This is Part 6 of Catherine the Great. Catherine II, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the most known and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries. I hope you enjoy!
Catherine II may have taken the throne, but there were plenty of usurpers lurking throughout her empire. The new empress would crush several rebellions and prevent countless coups, many pathetic, to keep herself within the palace.
One could easily call the early days of Catherine’s reign as relatively unstable. Perhaps the only two reasons the people of Russia didn’t immediately call for Catherine to give up the throne were the unpopular opinions of Peter III and the fact that Catherine had issued 40,000 soldiers to patrol the streets.
It became clear that people were against a woman, especially the wife of Peter III, controlling the country. While Catherine did influence European powers almost immediately, her progressive platforms were put on hold to track down and execute threats to her new regime.
Catherine was clever, dealing with situations on a ground-breaking level to showcase herself as a powerful yet progressive autocrat within a nation that was dying for order and for newly established power. Overtime, the people would lose their gripes over their leader not being a male – just as they had under Elizabeth and the previous Catherine I beforehand.
As we discussed before, Ivan VI – the poor sap who had been imprisoned as a baby by Empress Elizabeth – had been executed so he could not become some namesake or martyr for any attempted coup. But…there’s someone Catherine couldn’t really kill (again, that is) who could very well lead a coup of their own. Dozens of men across Western Russia began claiming themselves as the dead and unpopular Peter III.
That’s right: despite Peter III’s body laying out for quite some time, many riff-raffs and peasants claimed to be the living and breathing Peter of Holstein-Gottorp. Each one of them were the same as the last. They were disgruntled with Russian society, desperate for money and power, and easily able to manipulate people who felt similar. It was no longer a “Peter III was unpopular, so we should deal with Catherine now” sort of strategy. With rumors flying around that Peter had been killed by Catherine, the tradition-loving royalists of the Russian public desired to have things “like God intended” if they could be.
Perhaps the most famous false Peter was a man named Yemelyan Pugachev, who in 1773 identified himself as the late Tsar Peter III.
He was perhaps the most successful false Peter of them all, being able to create an armed rebellion coming close to seizing actual power.
Pugachev had been the son of a small Don Cossack landowner, the youngest in his family who would go on to inherit the least amount of household dignity.
He had grown up rather spiteful, and encouraged himself to “be someone”. Unable to find a purpose for the most part, Pugachev had signed up for military service at the younger age of 17.
He served in the Second Russian Army within Prussia during the Seven Years’ War, and it was during this time that Pugachev became accredited as a rather intelligent and well-identified military careers-man. However, Pugachev didn’t really think of the military the same way the military thought of him.
In 1770, Pugachev requested to abandon his post and return home to recover from a serious “illness”. He later sought after permanent discharge after refusing to listen to military commanders pleas to just stick around at the infirmaries owned by the men at the front lines.
He ran away from the military outposts, joining a group of Cossack men who were dissatisfied with the ways of life. They began heading eastward towards an independent community on the stereo River.
Although he would return to his home town of Zimoveyskaya, the other men in the fleeing group were trapped by authorities and imprisoned. Pugachev’s brother in law, a man by the name of Pavlov, sold him out while in prison. It was now known that Pugachev was a deserter, and he was promptly arrested.
Pugachev was tricky, escaping prison after only forty-eight hours of monitoring his surroundings. Branded as a deserter with nowhere to return to, Pugachev began his new life as a fugitive to the Russian Empire.
During the first six weeks of his escape, the idea of impersonating Peter III became more or less of a feverish obsession. Many other men, such as Fedot Bogmolov, had tried to make such claims in the recent past, and the initially disgruntled Russians who still felt uncomfortable with Catherine II desired a return to “official” politics.
Pugachev managed to rile people, especially the Cossacks, behind him. Thanks to the olden days of royal class separation, many people in Russian — especially peasants and serfs — had no idea what Peter III had actually looked like. The historical details of Pugachev having a strong resemblance to the late Tsar is mythological at best. The legends of Pugachev’s journey as a reborn Peter III shroud his actual historical details and data.
The famous fake Peter told tales of how he had escaped the “evil clutches” of the “abhorrent” Catherine II. From there, it was easy to build up an army. His excellent use of propaganda mixed with recruitment policies and the promises of reform. Pugachev hired men to be generals in his acquired army — and these men were actually able to overrun and control a major region between the Urals and the Volga River.
This army, later going down in history as The Pugachev Rebellion, was a thorn in Catherine II’s side for years. It forced her to put aside many of her progressive reformations just to simply keep the balance of her power away from this deserter turned liar.
But regardless, Catherine was able to crush the treasonous attempts much like she had done with many of the smaller attempts prior. Pugachev had remained an enemy of the state, considered a menace and actual threat to the throne, until he was crushed in battle in 1774.
He was put on trial in 1775, where he was sentenced to be drawn and quartered in a horrific death that seemed too barbaric for Catherine II, who rejected the court’s decision and replaced Pugachev’s death sentence with a simple beheading. Thus is the end for the man who called himself Peter III.
That concludes part six of this special little miniseries about Catherine the Great. You can click here for the archives of this miniseries, which will be updated when the next post is published.