|peasants||Russian Imperial Army|
|5,000 unarmed protesters|
|Casualties and losses|
|57 or 91 killed, 350 wounded|
1861 Bezdna unrest or Bezdna peasant revolt (Russian: Бездненские волнения, Tatar: Бизнә крәстияннәр кузгалышы) was an unrest of former serfs after the Emancipation reform of 1861 in Russia in April 1861. The events took place in the Spassky Uyezd of Kazan Governorate and the center of unrest was a village of Biznä (Tatar Cyrillic: Бизнә, Russian: Бездна).
Russia After Serfdom
With the Emancipation Reform of 1861 in Russia, Tsar Alexander II and the Russian autocracy put several new alterations into place to help advance Russia past its old traditions of bonded labor and into a more enlightened age similar to the other European nations. But for many noblemen and landlords, the end of serfdom would lead to the destruction of the Russian economy; if landowners and state officials had to start paying for their labor, their profit would significantly diminish. Nonetheless, Alexander knew that it was time to lift the burden of serfdom off of Russia; he was quoted as saying in 1856: “There are rumors that I want to announce the emancipation of the peasants. I will not say to you that I am completely against this. We live in such an age that this has to happen in time. I think that you agree with me. Therefore, it is much better that this business be carried out from above, rather than from below.” In fear of an all out revolt, plans began moving forward to ensure the survival of the autocracy. By early 1861 the Emancipation Manifesto was completed, it contained several statutes that freed serfs from their lords, entitled former serfs to rights that other civilians possessed, and allowed them to purchase lands as well. Unfortunately even these reforms could not grant the peasants the life they desired; many peasants were left homeless and starving because they did not possess money to purchase land, nor could they get paying jobs because of the mass influx of people who now needed paying jobs. It seemed as if nothing would grant these laborers the respect and liberty they had desperately tried to attain. The lower class majority at the time was unable to ascend to the level of the royals and landowners; this caused many peasants to blame the noblemen who made up the tsar’s court, for they are the ones who profited from their indentured labor and lost a cheap labor source when the emancipation went into effect. The former serfs, who had endured the hardship since the birth of the Russian Empire, had been granted bittersweet liberty. The disappointment of the reforms would soon spark an upheaval in the small town of Bezdna only after a month of the manifesto being introduced.
Anton Petrov and the Unrest
The leader of the unrest was a literate peasant Anton Petrov. Petrov inspired the local peasants within the Kazan Governorate in what some historian consider the “most significant incident of peasant unrest in the wake of the emancipation.” Although much is not known about Petrov, he was literate which was a rarity to find amongst the peasant population. Petrov being able to read the manifesto began to create his own interpretation of the emancipation; he spoke out against the reforms, convinced that peasants were still not equal and that the reforms were lies in disguise. High illiteracy rates continued throughout the 19th century, making Petrov’s message even more credible among the peasants; being somewhat untrustworthy of the government hired messengers whom read the manifesto to the masses, the peasants found a kindred spirit in Petrov. Soon thousands flocked to Bezdna to hear Petrov’s interpretation on why the royals would continue to place restrictions onto the lower class, for these citizens were not upset with Alexander but with royals and upperclassmen, who the peasants believed influenced the tsar to control the serfs. This surprising support for the tsar stemmed from Orthodox Christianity and its belief that the tsar was chosen by God to protect all Christians; therefore Alexander could not commit such an atrocity towards the former serfs. After thousands of peaceful protestors gathered in Bezdna, a unit of the Russian Army, under the orders of the tsar, descended onto the town ordering the civilians to stand down on April 12, 1861; soon it became clear that the mass would not cease, the soldiers began firing upon the protestors. According to historical accounts, the peasants shouted back while remaining stationary: “We will not yield, it is the tsar’s blood that is flowing, you are shooting at the tsar.” The peasants began to retreat as the soldiers continued to gun down their fellow demonstrators. The army then arrested Petrov, he being the only individual of the Bezdna Unrest to be detained. About 5000 peasants from 130 villages in the area joined the unrest. Military forces were sent to subdue the riot under general-mayor Anton Apraksin. Soldiers opened gunfire, and 57 peasants were killed (by other sources 91), more than 350 were injured.
Following the bloodshed that occurred at Bezdna, Alexander II quickly began to cover all traces of what had happened, even publicly denying the Unrest for over a month. Even after admission, the facts of what had occurred were inconsistent and made to put the blame upon the peasants. Anton Petrov, under direct orders from Alexander, met his end after he was arrested; he was then bound to a pole and shot in the street by Russian soldiers. Although the death toll of the unrest is not certain, it is estimated between 57 and 91 peasants were killed by the military on April 12, 1861. Although this event did not cause similar disturbances in Russia, two Russian figures viewed this event as a national tragedy, each expressing their sentiments differently; Afanasy Shchapov, a historian and teacher, traveled to the commemorative service in the Kazan Governorate, along with 400 students. For nearly four days, he joined the mourners; he also delivered an inspirational speech dedicated to those who had fallen victim to the military slaughter. Unfortunately, Shchapov was arrested soon after his speech and brought to St. Petersburg; throughout his life he would face much persecution from the autocratic government, including exile to Siberia. Alexander Herzen, a writer and social reformist, documented the Bezdna Unrest while serving his exile from Russia in London. According to his writings in the London magazine, The Bell, Herzen criticizes the Russian government for their complete disregard for human life and the fact that the government did not publicly acknowledge the unrest until a month after it had occurred. Although Herzen’s opinion is biased against the Russian autocracy, due to his previous conflicts with the government, he did provide information about Bezdna to a larger audience in Europe.
- Zakharova, Larisa (2008). The Reign of Alexander: a Watershed?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 596.
- Weeks, Theodore (2011). Across the Revolutionary Divide: Russia and the USSR, 1861-1945. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publications. p. 13.
- Field, Daniel (1976). Rebels in the Name of the Tsar. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 47–49.
- Herzen, Alexander (2012). A Herzen Reader. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. pp. 139–140.