide, Boris, was hired by Intourist as a freelancer. He wasn't really a tour guide but a cartoonist, photographer, English instructor and musician, and planned to set himself up in business teaching English and conducting tourists around town. He gave me a book called Places Associated With Lenin on the Volga which he himself called "a good example of Red propaganda." And indeed that's what it was, a panegyric to the Great Leader, couched in those familiar prefabricated phrases that make thinking unnecessary. Boris was a Tartar, though he only wore his black-and-white Tartar cap after he got to know us, and looked otherwise completely Russian.

We started at the Kremlin, which a copy of kremlins elsewhere; it could easily have been in Kostroma, or Yaroslavl, and had nothing in it of the Mongol. Its' most interesting building is the Zuyembeka Tower, which is a red-brick confection 70 meters high. There's a legend attached to it, of course; it's said that the Princess Zuyembeka, in despair at the sacking of her native city, sprang from its height to her death on the stones below. Like many such legends, it contains a grain of truth: the princess had gone to Moscow to the court of the Tsars (Ivan the Terrible having invented the title) to plead for her patrimony; she'd been seduced by the decadent court life there, and never returned.

Boris was a fount of useful and trivial information. There's a factory outside town that makes jet planes. The oil pipeline to Berlin crosses the Volga here; it's called the Friendship Pipeline (although maybe the Fraternal Socialist Countries, as they used to be called, don't see it that way any more, since part of Gorbachev's economic reforms were to make them pay for Soviet oil in hard currency, which meant a billion-ruble windfall for the Soviet economy and hardship for the Europeans). The region near Kazan is semi-desert, with primitive, scattered villages and few cities. There are not many real Tartars left. Boris told me that the Russians lied when they maintained that the Tartars of the Crimea had offered to collaborate with Hitler and kill all the Russians. "They were supposed to have sent a letter to Hitler. This is another of Stalin's fabrications." The Tartar language, which is Turkic in origin, has been transliterated into a peculiar mix of Cyrillic and Mongolian. Steak Tartare is not a dish you find on any Kazan menu. Kazan is now on the banks of the Kuibyshev Sea, which backs up almost to the walls of the kremlin. There are picturesque hills on the right bank. The Kazan means "border of state" in Tartar. Pugachev the Rebel tried to capture it and failed. And so on and so on and so on... Boris, words finally failing him, resorted to poetry to show his affection for his city.

Kazan saddened me. It has its university and its symphony orchestra, its theaters and its houses of culture, and the people I met are so desperately proud of them. The citizens of Kazan are trying their best to preserve what they have, with pitifully few resources. There's an ordinance forbidding high rises on the main street that runs from the kremlin to the university, and the civic authorities have designated a "cottage belt" around the central core in which the old wooden houses will be protected, as a souvenir of the ancient days. There's scaffolding on many of the monuments, but there's no work being done: there's not enough money. This place is so poor! Walking past these little log and wood houses, with their peeling paint, their doors and sills sagging, their roofs bowed, I found it hard to imagine that there was enough money in the world to fix it up, to put it back together.

There were flowers in small pots in the windows, and little collections of objets. One of these weary houses must have contained the brothel where Tolstoy lost his virginity, to his own great shame and disgust. Many revolutionaries and writers lived in lodgings nearby. Maybe they still did. I felt excluded and, for the first time, lonely. who knows what secret life these houses contained?

I walked down from the kremlin walls to the main shopping street, called Baumann after one of the early Bolsheviks. As usual, the stores were four-firths empty and the shortages were severe. Meat, at 3.60 rubles a kilo, was scarce. There was some fruit juice and a few sausages, but not much else. There was no fish anywhere, not even the stinking delicacy found in the market. Kazan calls itself the center of the Soviet fur industry, and there were plenty of fur hats for sale, at prices ranging from 20 rubles for rabbit to 500 rubles for something I didn't recognize, a pale gray fur, silky smooth. Muskrat was selling for 200 rubles , about $20. There was a long line of women in front of a clothing store. Bras, I was told. Just as in Tutaev, women were lining up a hundred deep to buy bras, anxiously pushing forward, fearful that the precious supply would be gone before they reached the head of the queue.

