One of Catherine’s basic measures (1765) provided for a survey of all Russian land. The operation met with much resistance from landlords; by the end of the reign it had covered twenty out of fifty provinces, but it was not completed till the middle of the nineteenth century. As it proceeded the Empress realized with discouraging clarity how the economy of Russia rested upon the organization of agriculture by a feudal system of lords and serfs. In 1766 she offered a prize of a thousand ducats for the best essay on the emancipation of the serfs. The winner was Béardé de l’Abbaye of Aix-la-Chapelle, who argued that “the whole universe demands of sovereigns that they should emancipate the peasants,” and predicted that agricultural production would be immensely increased by “making the farmers the owners of the land they cultivate.”59 The noble landowners, however, warned Catherine that unless the peasant was bound to the land and his landlord he would migrate to the towns or, more irresponsibly, from village to village, creating chaos, disrupting production, and interfering with the conscription of sturdy peasant sons for the army or the fleet.
The puzzled Czarina proceeded cautiously, for the nobles had the money and the arms to overthrow her, and in such an attempt they could rely upon the support of a clergy resenting the loss of their lands and their serfs. She feared the disorder that might come from a wholesale movement of liberated peasants to towns unprepared to house or feed or employ them. She made moves toward emancipation. She renewed the edict of Peter III forbidding the purchase of serfs for factory labor, and she required employers to pay their workers in cash and to maintain conditions of work as determined by the officials of the town or the mir;60 even so, the status of industrial serfs remained one of heartless and stupefying slavery. Catherine forbade serfdom in the towns that she founded,61and, on their payment of a small fee, she freed the serfs on lands taken over from the Church.62 These improvements, however, were outweighed by her repeated grants of state lands to men who had served her well as generals, statesmen, or lovers; in this way over 800,000 free peasants became serfs. The proportion of serfs in the rural population rose from 52.4 per cent at the outset of the reign to 55.5 per cent at its close, and the number of serfs rose from 7,600,000 to 20,000,000.63 By her “Letters of Grace to the Nobility” (1785) Catherine completed her surrender to the nobles: she reaffirmed their exemption from the poll tax, corporal punishment, and military service, and their right to be tried only by their peers, to mine their lands, to own industrial enterprises, and to travel abroadat will. She forbade the landlords to be tyrannical or cruel, but she nullified this prohibition by forbidding the serfs to send her their complaints.
The peasants, so silenced, resorted to flight, rebellion, or assassination. Between 1760 and 1769 thirty landlords were killed by their peasants; between 1762 and 1773 there were forty peasant revolts.64 These were quickly suppressed until a rebel leader arose who knew how to turn resentment into organization, and peasant arms into victories. Emelyan Pugachev was a Don Cossack who had fought in Russian ranks against the Prussians and the Turks. He asked for discharge, was refused, deserted, was captured, deserted again, and accepted the life of an outlaw. In November, 1772, encouraged by discontented monks, he proclaimed that he was Peter III, who had miraculously survived all attempts to kill him. He attracted peasants and brigands to his standard, until he felt strong enough to declare open rebellion against the usurper Catherine (September, 1773). Cossacks of the Urals, the Volga, and the Don; thousands of men who had been condemned to force-labor in the mines and smelters of the Urals; hundreds of Old Believers eager to overthrow the Orthodox Church; local Tatar, Kirghiz, and Bashkir tribes who had not forgiven Elizabeth’s dragooning of them into Christianity; serfs who had fled from their masters, and prisoners who had escaped from jail: these flocked to Pugachev’s standard, until he had twenty thousand men under his command. They moved triumphantly from town to town, defeated the forces sent against them by local governors, captured important cities like Kazan and Saratov; they conscripted supplies, killed landlords, forced reluctant peasants to join them, and marched up the Volga basin toward Moscow. Pugachev announced that there he would place not himself but Grand Duke Paul on the throne. But—probably with grim humor—he called his peasant wife queen, and named his chief lieutenants after Catherine’s: Count Orlov, Count Panin, Count Vorontsov.
Catherine at first made fun of “le marquis Pugachev,” but when she learned that the rebels had taken Kazan, she sent a substantial force under General Piotr Ivanovich Panin to suppress the rebellion. The nobles, seeing the whole feudal structure endangered, came to her aid; soon General Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov joined Panin with cavalry freed by peace with the Turks; the insurgents were thrown into disorder by their encounter with disciplined troops under imperial officers; they retreated from one position to another, exhausted their provisions, and began to starve. Some of their leaders, hoping to earn bread and pardon, made Pugachev their prisoner and delivered him to the victors. He was brought to Moscow in an iron cage, was tried in the Kremlin, was beheaded and then quartered, and his head was exhibited on a pole in four sections of the city, pour décourager les autres . Five of his captains were executed, others were knouted this side of death, and were sent to Siberia. One result of the revolt was to strengthen the alliance of the Empress with the nobility.
In some measure she challenged the nobility by favoring the growth of a business class. Convinced by the arguments of the physiocrats, she established free trade in agricultural products (1762), later in everything; she put an end (1775) to government-sanctioned monopolies by ruling that any man should be free to undertake and operate an industrial enterprise. The growth of a middle class was retarded by the predominance of cottage and manorial industry, and the participation of nobles in industrial and commercial ventures. Factories multiplied from 984 to 3,161 during Catherine’s reign, but these were mostly small shops employing only a few workers. Urban population increased from 328,000 in 1724 to 1,300,000 in 1796—still less than four per cent of the population.65
The busy Empress, with only grudging support from her noble entourage, did what she could to promote commerce. Roads were terrible, but rivers were many, and canals bound them into a beneficent web. Under Catherine a canal was begun between the Volga and the Neva to join the Baltic with the Caspian Sea, and she planned another to join the Caspian and Black Seas.66 By negotiation or by war she secured the unhindered passage of Russian commerce into the Black Sea and thence into the Mediterranean. She prodded her diplomats to arrange trade treaties with England (1766), Poland (1775), Denmark (1782), Turkey (1783), Austria (1785), and France (1787). Foreign commerce grew from 21,000,000 rubles in 1762 to 96,000,-000 in 1796.67
In such figures we must allow for the currency inflation with which governments pay for their wars. To finance her campaigns against Turkey Catherine borrowed, at home and abroad, 130,000,000 rubles; she issued paper money far beyond any gold collateral; during her reign the ruble lost thirty-two per cent of its value. In the same period, despite a rise of revenues from 17,000,000 to 78,000,000 rubles, the national debt rose to 215,000,-ooo.68 Most of this was due to the wars that broke the power of Turkey, and carried the borders of Russia to the Black Sea.