PERRIE M. The Concept of a ‘Peasant War’ in Soviet and Western Historiography of the ‘Troubles’ in Early 17th-Century and Early 20th-Century Russia

DOI: https://doi.org/10.15688/jvolsu4.2019.2.4

Maureen Perrie

Master of Arts, Emeritus Professor (Russian History),

Centre for Russian, European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), University of Birmingham,

Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom

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https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2325-3564


Abstract. The concept of ‘peasant wars’ in 17th- and 18th-century Russia was borrowed by Soviet historians from Friedrich Engels’ work on the Peasant War in Germany. The four peasant wars of the early modern period were identified as the uprisings led by Ivan Bolotnikov (1606-1607), Sten’ka Razin (1667-1671), Kondratiy Bulavin (1707-1708) and Emel’ian Pugachev (1773-1775). Following a debate in the journal Voprosy istorii in 1958-1961, the ‘first peasant war’ was generally considered to encompass the period c.1603-1614 rather than simply 1606- 1607. This approach recognised the continuities in the events of the early 17th century, and it meant that the chronological span of the ‘first peasant war’ was virtually identical to that of the older concept of the ‘Time of Troubles’. By the 1970s the term, ‘civil wars of the feudal period’ (based on a quotation from Lenin) was sometimes used to define ‘peasant wars’. It was recognised by Soviet historians that these civil wars were very complex in their social composition, and that the insurgents did not exclusively (or even primarily) comprise peasants, with Cossacks playing a particularly significant role. Nevertheless the general character of the uprisings was seen as ‘anti-feudal’. From the 1980s, however, R.G. Skrynnikov and A.L. Stanislavskiy discarded the view that the events of the ‘Time of Troubles’ constituted an anti-feudal peasant war. They preferred the term ‘civil war’, and stressed vertical rather than horizontal divisions between the two armed camps. Western historians, with the notable exception of the American historian Paul Avrich, generally rejected the application of the term ‘peasant wars’ to the Russian uprisings of the early modern period, regarding them as primarily Cossack-led revolts. From the 1960s, however, Western scholars such as Teodor Shanin (following the American anthropologist Eric Wolf) began to use the term ‘peasant wars’ in relation to the role played by peasants in 20th-century revolutionary events such as those in Russia and China. Some of these Western historians, including Avrich and Wolf, used the term not only for peasant actions in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, but also for peasant rebellions against the new Bolshevik regime (such as the Makhnovshchina and the Antonovshchina) that Soviet scholars considered to be counter-revolutionary banditry. The author argues that, in relation to the ‘Time of Troubles’ in early 20th-century Russia, the term ‘peasant war’ is not entirely suitable to describe peasant actions against the agrarian relations of the old regime in 1905 and 1917, since these were generally orderly and non-violent. The term is more appropriate for the anti-Bolshevik uprisings of armed peasant bands in 1918-1921, as suggested by the British historian Orlando Figes.

Key words: Historiography of Russia, ‘Time of Troubles’ in Russia, Friedrich Engels, ‘peasant wars’, Ivan Bolotnikov, R.G. Skrynnikov, A.L. Stanislavskiy, civil wars in Russia, Paul Avrich, Eric Wolf, Teodor Shanin, Orlando Figes, Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Makhnovshchina, Antonovshchina.

Citation. Perrie M. The Concept of a ‘Peasant War’ in Soviet and Western Historiography of the ‘Troubles’ in Early 17th-Century and Early 20th-Century Russia. Vestnik Volgogradskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Seriya 4, Istoriya. Regionovedenie. Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniya [Science Journal of Volgograd State University. History. Area Studies. International Relations], 2019, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 36-43. DOI: https://doi.org/10.15688/jvolsu4.2019.2.4.

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The Concept of a ‘Peasant War’ in Soviet and Western Historiography of the ‘Troubles’ in Early 17th-Century and Early 20th-Century Russia by Perrie M. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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