That afternoon I went with the tour group from the Rus to a concert at the Kazan conservatory, the orchestra performing variations on Russian and Tartar national songs. The soloists, some of whom were very good, were from the conservatory and the Kazan opera; they appeared in tails and formal wear; the orchestra was in "national" costume, which appeared mostly to be Russian. Maybe it was my mood, but I wondered, not for the first time, why all the Russian folk songs were so sad. And why do the few happy ones make the Russians weep?

The next day I left the tourists to Boris and slipped back to the university in the center of town. I'd heard it described as somber and neoclassical, "like a Midwestern American college, " but I didn't find it somber. The library building was a baroque confection with intricate wrought-iron balconies; only the main lecture hall is at all sober; It's where Lenin studied, and the school governors preserve it as it was when he was there, "as a monument to the Great Brain of Simbirsk" (a phrase from one of the Kazan students.). The students pay little attention to this monument.

Leo Tolstoy was a student here in the 1840's, long before Lenin's father pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from the slums of Astrakhan; Tolstoy studied in Kazan for five years before he decided the professors were ignoramuses and he returned to his estates. Lenin never actually graduated from Kazan; he was expelled from taking part in a student demo (and for refusing to recant). Gorky had come here from Nizhni Novgorod, but the university refused to admit him, so he lived in cheap rooming houses with the Volga roustabouts and whores as his teachers; his lodgings were filled with revolutionary students who were in ferment over the need to throw all aside in a great frenzy ... Gorky loved them all.

"We have a reputation to uphold," on the of students told me as we sat on the edge of a monument in a park across from the main university building. His English was excellent, flawless, his accent British "from the films," as he put it. " A reputation for radicalism for revolution; though our professors of course believe we have only to study the revolutions of the past, not to make one of our own..."

He and his friends had gone to the demo the previous day for Tartar self-sufficiency, but he hadn't been impressed. "It's all romanticism." he said "No rigor on their part. Only anger."

I asked him what he and his fellows believed. "We're not revolutionaries in the way Ulyanov was," he said, deliberately avoiding the name Lenin. "We're part of a much larger movement that cannot be called a revolution. Revolutions are made by conspirators, bomb throwers, cadres; revolutions lead to Stalin. We want none of this. We're part of amass movement away from violence, force, insistence ... We're not stoppable. We'll never have to fight. We're the future___"

"Yes,yes," I said, interrupting the flow, "but what changes are you looking for?"

"Devolution," he said. "You know the term? It's English, I think. Not separatism. A Commonwealth of Soviet Nations. We want the British idea with the West European reality. Little Belgiums, everywhere , with their own languages and their own customs, and no one to bully them, in cooperation with other..."

"Begium has severe racial and language problems," I said.

He waved me aside impatiently. "They're overcoming them," he said. "But all right, take Holland as our model. Why cannot the Tartars be like Holland?"

That was a tough one to answer, images of Tamerlane and jolly Queen Juliana jostling in my mind... So I said nothing. Why not West Europe indeed? Sovereignty-association, to use a cliche closer to my own home, from Quebec, is not an ignoble idea, taking for granted as it does that tolerance would be exercised on both sides. "Do you think the ethnic Romanians of Moldavia will accept a peaceful accommodation?" I asked. "Or angry minorities elsewhere in your country?"

"That's what we believe. When we've won they will."

Three or four more students joined us. They were all part of the English faculty, and I gave up attempting to speak Russian -- they were much more fluent in English than I'd ever be in their language.

I asked them what relationships between the Tartars and Russians were like. "how many of you are Tartars?"

There was only one. He looked Russian to me. I asked him about that.

"Centuries of mixing have taken place," he said. "That should tell you something about how we get on."

They wanted me to come that night to a meeting at one of their professors' flats to draw up an agenda for "Green action"; they were trying to set up links with Western ecology activists , so far without much success. "We have no money and no access to technology. But we'd like to take part in the international movement." I declined. I knew I'd have to return to the ship, which would depart later that night, and I wanted to explore the city a little more.

