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This paper summarises Pugachev’s Rebellion as a significant 18th century peasant uprising led by Cossack rebel Emelian Pugachev in Imperial Russia. The rebellion, lasting from 1773 until 1775, emerged from socio-economic grievances and discontent among the lower classes. The insurgency gained momentum, targeting the Russian nobility and seeking to dismantle serfdom. However, the rebellion was eventually suppressed by Catherine the Great’s government through military campaigns and political reforms. The uprising had far-reaching consequences for Russian society and the monarchy through the exposure of deep-seated social and economic tensions within the empire and highlighted the widespread dissatisfaction among the lower classes. The rebellion prompted Catherine the Great to introduce reforms aimed at improving conditions for the peasantry and strengthening central control.

Caption: A portrait of Pugachov, painted from life with oil paints. Museum inventory number 4588. In the Rostov museum. Rostov Velikii. 1911.
Attribution: See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Pugachev’s Rebellion was also known as the Peasants’ War of 1773-1775. As you will discover, the rebellion was a large-scale peasant uprising against the backdrop of Catherine the Great’s reign. A combination of socio-economic grievances, harsh living conditions, and discontent among the lower classes sparked the rebellion.

Emelian Pugachev (transliterated from the Russian – Yemelyan Ivanovich Pugachev) was a former soldier and Cossack[2]. He emerged as the rebellion’s leader, claiming to be the deceased Emperor Peter III, promising to address the grievances of the oppressed and lead a revolt against the Russian nobility and their perceived abuses of power.

The rebellion started well for Pugachev and quickly gained momentum, attracting support from various segments of society, including peasants, Cossacks, and disgruntled nobles. Pugachev’s forces scored several initial victories, capturing key cities and territories across the southern regions of Russia. Government forces failed to respond effectively to the insurrection at first, partly due to logistical difficulties and a failure to appreciate its scale. During the rebellion, Pugachev’s forces employed guerrilla warfare tactics, targeting the estates and properties of the nobility. They sought to dismantle serfdom, redistribute land, and establish a more egalitarian society.

The Russian government, led by Catherine the Great, responded with a combination of military force and political manoeuvring. Troops were mobilised to suppress the rebellion, and Catherine implemented reforms to address some of the grievances raised by the rebels.

Gradually, Pugachev’s forces were weakened by internal divisions, a lack of resources, and the Russian government’s military campaigns. The revolt was crushed towards the end of 1774 by General Michelsohn at Tsaritsyn. General Peter Panin carried out further reprisals against rebel areas.[3]

It didn’t work out well for Pugachev, who was captured soon after by his Cossacks and turned over to the authorities in Moscow for trial. On the morning of 30th December 1774, Pugachev’s trial began before 29 judges in the Throne Room of the Kremlin, which in Communist times would become the Great Hall of the People. Pugachev’s death sentence was a foregone conclusion and was duly carried out in January 1775. Pugachev was decapitated, drawn and quartered—a stark warning to all opponents of Empress Catherine.[4]

Caption: Yaik Cossacks
Attribution: Молодых Ксения Станиславовна, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons
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This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Caption: “Zaporozhian Cossacks write to the Sultan of Turkey” by Ilya Repin (1844–1930).
Attribution: Ilya Repin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Overview of The Socio-Economic Conditions Contributing to Grievances
The socio-economic conditions in 18th century Russia were marked by widespread inequality, particularly affecting the lower classes.

  • Serfdom, a system where peasants were bound to the land and subject to the authority of the nobility, was deeply entrenched. The serfs faced oppressive working conditions, heavy taxation, and limited personal freedoms. They were often subjected to harsh treatment, with landlords exercising significant control over their lives.
  • The burden of taxation fell disproportionately on the peasantry, while the nobility enjoyed privileges and exemptions. These socio-economic disparities, coupled with famines, crop failures, and high levels of poverty, created a sense of deep resentment and discontent among the lower classes.

