The Pomest’e System


Ivan III began the process of asserting centralized authority over the army. Before his reorganization, the armies available to the grand prince directly reflected the political character of the Russian lands. Each ruling prince, as well as some of the prominent boyars, maintained his own military retinue. This arrangement enabled individual princes to muster forces with relative speed and to defend their sectors of the Russian frontier as well as their internal borders. When a grand prince required a large force, however, he was dependent upon the cooperation of his fellow princes, who neither automatically nor consistently provided their troops. Individual princes, commanding their own retinues, could and did decline to participate in campaigns or unilaterally withdraw from them. The most extreme danger, inherent in such dispersed military authority, had materialized during the dynastic wars fought by Vasily II.

Vasily II addressed the problem by subordinating his relatives and neighboring princes or committing them to treaties that bound them to support him militarily. He also enlarged the military forces directly responsible to him. He welcomed, for example, the arrival of Tatar princes, refugees from their own khanates, to his lands. He assigned lands and incomes to them and their followers, and supplemented his own army with theirs. One of the first Tatars to offer his services to Vasily II was Kasim, who had fled from his brother Mahmutek, the khan of Kazan’. He assisted Vasily during his dynastic wars, and was granted a tract of land on the Oka River that became known as the Khanate of Kasimov. The Kasimov khans as well as other Tatar princes who were given similar, but less permanent, land bases placed their retinues at the disposal of the Muscovite grand princes. Ivan III not only continued this practice, but similarly encouraged Lithuanian princes to transfer their allegiance, along with their border lands and the strength of the retainers, to Muscovy during the last decades of the fifteenth century.

This technique gave the grand prince control over a greater portion of the military forces that existed within the Russian lands. Using it, Ivan III was able to gather an impressive force for his campaign against Novgorod in 1471 and again in 1478. But it did not completely resolve the problem. In 1479, Ivan’s brothers, Andrei the Elder and Boris, threatened to sever their relations with the grand prince. The prospect of a renewed dynastic war, in which the rebels might obtain Lithuanian support, while the Tatars of the Great Horde were massing across the frontier, convinced Ivan to make concessions to his brothers. They responded by adding their retinues to the defensive line opposite the Tatars in 1480. But in 1491 Prince Andrei refused to join a campaign against the Great Horde; four months later he was arrested by Ivan III.

Territorial expansion, the subordination of autonomous princes, the dismantling of their courts, and the absorption of those princes and their boyars into Muscovite court service gave Ivan III greater control over the military resources within the Russian lands. With those resources Ivan III began to fashion an army, subject to his exclusive authority and based on the same principle of service to the grand prince that permeated central and provincial administrative roles. Members of the service elite generally commanded the grand prince’s regiments. Junior officers were drawn from the lower ranks of Moscow servicemen.

The army, however, depended upon the much larger number of provincial servicemen. Most of them were lower-ranking military servicemen who had remained in the provinces when their princes had departed for service in Moscow. Following the subordination of the autonomous princes and the dismantling of their courts, the grand prince gained direct access to those soldiers, but also acquired the responsibility for maintaining them. The conquest of Novgorod and the confiscation of its landowners’ private estates in the 1480s provided the means to do so. Having deported the Novgorodian landowners and resettled them in other portions of his realm, he distributed their lands, which had become state property, to approximately 1,500 other servicemen, whom he transferred from Moscow and other northeastern lands.

Ivan III thus inaugurated the pomest’e system. The system, it will be recalled, involved the allotment of landed estates, initially the incomes from them, to deti boiarskie or provincial soldiers on the condition that they serve in the grand prince’s armies. Pomest’ia were also granted to princes and courtiers from Moscow. As the pattern of confiscations, deportations, and distributions was repeated in other frontier principalities, central control over the outlying regions was secured while military personnel were positioned near the vulnerable borders of the realm. Military service and the army based on it became increasingly linked to the pomest’e system.

The pomest’e system, which Jaroslaw Pelenski likened to a form of conditional land tenure developed in the Khanate of Kazan’, also became the primary means of acquiring an income for thousands of provincial cavalrymen. A pomest’e was virtually the only means available to petty and middle-level servicemen to support themselves and also equip themselves with the arms and horses necessary to retain their roles as cavalrymen, and hence their status in society. Servicemen were consequently eager to accept pomest’ia and to respond to the call to join a campaign.

The pomest’e system also facilitated an integration of the military servicemen in Muscovite society. Although pomeshchiki served in military detachments drawn from distinct regions of Muscovy, the members of each detachment were not all natives of its regional base. Rather, they were a combination of local servicemen, other Russians, and possibly servitors who had immigrated from Lithuania and the Tatar khanates, whose primary pomest’ia were registered in that province. The officers under whom they served were also appointed from the Muscovite court; they had neither personal ties to the region nor bonds to the warriors they commanded.

The pomest’e system did not immediately give the grand prince a full monopoly over military power. Appanage princes continued to maintain their own military retainers. Similarly, holders of large pomest’ia, including service princes and boyars, had access to their personal military forces and were, accordingly, expected not only to serve personally, but also to maintain and bring to a campaign additional fully equipped cavalrymen in numbers roughly proportionate to the size of their estates. The new forces based on Novgorodian pomest’ia participated in campaigns only on their own borders. Nevertheless, the pomest’e system enabled the grand prince to support the mass of cavalrymen, to make them dependent upon and loyal to him, and thus to assert his control over the military forces in Muscovy.

The process of converting the Muscovite army from an amalgam of autonomous units into a force subject to the single command of the grand prince took decades. It occurred without abruptly dismantling established retinues of powerful and valuable servitors or straining the financial resources of the state. During the reign of Ivan III, appanage princes, Tatar and Lithuanian princes who had entered Muscovite service, and even powerful boyars continued to maintain and command their own retinues. Gradually, however, the grand prince subjected them to his direct authority. Russian princes, having been drawn into the Muscovite court, were given service assignments far from their homelands; the Lithuanian princes who had pledged allegiance to Ivan III similarly lost the autonomy they initially enjoyed, and were absorbed, along with their retainers, into regular court and military service; finally, Vasily III was able to disperse appanage contingents among other units of his army and utilize Novgorodian units on distant campaigns. By Vasily’s reign, the crown had accumulated the power and the mechanisms to support, muster, and command an army that was larger and more reliable than the previous collections of princely retinues and militias had been and that was capable of effectively functioning, in both defensive and offensive operations.

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