I walked back to the kremlin, and with some difficulty clambered on to one of the ramparts overlooking the Volga below. I peered across the river, trying to imagine the armies of Ivan the Terrible massed on the other side. It was hopeless. This was no longer the Volga but the Kuibyshev Sea; Kazan had been kilometes from the water in those days. Still, Ivan fascinated me, as he did all the Russians - the first Tsar to rule all the Russians, ...the madman, the first of ...so many mad fools...

It was Boris, something of an Ivan fan, who told me that "Terrible" was in fact not a very good translation of Ivan Grozni, his name in Russian: grozni can just as easily mean awesome, or awe-inspiring, formidable. "But I suppose he was terrible enough , so no one will change it now." Ivan was born in 1530, and ruled until he died in 1584. He came to power in a century that was cruel to Russia, beset as it was with wars and invasions on all sides. "It was from this," Boris said, "from these hammer blows, from these hatreds and invasions and cruelties, that Russia was formed. Is it any wonder Russia came to believe in a national dictatorship?"

Enormous resources were poured into these wars. The hundred thousand men Ivan took to Kazan were not his largest army. There were up to three hundred thousand men under arms in some of his western campaigns. Every year the provinces were expected to provide sixty-five thousand new recruits, numbers that are not so very different from those of modern armies. They were paid for by landowners, who in turn taxed their peasants and serfs. Bankruptcies mounted until at times the whole country seemed on the point of economic collapse.

Ivan's first marriage was long and apparently happy. His wife was Anastasia Zakharina-Kobila, from whose family the Romanovs would later come. She died, and Ivan never quite recovered. He married five more times before the end, each union short-lived and filled with turmoil and brutality.

In his last years madness began to overtake him. He was no longer satisfied just to be Tsar of all Russians, governing a huge empire through his bureaucrats. He wanted to sweep away all opposition, and in the presence of the gentry, the boyars and the nobles, he sensed an opposing power. Out of this paranoia came his decision to set up what was in effect a parallel government, separating the country into a portion for the state and a portion as his own personal fief. This division came to be called the oprichnina, "the apart," a word that derives from the concept of a widow's portion of an estate.

This lunatic scheme was imposed with great ruthlessness on the country. His oprichnik enforcers rode black horse and wore black clothing; they carried a dog's head at the saddle and a broom as their emblem, and their business was terror and murder; it's no accident that Stalin's infamous police under Beria were sometimes called the oprichniki. Ivan even set up a tame Tartar on the throne of the "rest" of Russia; everyone who disagreed with him, however mildly, was taken to the dungeons, tortured and thrown to the dogs. At one point he suspected that the city of Novgorod had done a deal behind his back with the Poles (a suspicion completely unfounded). He took his oprichnik army there and threw whole families into the river, stationing officers in rowboats to push them under until they drowned. Later he sent a letter to the survivors: "Men of Novgorod who are left alive, pray God for our religious sovereign power, for victory over all visible and invisible foes."

Soon afterward he killed his cousin, then he beat his wife insensible and killed his son and heir with a blow from his staff... After this he slept no more and spent his nights howling thorough the palace, until he died in despair in 1584, to the great relief of the country and especially of the people who surrounded him.

Their relief was short-lived. The Time of Troubles followed, for Ivan had killed his legitimate heir and left only the feeble Fedor in Moscow to succeeed him, and little Dmitri in Uglich...

The invasions of the Tartars were forgotten in all this chaos, and they subsided back into the long ethnic slumber from which they have not yet arisen.

People in Kazan, Tartars and non-Tartars, had insisted that Kazan was a seat of Inter-ethnic harmony. Despite these assurances, Kazan was the other place I was warned about in Gorky. The previous day's demonstration in the town square by militant Tartars pushing for an independent Tartar republic had drawn an approving mention in Kazanskaya Pravda, together with ta front-page photograph, but it had attracted only a few hundred people, many of them jeering Russians. A number of the students had confirmed that there was gang warfare in Kazan, warfare more violent than Gorky's Only some of it, they said was traceable to Russian-Tartar tension. Much of it seemed to be Tartar gangs fighting each other, and was generated by nihilistic attitudes among the young who have no faith in the system. For the several days I spent in Kazan I was watchful and wary, but I have no firsthand evidence of clashes.