Pugachev’s Rebellion was not the only uprising in Russia. From 1762 to 1772, some 160 popular uprisings were recorded in the Russian empire, but the profligate ruling classes were not prepared for the fierce rise in peasant discontent that ignited Pugachev’s Rebellion from 1773 to 1775.[5]

Incidents Illustrating the Nature of the Rebellion and its Impact
During the rebellion, Pugachev’s forces employed guerrilla warfare tactics and targeted the estates and properties of the nobility. They aimed to dismantle serfdom, redistribute land, and establish a more egalitarian society. Numerous incidents demonstrate the nature and impact of the rebellion:

  • Pugachev’s forces captured several key cities, including Kazan, a significant trading and cultural centre. The rebellion disrupted local economies and challenged the authority of the nobility. Many nobles were forced to flee their estates, and some were captured or killed by the rebels.
  • Exposure of Serf Discontent: Pugachev’s Rebellion exposed the deep-seated dissatisfaction and anger of serfs towards their living conditions. It highlighted the increasing tension between the central government and the peasants and the potential for widespread violence and instability this could cause. This eventually contributed to the abolition of serfdom in 1861, although it took nearly a century for this to happen.
  • Reforms in Governance: After the rebellion, Catherine the Great realised the need to strengthen the central government’s control over provincial administrations. She replaced the system of elected provincial and district officials with a system of appointed officials, ensuring that local governance was more closely tied to and controlled by the central government.
  • Influence on Policy: Catherine the Great initially pursued policies aimed at modernizing Russia and improving the conditions of the serfs. However, Pugachev’s Rebellion led her to view the serfs as a potential threat to stability. As a result, she began implementing stricter controls over the serfs, including measures that further bound them to the land and their landlords. This can be seen as a reactionary policy influenced by the uprising.
  • Change in Attitude Towards the Cossacks: The rebellion also affected the government’s view of the Cossacks. Given the major role the Cossacks played in the uprising, the government began to see them as less reliable and more of a potential threat. This led to stricter control and attempts to assimilate them more into the mainstream Russian society, leading to a loss of many of their traditional privileges.
  • Increased Fear Among the Nobility: The rebellion highlighted the vulnerability of the nobility to peasant uprisings. This increased fear of future revolts led the nobility to tighten control over their serfs and resist later attempts at reform.

While the immediate aftermath of Pugachev’s Rebellion saw a tightening of control over the serfs and a strengthening of central authority, it also highlighted the urgent need for reform in Russia, particularly regarding the condition of the serfs. The unrest and violence of the rebellion would reverberate through Russian history, culminating in the eventual abolition of serfdom.

The rebellion also revealed divisions among the elite, as some discontented nobles joined Pugachev’s cause. The uprising forced the government to divert significant military resources to suppress the rebellion, impacting the state’s ability to respond to other challenges.

About Emelian Pugachev
Emelian Pugachev was born about 1740 in Zimoveyskaya-na-Donu, a stanitsa (village)[6] in what is present-day Volgograd Oblast[7], into an Old Believer and Don Cossack family in 1740, but his rebellion’s success hinged on a resource Orenburg Province had in droves: ethnic Bashkir Muslims[8]. His father was a small Don Cossack landowner. Emelian was the youngest son of four children. Despite being born into a landowning family, he was illiterate and enrolled in the military as a teenager[9]. He served in the Imperial Russian Army during the Seven Years’ War (1756–63), the Russo-Polish War (1764), and the Russo-Turkish War (1768–74). In 1770 he deserted the Russian military and spent years as a fugitive, gaining popularity among the peasants, Cossacks and Old Believers against a backdrop of intensified unrest.[10] It is claimed he came under the influence of a religious group, which led him to start the peasant’s war[11].

He became an ataman (leader)[12] of the Yaik Cossacks[13] and the leader of the Pugachev’s Rebellion, a major popular uprising in the Russian Empire during the reign of Catherine the Great. In 1773, he initiated open revolt against Catherine by claiming to be her late husband, Tsar Peter III, who had been deposed and assassinated in 1762. He proclaimed an end to serfdom and amassed a large army of rebels, including Yaik Cossacks, peasant workers, agricultural peasants, clergymen, and Bashkirs.

