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The Pugachev Rebellion

Emelian Pugachev

Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev

The tranquility in the German colonies was shattered in the summer of 1773 by one of the greatest peasant revolts in Russian history.  The Don Cossack, Emelian Pugachev, led the insurrection, posing as an escaped and still reigning true Tsar of Russia, Peter III, who intended to punish his wife Catherine II.  He promised freedom from serfdom and taxation and called for the extermination of civil officials and landlords.  Within months the rebellion attracted thousands of serfs, factory workers and miners, Old Believers, Tatar's, Bashkirs, and others who descended in a massive campaign southeast from Petrovsk toward Saratov in the first week of August 1774.  On August 5, the German colony of Jagodnaja Poljana was attacked, three men were captured and later whipped to death.  The following day Saratov was taken and the rebels ransacked the city, opening prisons, government storehouses and executing captured aristocrats and officials whose bodies Pugachev ordered left unburied.  After three days he led his forces down along the west bank of the Volga through the German villages which he left ravaged and in ashes.

Many settlers fled to hide in the countryside, burying what few valuables they possessed while others remained in the villages.  One such individual, Johann Wilhelm Stärkel, great-grandfather of Reverend Stärkel who was a leading figure in the later pietistic movement, was seized by Pugachev's men when the entered the colony of Norka. Along with others he was forced to drive the rebels' stolen wagons to a point near Kamyshin and later miraculously escaped. Continuing to sweep southward, the main force under Pugachev passed through Dönhof and approached Kratzke where cellars, and clay pits and even wells were filled with all kinds of property and strewn with earth. The cattle were driven into the forests and canyons or tied among the reeds and rushes of the river.

A young man, hiding with others in the garret of the Kratzke schoolhouse, later related how Pugachev arrived in front of the school in a heavily escorted carriage and promptly had a gallows erected from two long poles and a crossbeam.  Four bound prisoners on horseback were led in and beaten, then hung in pairs on two ropes thrown over the crossbeam.  The grim scene was repeated many times as surviving colonists recalled the times when at night the horizon was bright with the lurid flames of destruction in the villages.  Pugachev was finally defeated by government forces south of Sarepta and was later captured following his betrayal by fellow rebels.  He was taken to Moscow where after a trial, he was executed.

Pugachev Marches Through Norka

After looting Saratov, Pugachev went on to Kamyshin and Tsaritsyn (Note: The city of Tsaritsyn was later named Stalingrad and is currently known as Volgograd). His route did not lie along the Astrakhan track, as is commonly accepted. Pugachev avoided routes where he might be ambushed, and he maintained some distance from the Volga, where boats might catch him. Instead, he went through the German colonies and villages along this approximate route: Rybushka, Norka, Splavnukha, Popovka, Gololobovka, Karamyshevka, Makarovka, Pochinnaya, Ust-Gryznukha, Kamenka, Verkhnaya Kulalinka, Verkhnaya Dobrinka, Nizhnaya Dobrinka and Kamyshin. The latter part of Pugachev's route is unquestioned because he tried to go through those settlements where there were sufficient people, horses and food. He did not go through today's Ilavlya Volost, along which lay the Astrakhan track, because the tract was completely unpopulated and was settled only during the 1850's.

The testimony of eyewitnesses who encountered Pugachev in Norka, Gololobovka and Pochinnaya also confirms this route. Norka colonist, Johann Wilhelm Sterkel (great-grandfather of Norka pastor Wilhelm Staerkel) reported the following:

Pugachev entered Norka in 1774 and demanded that people with carts transfer his booty to the closest town. By lot, Sterkel was among those carters, and he was to carry the treasury. Instead of the nearest town, he was forced to go even farther to a village not far from Kamyshin, where he was commanded to bury the treasure in a hidden place. Sterkel and his companions were to have done this under the observation of Pugachev atamans because the carters were wisely promised rewards. That evening they were actually given a handsome amount of money, but they were not allowed to return home. A drunken orgy began, during which some Russian woman went to Sterkel and whispered to him: "You, Saxon, try to get out here, because they want to hang you tonight." Seized by terror, Sterkel snuck away from the company unnoticed and hid under a barrel in a cellar. The rebels soon noticed his absence and several people began to search for the fugitive to kill him. They approached the cellar, stuck their long pikes into it, but the barrel saved him. His pursuers departed, convinced of his absence. Sterkel spent all night in the cellar, not emerging until mid-day. The first thing he saw filled him with horror; the corpse of his companion hung from the gates.

Pugachev raid

Drawing of Pugachev and his followers terrorizing a village.

The same fate had also awaited him in order to keep secret the location of the buried treasure. Convinced that Pugachev's people had left the village, Sterkel escaped from the very place which had almost become his grave.. Beyond the village, he caught one of the horses wandering there, and he galloped to his own village. But the next day he again encountered one of the remaining Pugachev detachments, where he was again detained. How this happened remains unclear. Sterkel was not able to leave the camp because the detachment was attacked by government forces and there began a disorderly route leaving many dead and wounded behind. Among the latter was Sterkel, who a Don Cossack had deeply wounded in the shoulder, which prevented him from escaping. Sterkel fell to the ground and played dead.

While Mikhelson and his troops pursued the fugitives, officers with a small detachment remained behind to bury the dead and care for the wounded. The Cossacks simply finished off the wounded. A Cossack approached Sterkel and raised his pike to deliver the final blow, but the wounded man jumped up and tore the pike from the hands of the amazed Cossack. The officer who witnessed this scene rode up to see what was wrong. Sterkel noted the Cossack's intent and prayed for mercy because he had only be chance and against his will fallen into Pugachev's band. He promised to show where the treasure was. The officer agreed to grant him life and to do all possible to alleviate the situation. Whether or not the treasure was found and delivered to Mikhelson, we have no information. It is reliably known only that Sterkel and the remaining Pugachev prisoners were taken to Tsaritsyn and locked in prison. His only privilege, compared with the other prisoners, was a larger ration of food. Other prisoners literally starved. All clothing was taken from the prisoners in Tsaritsyn, and they were given prison garb. Sterkel was thus deprived of the significant sum of money sewn into his clothing.

In the Tsaritsyn jail, prisoners starved, and they were kept in terrible conditions for the course of several month, after which they were sent to Saratov on a large barge. Because this route went against the current, the prisoners themselves had to tow the barge. When this difficult and slow journey reached the shores not far from the German colonies, among those towing this clumsy barge were Sterkel and two of his co-colonists, all the time contemplating escape. When the barge touched shore, all three found a pretext to disembark. The barge was barely out of eyesight when they made for the nearby forest, which they successfully reached. Without stopping, the fugitives continued their way, and by mid-day they reached a Russian village where they were welcomed into the peasant hut. Exhausted and starving, they devoured their food and emptied the kettle of hot kasha. They left in fear of further pursuit. But both Sterkel's companions were not destined to reach their native village. they had gone only a short way when both fell down dead. Evidently the hastily consumed hot kasha was deadly to them because of their starvation; their stomachs having become unaccustomed to food. Because of his favorable treatment by the the officer, Sterkel fared better. He survived the food and soon reached the colony of Galka (Ust-Kulalinka), where he had relatives who helped him reach Lesnoi Karamysh. From there, his brother-in-law took Sterkel to Norka, where on one fine day the fugitive returned to his own house after a five month absence.


Jacob E. Dietz, History of the Volga German Colonies (Moscow: Verlag Gotika, 1997, Translated to English by The American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2005), pgs. 84-86.