Only once did I become really nervous, when I spotted an unruly group of young men, yelling and shoving one another and heading my way. I ducked into the nearest doorway; it turned out to be the baking operation of a bread shop and was filled with burly women in white smocks and headdresses kneading massive lumps of dough. There was a wonderful smell. To their indignant inquiries at my intrusion I used the word khoolighani (hooligans), which is archaic but the only word I could dredge up to cover the case. That they responded at once, one of them slamming the heavy door and ramming home a massive bolt, made me thing there was something to these stories. The women were solicitous. They made sure the coast was clear before they let me out, and insisted I take a loaf of bread hot from the oven. Solicitous, but also amused by my folly.


Kuiibyshev sits on a great horn of land that juts into the Kuibyshev Sea at its narrowest point, where the sea is only about 10 kilometres across . This is the Kuibyshev that until 1935 used to be called Spassk-Tatarskii, not the much larger Kuibyshev further down the river, which was renamed Samara after aI left; the old Bolshevik V.V. Kuibyshev had been Party boss in Samara at the time of the Revolution, and there are busts of his sever and overstuffed form all over this district. It seemed somewhat excessive to name two towns after him, but I wasn't going to argue the point. I wasn't much interested in Spassk-Tatarskii itself (even the Rechflot guidebook had little to say about it, except tha it was " a city in the Tartar ASSR, founded in 1781:).

But on the outskirts of the town, on the north flank of the horn facing towards Kazan, was the site of the ancient city of Bolgari, which had been the capital of the Bolgar state from the tenth century until the coming of Ivan the Terrible. At its height, it had been a city of internationally minded merchants, who'd taken on themselves the responsibility of keeping open the trading routes of European Russia.

I found an old man who agreed to take me to Bolgari in his little outboard. I stowed my bags with his family and we packed a picnic lunch, setting off around noon. I was the fourth tourist he'd shown around, he told me. "Rush hour in Bolgari," I said , but traffic jams hadn't made their way into the consciousness of the citizens of Kuibyshev, and the phrase didn't mean anything to him. The other three were all writers, he said. One was French, the other two English.

There was nothing very much to be seen at Bolgari except a few ramshackle buildings and the detritus of a major achaeological dig. Clearly its workers were on leave, for there was no one around. "Usually there are many experts here,"the old man said, disappointed. "They find all kinds of rubbish that they take to their museums." We sat on the shore and stared northward over the sea that had once been a river, and I tried to picture the dumpy Turkish trading vessels at anchor, and the sleek ships of the Vikings, which had made their way to Bolgari as early as the tenth century. (peremech lounge editor note: WOW THE RACISM) A merchant from the Levant, Ibn Fad'len, took home a desciption of the Viking primitives "as tall as date palms, red in hue"; the Vikings frightened everybody with their wild ways, filled with violence, sacrifices and urgent sexuality, and the city was relieved when they headed back north to whatever savage place they'd come from.

We were joined on the bank by a couple of fishermen from a kolkhoz on the other side of the volga, each with a homemade rod of wilow and a jar orf worms. They sprawled on the grass near us, each accepting a cigarette as his due, and stared out of the corner of their eyes, looking away whenever I glanced at them. They both wore padded jackets of some rough blue material, denim trousers and heavy farm boots. Their faces were round and florid, sly and calculating.

So much has been written about the Russian peasant! This slow moving, cautious, suspicious personage has dominated the thinking of the Russian intelligentsia for centuries, and his freedom has been the main burden of revolutionary politics since the Decemberists in the Napoleonic period. In an odd way the peasant, the "rural population, " still dominates Russian thinking. The journalists on the Novosti Express had been fascinated by peasants, if somewhat repelled; peasant traits had been a frequent topic of conversation.

I looked at the two kolkhozniks again. they were supposed to be working on the farm but were "ill" this day. Their faces were closed, neither hostile nor friendly. They said little, keeping their own counsel. Serfdom, I reflected, is only four generations removed. One of the prime purposes of the Bolshevik Revolution was the liberation of the rural workers. They were to be the backbone of the State. And here they were, taking their ease. I wondered how the peasantry's legendary evasiveness squared with the face that the New Politics appealed directly to their self-interest through the insidious medium of television... The peasants have taken what they want before; they're a powerful weapon for any politician who dares to unleash them.