His forces quickly overran much of the region between the Volga and the Urals, and in 1774 they captured and burned Kazan, an important city on the Volga, but he was defeated by General Johann von Michelsohnen at Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd) in August 1774.

The Death of Czar Peter III: It started with a Coup
Czar Peter III of Russia was assassinated on 17th July 1762. The circumstances surrounding his assassination remain a subject of debate and speculation among historians. However, it is widely believed that his wife, Catherine the Great, played a significant role in the events leading to his death.

Peter’s reign came to an abrupt end through a coup said to have been orchestrated by his wife, Catherine (later Catherine the Great), and her lover, Grigory Orlov. After the coup, Peter III was arrested and forced to abdicate. He was held in isolation in a rural palace at Ropsha. Within a week of his abdication, news spread that Peter III had died.

Peter’s reign came to an abrupt end through a coup said to have been orchestrated by his wife, Catherine (later Catherine the Great), and her lover, Grigory Orlov. After the coup, Peter III was arrested and forced to abdicate. He was held in isolation in a rural palace at Ropsha. Within a week of his abdication, news spread that Peter III had died.

Caption: Tsar Peter III and his wife, the future Catherine the Great. He reigned only six months, and died on 17 July 1762.
Attribution: Georg Cristoph Grooth, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Catherine, who was married to Peter III, had grown discontented with her husband’s rule. Peter III was known for his eccentric behaviour, unpopularity among the nobility, and his admiration for Prussia, Russia’s traditional enemy. He implemented a series of unpopular policies, such as attempting to introduce Prussian military tactics and neglecting Russia’s alliance with Austria during the Seven Years’ War.

During this time, Catherine had developed close relationships with influential figures in the Russian court, including military officers and politicians who opposed Peter’s policies. Some of these individuals, particularly Grigory Orlov and his brothers, may have conspired with Catherine to overthrow Peter and take the throne themselves.

On 28th June 1762, just a few weeks before his death, Peter III was deposed by a group of conspirators led by Catherine and supported by the military. Catherine was declared the Empress of Russia, and Peter was placed under house arrest. However, the exact circumstances of Peter’s death remain unclear, although the alleged romantic liaison between Catherine and Orlov added fuel to rumours of Peter’s murder.

The official account states that Peter III died of natural causes, specifically a sudden illness – a severe attack of hemorrhoidal colic followed by an apoplectic stroke. However, the circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery and controversy. There are persistent rumours and theories suggesting that he was assassinated. It is widely believed that Peter III was murdered by Alexei Orlov (brother of Grigory Orlov, Catherine’s lover). Some accounts suggest that Peter was strangled or suffocated, possibly on the orders of Catherine or her associates. These theories imply that Peter’s death was a deliberate act to prevent any potential threat to Catherine’s rule. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that Catherine the Great, along with her supporters and the military, played a central role in removing Peter from power and securing her position as Empress of Russia.

The Fate of Pugachev’s Family
Pugachev’s wife, Sofya Nedyuzheva, and their children were arrested after Pugachev’s capture. However, unlike Pugachev, who was executed for his role in leading the rebellion, his family was not subjected to capital punishment.

After Pugachev’s execution, Sofya and the children were exiled to Siberia, a common punishment for crimes against the state during this period in Russian history. Siberia was considered a harsh and remote wilderness, making it an effective place for banishing individuals who threatened the state.

Unfortunately, there are not many historical records detailing the specifics of Sofya’s life following her exile. It was a standard practice not to record the lives of those with no significant political or historical interest or influence at that time. This lack of documentation, coupled with the social status of women at the time, means that the details of her life in Siberia and what ultimately happened to her are largely unknown.

