The wave of social unrest that swept Russia in the late 1640s was triggered by a government decision to consolidate a plethora of small levies into a single, and universal, salt tax. Merchants and nobility were generally able to concoct exemptions, so the burden fell disproportionately upon serfs and the urban working classes. When the Moscow townspeople tried to petition the tsar, and turned violent, the Streltsy guard refused to fire upon them: they seized the governor of Moscow and ‘cut him asunder like a fish’. After a month of riots, a mixture of concessions and crackdown restored order, but meanwhile uprisings had spread south to the countryside, particularly the defensive settlements around Belgorod and Kursk with large populations of rootless labour. In the north, grain riots broke out in Novgorod, Pskov and neighbouring towns, because of outrage that grain was being exported to Sweden during severe bread shortages.
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