On an impulse, I asked, "Didn't Stenka Razin operate around here somewhere?"

Razin was a renegade Cossack and peasant rabblerouser, and his revolt represented an early battle in the long war between bosses and peasants, the war that was supposed to end with the Bolshevik Revolution.

"Yes," the old man said, "he sailed past this place to burn Kazan."

He lit another cigarette. The two kolkhozniks lay back on the grass and snoozed, their rods weighted down with rocks, their hooks, unbaited, left in the water just in case.

From the 1650s Russia's peasants were always on the verge of ruin, and a bad harvest would bankrupt them. Since they had no legal recourse, flight was their only escape. Some would hide in the woods, others would gather in large bands, still others made their way to the Cossacks. Peasant risings became a kind of background noise, a violent static. In 1664 the Tsar ordered the first national hunt for runaways; these hunts were to be held on and off for another hundred years.

The legendary peasant patience was hardly anywhere in evidence in this period; frequently they murdered their owners, set fire to their houses, "expropriated" their fields. In 1648 there was a tax revolt in Moscow and Tsar Alexis escaped only by surrendering tax officials to the mob. Other tax revolts were reported in provincial cities. War and chaos at Center increased the burden. More and more peasants fled. Large estates became overgrown by forest, as increasing loans at increasing interest rates, impossibly heavy fines and hopelessly un-payable debts were added to the crushing burden of taxation.

With Stepan Timofeyevich ("Stenka") Razin, the notion of class war boiled up from the deep peasant resentments and shook the state. Razin terrorized the Caspian Sea, capturing Russian and Persian ships, murdering their crews and burning ports. Just outside Astrakhan, he seized a flotilla owned by the Tsar. In 1670 he descended on Tsaritsyn with seven thousand followers. Next he sacked Astrakhan. After drunken orgies and many atrocites against nobles and military - reported in Moscow with horrified relish - he murdered the governor and proclaimed Cossack self-rule. He took and burned Samara and Saratov. He looted Kazan and burned it down. He incited the peasantry to revolt against the nobility and the bureaucracy (but not against the Tsar). His revolt spread to the Don and Donets and to the major towns of heartland Russian. He was widely regarded by the common folk as a hero. To some degree he still is....

He was defeated in battle near Simbirsk in 1671 , captured and taken to Moscow. There Tsar Alexis had him tortured, quartered alive and hung outside as a warning. Without him, the revolt collapsed.

Razin's death didn't stop the revolts. In 1705 several new uprisings confronted Peter the Great. The Bashkirs rose on the middle Volga.

...in 1773 Emilian Pugachev incited the greatest uprising in Russian history until the Revolution of 1917. It began in the Ural Mountains and spread rapidly through the impoverished Volga regions of the southeast , around Tsaritsyn and Saratov. By the following summer Pugachev had placed the whole country into an uproar and was marching on Moscow itself. Catherine hastily concluded her warmaking against Turkey and turned her troops on this new and more potent threat.

An illiterate Don Cossack, Pugachev had fought for Russia in the final battles of the Seven Years Way (1756-63) in Poland. He returned home as an invalid. For three years after his recovery he wandered among the people of the Old Believers, absorbing their mystical and stubborn oppositionism. The Cossacks around the Yaik River on the lower Volga revolted against attempts to tie them to the land; Pugachev, following their lead, stirred up the Cossacks in Uralsk. He was arrested, imprisoned at Kazan and deported to Siberia. Through the complicity of his guards he escaped, and in 1773 he reappeared on the Volga. There as "Tsar Peter III," he "decreed" the abolition of serfdom and soon gathered an immense following of Cossacks, peasants, mina and factory workers, Old Believer clergy and dissident Bashkirs, still seething from their failed revolt against Peter the Great. Pugachev was defeated by a force sent by Catherine, but he regrouped and burned Kazan, captured Saratov and besieged Tsaritsyn. Finally, General Suvorov captured him and sent him to Moscow for execution.

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