Pugachev’s Impersonation of the Assassinated Tsar, Peter III
Pugachev claimed to be the deceased Peter III of Russia during the Pugachev Rebellion of 1773-1775. The historical ambiguity surrounding Peter III’s death made it somewhat easier for imposters like Yemelyan Pugachev to claim to be him in later years. Far-fetched and audacious though it may seem, some factors may explain why he might have expected others to believe his claim:

  • Limited communication and misinformation: In the 18th century, communication was slow and unreliable compared to today’s standards. News about the death of a Tsar would not be as instantly and universally known as it would be today, and misinformation could spread more easily. It would not have been impossible for people, particularly in the distant regions of the empire, to believe that the Tsar had survived his reported death.
  • Social discontent: There was widespread dissatisfaction with Catherine II’s rule among the Russian peasantry and Cossacks, particularly due to her policies of serfdom and the increasing power of the nobility. Pugachev, posing as Peter III, promised to overturn these policies, and many discontented subjects were willing to believe him as a result.
  • Lack of visual reference: In the era before photography and widespread portraiture, very few people would know what Peter III looked like. Thus, Pugachev could convincingly claim to be the Tsar without necessarily resembling him.
  • Charisma: Pugachev was a charismatic leader who rallied thousands of followers to his cause. His audacity in claiming to be the Tsar might have made his claim seem more credible to those desperate for a change in leadership.
  • The legitimacy of Peter III: Pugachev’s choice to impersonate Peter III instead of posing as a different noble or ruler added an air of legitimacy to his claim. Peter III was the legitimate Tsar before Catherine, who had come to power through a coup that ousted Peter. This made Pugachev’s claim of being the “rightful” Tsar more plausible to those who were discontented with Catherine’s rule.
  • Religious belief and superstition: The population was quite religious and superstitious. The belief in the Tsar’s divine right to rule and the possibility of miraculous events or the return from the dead might have further convinced people of Pugachev’s claims.

Remember, Pugachev’s impersonation wasn’t universally accepted, but he exploited these factors to convince many people, which helped instigate one of the largest peasant revolts in Russian history.

Catherine and her Lover – Grigory Grigorievich Orlov
Catherine (born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst) and Peter (born Karl Peter Ulrich of Holstein-Gottorp) were married on 21st August 1745. Their wedding took place in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Catherine was originally from Prussia (now modern-day Germany) and had travelled to Russia to marry Peter, who would later become Czar Peter III of Russia. Their respective families arranged the marriage in an attempt to strengthen ties between the Russian and Prussian royal houses. However, their marriage was unhappy and fraught with difficulties, leading to their eventual estrangement and Catherine’s rise to power as Empress Catherine the Great.

Grigory Grigorievich Orlov was a prominent figure in 18th century Russia, well-known for his involvement in the coup that resulted in the ascension of Catherine the Great, his lover, to the throne. He was also significant in Russian history for his role as a statesman and military leader.

Born into an influential noble family in 1734, Orlov rose through the ranks of the Russian military, eventually joining the Imperial Guard. His striking appearance and charisma caught the attention of Catherine, then Grand Duchess, and they began a love affair while she was still married to the future Czar, Peter III.

When Peter III assumed the throne, his unpopular policies and disrespect for Russian traditions led to widespread dissatisfaction among the nobility and military. Catherine and Orlov capitalised on this discontent, leading a coup against Peter in 1762. The coup was successful, and Catherine became Empress, effectively making Orlov one of the most powerful men in Russia.

Orlov remained Catherine’s favourite for several years after the coup, during which time he enjoyed considerable influence in court. He was made a Count and received significant land and titles. He also played a key role in various reforms and initiatives under Catherine’s rule, including efforts to modernize the Russian army.

However, Orlov’s influence waned over time. He could not provide Catherine with a legitimate heir, and his involvement in the rumoured murder of Peter III damaged his standing. By the late 1760s, Catherine had taken a new favourite, Grigory Potemkin, and Orlov’s influence at court dwindled. He retired from court life around 1772 and spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity, dying in 1783.

Despite his later fall from favour, Grigory Orlov’s contribution to Russian history was significant, particularly his role in the coup that brought Catherine the Great to power. His descendants continued to play key roles in Russian history and society into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Review and Concluding Words
Pugachev’s 1773-1775 Rebellion was one of the largest peasant revolts in Russia’s history. Pugachev, posing as the assassinated Peter III, gained a significant following among the Cossacks, peasants, and factory serfs who were discontented with Catherine II’s policies.

