On 19 February 1861 the emancipation of the serfs was decreed, although, owing to a last minute pause at the brink by the government, it was not announced until 5 March. In common with their fellows throughout Russia, the peasants of the Spassk region not far from Kazan looked for somebody to interpret the manifesto for them. In the nearby village of Bezdna, they found Anton Petrov, a barely literate Old Believer. According to his own account, Petrov mysteriously misinterpreted the figure ‘0.0.’ to mean that freedom had been given to everybody, and then fabricated further details in order ‘to attract the peasants to my side, reasoning that the more peasants there were, the sooner I should gain freedom’. He told them that the landlords would retain only one-third of the land, that they themselves would no longer have to give labour services nor money payments. Petrov’s imagination fired his oratory, as may be seen in the following report of one of his speeches:
You will have true liberty only if you defend the man who finds it for you. … Young men and old will come to you; do not let them reach me; do not hand me over to them. They will cheat you by saying that they have come from the Tsar; do not believe them. The old men will come with smiles; middle-aged men will come; both bald and hairy men will come; and every kind of official; but you must not hand me over. And in due time, a young man will come here sent by the Tsar. He will be seventeen years old, and on his right shoulder he will have a gold medal and on his left shoulder a silver one. Believe him, and hand me over to him. They will threaten you with soldiers, but do not be afraid; no one will dare to beat the Russian, Christian people without orders from the Tsar. And if the nobles buy them, and they fire at you, then destroy with your axes these rebels against the will of the Tsar.