Pugachev Administering Justice to the Population. Painting by Vasily Perov
The rebellion of 1773 was not confined to a single group of malcontents. Its leader, Emelyan Pugachev, united under his banner without discrimination members of every social and religious group which complained of the indifference St Petersburg had shown to the aspirations of the common man in Russia since the days of Peter the Great. The rising began among the Cossacks of the Yaik (Ural), where the hatred of the rank-and-file Cossack for his' elders' (most of them nominees of St Petersburg) had been intensified by Catherine's decision to put an end to the autonomous status of the Cossack hosts in 1772. Defeated in their first encounter with government troops, the rebels were reorganised by Pugachev, himself a Don Cossack and a deserter from the Russian army. In the autumn of 1773 Pugachev proclaimed that the report of Peter Ill's death was an official fabrication, and that he himself was the former emperor. By this ruse he gained thousands of new supporters to his cause, the Cossacks now being joined by peasants working in the factories of the southern Urals, by non-Russian elements in the local population, such as the Kirghiz and Bashkirs, and by groups of Old Believers. The fate of the Old Believers had varied greatly since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Peter the Great's policy of conditional tolerance had been abandoned by his immediate successors, and under Elizabeth the authorities had organized military expeditions to convert dissenters to the official faith. Peter in, on the other hand, shocked the Synod by condemning persecution on religious grounds: and, though Catherine imposed no penalties on the Old Believers, it was her husband's name that they associated with religious freedom.
By the end of October 1773 Pugachev's motley army was at the gates of Orenburg, and the surrounding countryside was entirely in his hands. A force of 1500 government troops from Moscow failed to dislodge him, and it needed a full-size army under Prince Bibikov to raise the siege of Orenburg. Defeated here, Pugachev moved north into the Bashkir region, promising the inhabitants he would drive the Petersburgers out for ever. Defeated again, he outflanked the government force, moved westward towards the Volga, captured the stronghold of Kazan and thereby turned his Cossack revolt into a peasant war. In the countryside around Kazan serfs rose up against their masters and plundered their estates, and it was expected that the rebel army was about to march on Moscow. Defences were erected around the ancient capital and Alexander Suvorov, fresh from his victories in Poland and Turkey, was dispatched to engage the rebels in battle. But Pugachev had overreached himself, and, instead of making for Moscow, he turned southward to his home country, the valley of the Don. On the march his army was decimated by desertions; the Don Cossacks refused to give him any further support; and by January 1775 he had been betrayed to Suvorov's forces, tried and hanged.
In the final stages of the campaign Catherine had moved to Moscow to form a clearer picture of the military situation, to discover how it was that the rebellion had spread so far and so fast, .and to decide how a recurrence could be prevented. In the first place, she felt it necessary to make clear where her own sympathies lay in the conflict between serf and landowner, and issued a public statement that the welfare and security of the nobility were inseparable from those of the empire as a whole. Secondly, the rebellion had revealed the shortcomings of the existing system of local government. The haphazard methods which had prevailed since the reign of Peter II, and by which each provincial governor was permitted to administer his province virtually as he wished, led to evasion of responsibility, difficulties in obtaining reliable information and delay in organising countermeasures; and Catherine decided to lay the foundations of a more stable and reliable system as soon as possible. Some work on drafting a new local government statute had already been done by one of the surviving committees of the 1767 commission. The empress took over the uncompleted draft from the committee and, with the help of Jacob Sievers, Governor General of Novgorod, she composed most of the final text herself. Inspiration for the new statute, she said, came from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, which she had read in a French translation early in 1774. Her purpose, she alleged, was to allow the Russian nobility to play the same role in local government as the gentry in England. But for the greater part of the statute the true source was to be found much nearer home. In their petitions of 1767 the nobility had asked for properly established administrative councils and law-courts in the provinces, and had suggested that some posts in the new system of local government be filled by their own elected representatives. Catherine decided to accede to this request by extending over the whole of European Russia the system of administration which already existed in the Baltic provinces acquired from Sweden in 1721.