However, as the rebellion progressed, it became clear that the uprising would not succeed against the forces of the Russian Empire. The Imperial Russian army was better organised and equipped, and as they began to retake the towns and territories captured by Pugachev, the reality of his inevitable defeat started to set in.

While many Cossacks had initially supported Pugachev, not all agreed with his rebellion or his methods. As it became apparent that his revolt was failing, some of the Cossacks who had supported him began to switch sides to save themselves. Turning Pugachev over to the government might have been seen as a way to demonstrate their loyalty and potentially spare themselves from the harsh retribution that typically followed such uprisings. Furthermore, some Cossacks may have been disillusioned with Pugachev. His initial promise of freedom and relief from oppressive taxes and serfdom might have seemed less and less plausible as the rebellion faltered.

Pugachev was eventually betrayed by some of his Cossack followers and handed over to the Russian authorities in 1775. He was brought to Moscow, where he was tried and executed for his role in leading the rebellion. Despite his defeat, Pugachev’s Rebellion had a significant impact on Russian society and policy, highlighting the tension between the central government and the peasants and Cossacks.

The significance of the great peasant revolt led by Emilian Pugachev in Russia in 1773 for both the social and institutional development of imperial Russia can hardly be exaggerated. It was one of the last of the great peasant wars, goading Catherine II into reforming the provincial administration by granting a greater participatory role to the upper classes and last but not least, the revolt fostered new attitudes towards the peasantry on the part of the educated elite and led to the creation of a new image of the Russian people in literature and thought.[14]

The Pugachev Rebellion had a profound impact on Russian society, politics, and subsequent reforms. It exposed the deep-seated social and economic tensions within the empire and highlighted the widespread dissatisfaction among the lower classes. The rebellion prompted Catherine the Great to introduce reforms aimed at improving conditions for the peasantry and strengthening central control. It also influenced discussions and debates about serfdom, paving the way for further reforms in the decades to come. The rebellion left a lasting legacy, shaping perceptions of the Russian peasantry and inspiring future generations to challenge social injustices and advocate for change.

Caption: Pugachev’s execution on Bolotnaya Square.
Attribution: Шарлемань, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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Sources and Further Reading

Books etc:


CAUTION: This paper is compiled from the sources stated but has not been externally reviewed. Parts of this paper include information provided via artificial intelligence which, although checked by the author, is not always accurate or reliable. Neither we nor any third parties provide any warranty or guarantee as to the accuracy, timeliness, performance, completeness or suitability of the information and materials covered in this paper for any particular purpose. Such information and materials may contain inaccuracies or errors and we expressly exclude liability for any such inaccuracies or errors to the fullest extent permitted by law. Your use of any information or materials on this website is entirely at your own risk, for which we shall not be liable. It shall be your own responsibility to ensure that any products, services or information available through this paper meet your specific requirements and you should neither take action nor exercise inaction without taking appropriate professional advice. The hyperlinks were current at the date of publication.

