"From beyond the wooded island / To the river wide and free" - Stenka Razin's Rebellion in 1670 / 1671

24 April 1671, Stepan Timofeyevich Razin, Cossack leader and head of a major uprising in southern Russia, is seized by his followers and turned over to the authorities, effectively ending the rebellion.

God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless. Those who plot impossible upheavals among us, are either young and do not know our people, or are hard-hearted men who do not care a straw either about their own lives or those of others.” (Alexander Pushkin “The Captain’s Daughter")

The Imagination of the contemporary Russian artist Sergei Alekseevich Kirillov (1960 - ) showing Stenka Razin proceeding to the scaffold (1988) found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Kirillov

It was like a piece from Byron, Pushkin or Lermontov. When his brother was hanged for desertion during one of the Russo-Polish Wars in 1665, ataman Stepan Tomofeyevich swore bitter revenge on the Russian boyars. Inciting the local serfs to revolt and join his band of Don Cossacks, the gang began to rob merchants travelling down the Volga from Nizhny Novgorod to Tsaritsyn, present-day Volgograd, slaughtering the Boyar moneybags and their guards, the streltsy, recruiting their boat people and burlaks as well as the river boats and had soon a considerable river pirate fleet assembled. Stenka Razin and his Cossack pirates sailed down the great river into the Caspian Sea, raided deep into Persia, defeated a fleet the Ottoman Sultan had sent against them and returned to the banks of their native river Don laden with booty and a Persian princess for the ataman in tow. Stenka Razin was about to become a legendary folk hero. Like their counterparts from the Dnieper, the Don Cossacks originally were groups of serfs from Middle and Eastern Europe that had shed the yoke of their feudal lords, fled to the steppe and formed independent bands by the end of the 15th and early 16th century, soon developed a unique culture and were tolerated by the Tsars in exchange for defending the borders against intruders, from Poles to Tatars and Turks. When several rebellions broke out along the Volga during Russia’s wars with the Polish Commonwealth in mid-17th century, because of a crushing taxation, mass drafting of peasants, the attempt to integrate non-Russian and non-Christian peoples like Tartars and Kalmyks into the Russian Empire and the general rather unhappy lot of the serfs, Cossack groups considerably increased in numbers and nobody knew exactly if they were just brigands or revolutionaries or both.

The Russian history painter Vasily Ivanovich Surikov’s(1848 – 1916) idea of a brooding “Stepan Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea“ (1906)

Until the days of Peter the Great, a Don Cossacks needed the approval of the whole stanitsa, his village or unit, if he chose a bride. This custom might be behind Stenka Razin’s memorable drowning of his Persian princess bride in the Volga, however, the famous ataman did not let the reproach from the famous folk song pass. "He has left his sword to woo; / one short night and Stenka Razin / Has become a woman, too", people sang, but in the spring of 1670, the Razin Rebvellion began in earnest. Stenka Razin captured Astrakhan, the Russian gate to the Orient and then up to 20,000 men, mostly from the non-Russian peoples from the region, sailed, rode and marched under Razin’s banners up the river and towards Moscow, sacked Samara and Saratov, fought the Boyars’ loyalists in eight battles, organising the territory after Cossack fashion represented by elected atamans, distributing the plunder more or less among the army, abolished serfdom and swore oaths of loyalty to the tsar and Stenka Razin. By the end of the year, the Cossacks were pushed back towards the river and finally, the rebellion collapsed. Stjenka Razin was betrayed and captured, brought to Moscow, questioned by the tsar and finally sentenced to death for general insurrection and quartered in June 1671. And while the Don Cossacks rebelled again under Kondraty Bulavin in 1705 and, famously immortalised by Pushkin, under Yemelyan Pugachev in 1775, at least the worst excesses of the Boyars and the Tsarist administration along the rivers Don and Volga were curbed after Stenka Razin’s revolt.