End Notes and Explanations
  1. Sources: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text (substantially from various Wikipedia locations), together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Explanation: The Cossacks are a predominantly East Slavic Orthodox Christian people originating in the Pontic–Caspian steppe of Ukraine and southern Russia. Historically, they were a semi-nomadic and semi-militarised people, who, while under the nominal suzerainty of various Eastern European states at the time, were allowed a great degree of self-governance in exchange for military service. Although numerous linguistic and religious groups came together to form the Cossacks, most of them coalesced and became East Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christians. The Cossacks were particularly noted for holding democratic traditions. The rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russian Empire endowed Cossacks with certain special privileges in return for the military duty to serve in the irregular troops (mostly cavalry). The various Cossack groups were organised along military lines, with large autonomous groups called hosts. Each host had a territory consisting of affiliated villages called stanitsas. They inhabited sparsely populated areas in the Dnieper, Don, Terek, and Ural river basins, and played an important role in the historical and cultural development of both Russia and Ukraine. Source: See also:
  3. Source:
  4. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. Explanation: A stanitsa is a village inside a Cossack host sometimes translated as “Cossack Army”). Stanitsas — Cossack military settlements — were the primary unit of Cossack hosts. While the word stanitsa survives in modern usage, the stanitsa as a social system in its historic context was effectively destroyed in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution, when the Russian Civil War (1917–1922) and subsequent collectivisation (1928–1940) of the land by the state in the Stalinist period and the Holodomor (1932–1933) destroyed the culture and the economic foundations of stanitsas.
  7. Explanation: Volgograd Oblast is located in the southwestern part of Russia. It is situated in the Volga Federal District and shares borders with several other regions. To the north, it is bordered by Saratov Oblast, to the northeast by Tambov Oblast, to the east by Voronezh Oblast, to the southeast by Rostov Oblast, and to the southwest by Astrakhan Oblast. The western border of Volgograd Oblast is defined by the Volga River, which is one of the major rivers in Russia. The city of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, serves as the administrative centre and largest city of the region. Source:
  8. Source:
  9. Source:
  10. Source:
  11. Ibid.
  12. Explanation: Ataman (and variants including Hetman) was a title of Cossack and haidamak leaders of various kinds. In the Russian Empire, the term was the official title of the supreme military commanders of the Cossack armies. The Ukrainian version of the same word is hetmanOtaman in Ukrainian Cossack forces was a position of a lower rank. The etymologies of the words ataman and hetman are disputed. There may be several independent Germanic and Turkic origins for seemingly cognate forms of the words, all referring to the same concept. The hetman form cognates with German Hauptmann (‘captain’, literally ‘head-man’) by the way of Czech or Polish, like several other titles. The Russian term ataman is probably connected to Old East Slavic vatamanŭ, and cognates with Turkic odoman (Ottoman Turks). Suggestions have been made that the word might be of Turkic origin, literally meaning ‘father of horsemen’ or ‘father of men’, ‘pure-blooded father’ or ‘eldest man’. Considering the ‘-man’ suffix in Turkic languages means men, person, pure-blooded or most. Dictionaries assert that the word comes from the German word ‘Hauptmann’ which means ‘head man’, ‘headman’ or ‘chieftain’ which entered the Russian language through Polish ‘hetman‘. Source:
  13. Explanation: The Yaik (Ural) Cossacks although speaking Russian and identifying themselves as being of primarily Russian ancestry also incorporated many Tatars into their ranks. According to Peter Rychckov some these Tatars called themselves Bulgarians of Khazar origin, and the first Yaik Cossacks, including these Tatars and Russians, existed by the end of 14th century. These Tatars might be both Chuvash people and Mishari (Meschera in Russian, Mişär in Tatar language), the latter had not only Muslims and Jews, but Christians among them to facilitate their merge with Russians. Meschera were important on Don as well. Later, as Pushkin wrote, a lot of Nogai joined Yaik Cossacks. Twenty years after the conquest of the Volga from Kazan to Astrakhan, in 1577, Moscow sent troops to disperse pirates and raiders along the Volga (one of their number was Ermak). Some of these fled southeast to the Ural River and joined Yaik Cossacks. In 1580 they captured Saraichik together. By 1591 they were fighting for Moscow and sometime in the next century, they were officially recognised. In 1717 they lost 1,500 men on the Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky expedition to Khiva. A census in 1723 showed 3,196 men fit for military service. Yaik Cossacks were the driving force in the rebellion led by Yemelyan Pugachev in 1773–1774. Their main livelihood was fishery and the taxation on it was a major source of friction between the Cossacks and the state. A revolt broke out in 1772, marked by the murder of General von Traubenberg. Traubenberg headed a commission which was to investigate and settle Cossack complaints and grievances, but his behaviour only antagonised them further. In reprisal, many were arrested, executed and outlawed. Pugachev appeared shortly after and managed to rally them to his cause. The Yaik Cossacks were renamed as part of the Ural Host after the rebellion. Cited at:
  14. Source: Alexander, John T. (1973). Emperor of The Cossacks: Pugachev and the Frontier Jacquerie of 1773-1775. Lawrence, Kansas: Coronado Press. Cited at: Verbatim: Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1970.

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