Besides a few novels, paintings and, of course, Shostakovich’s cantata, Stenka Razin is best remembered as a kind of Russian Robin Hood and the hero of the folk song “Ponizovaya Volnitsa”. The tune has been dramatized in one of the first Russian narrative films in 1908, shown below: 

The lyrics were found on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stepan_Razin along with more information on Stenka Razin and his rebellion.

Words in Russian
English-language version
Из-за острова на стрежень,
На простор речной волны,
Выплывают расписные,
Острогрудые челны.
Iz-za ostrova na strezhen',
Na prostor rechnoy volny,
Vyplyvayut raspisnyye,
Ostrogrudyye chelny.
From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sail the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.
На переднем Стенька Разин,
Обнявшись, сидит с княжной,
Свадьбу новую справляет,
Сам весёлый и хмельной.
Na perednem Sten'ka Razin,
Obnyavshis', sidit s knyazhnoy,
Svad'bu novuyu spravlyayet,
Sam vesolyy i khmel'noy.
On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side.
Drunk, he holds a marriage revel,
Clasping close his fair young bride
Позади их слышен ропот:
Нас на бабу променял!
Только ночь с ней провозился
Сам наутро бабой стал . . . .
Pozadi ikh slyschen ropot:
Nas na babu promenyal!
Tol'ko noch' s ney provozilsya
Sam nautro baboy stal . . . .
From behind there comes a murmur:
"He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too."
Этот ропот и насмешки
Слышит грозный атаман,
И могучею рукою
Обнял персиянки стан.
Etot ropot i nasmeshki
Slyshit groznyy ataman,
I mogucheyu rukoyu
Obnyal persiyanki stan.
Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And the lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.
Брови чёрные сошлися,
Надвигается гроза.
Буйной кровью налилися
Атамановы глаза.
Brovi chornyye soshlisya,
Nadvigayetsya groza.
Buynoy krov'yu nalilisya
Atamanovy glaza.
His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise,
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet-black eyes.
"Ничего не пожалею,
Буйну голову отдам!" —
Раздаётся голос властный
По окрестным берегам.
"Nichevo ne pozhaleyu,
Buynu golovu otdam!" —
Razdayotsya golos vlastnyy
Po okrestnym beregam.
"I will give you all you ask for,
Head and heart and life and hand!"
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.
"Волга, Волга, мать родная,
Волга, русская река,
Не видала ты подарка
От донского казака!
"Volga, Volga, mat' rodnaya,
Volga, russkaya reka,
Ne vidala ty podarka
Ot donskovo kazaka!
"Volga, Volga, Mother Volga,
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have ne'er seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don!
"Чтобы не было раздора
Между вольными людьми,
Волга, Волга, мать родная,
На, красавицу возьми!"
"Shtoby ne bylo razdora
Mezhdu vol'nymi lyud'mi,
Volga, Volga, mat' rodnaya,
Na, krasavitsu voz'mi!"
"So that peace may reign for ever
In this band so free and brave,
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga,
Make this lovely girl a grave!"
Мощным взмахом поднимает
Он красавицу княжну
И за борт её бросает
В набежавшую волну.
Moshchnym vzmakhom podnimayet
On krasavitsu knyazhnu
I za bort yeyo brosayet
V nabezhavshuyu volnu.
Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.
"Что ж вы, братцы, приуныли?
Эй, ты, Филька, черт, пляши!
Грянем песню удалую
На помин её души!.."
"Shto zh vy, bratsy, priunyli?
Ey, ty, Fil'ka, chert, plyashi!
Gryanem pesnyu udaluyu
Na pomin yeyo dushi!.."
"Dance, you fools, and let's be merry.
What is this that's in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chanty
To the place where beauty lies!"
Из-за острова на стрежень,
На простор речной волны,
Выплывают расписные
Острогрудые челны.
Iz-za ostrova na strezhen',
Na prostor rechnoy volny,
Vyplyvayut raspisnyye
Ostrogrudyye chelny.
From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sail the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.