Grand Duchy of Muscovy


Pomest’e cavalry. In the Muscovite system, servitors (‘‘pomeshchiki’’ or ‘‘pomest’ia’’) held land from the tsar in exchange for a lifetime of military obligation. Such men usually supplied their own mounts and served as the tsarist cavalry. Their numbers grew greatly with acquisition of Novgorod and redistribution of its lands. Still more served and were rewarded during campaigns in Lithuania. Unlike the Polish hussars who were mainly medium cavalry, the Muscovite pomest’ia remained a light force.



pishchal. An early-16th-century Muscovite small cannon or heavy harquebus. It was the signature weapon of the original pishchal’niki.


The Mongols ruled what later became Russia for two centuries, under the Golden Horde and several independent khanates in the southern steppes. Mongol light cavalry remained unchallenged as the dominant military force even into the era of firearms. They took everything from the subject Slavic populations, but gave almost nothing in return during the time of social chaos known as ‘‘Appanage Russia’’ (after the splintered landholding, or ‘‘udel,’’ or appanage system which kept each local prince weak but also independent of the others). A strong state slowly emerged in the north around the fortified city of Moscow, under Alexander Nevsky (1220– 1263). Moscow’s Prince Dimitri first beat the Mongols at Kulikovo, on the Don (September 8, 1380). During the 15th century Muscovy absorbed all other north Russian principalities, reaching 2.8 million square kilometers by 1533. When Muscovy broke the ‘‘Mongol yoke’’ 100 years after Kulikovo, in 1480, its people and leaders looked to the past glory of Orthodox Byzantium as a model of cultural and religious guidance. Yet, Muscovy was a harsher state and society for its many decades of subjugation by the Mongol khans. As it shifted from Dukedom to Empire, it would be ruled by tsars instead of dukes for over 400 years, from the renunciation of vassalage to the Mongols in 1480 to the end of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.

Muscovites took to gunpowder artillery late, not casting their own cannons until the end of the 15th century when pishchal’niki first appeared. That was likely because the main threat to Muscovy was fleet horsemen of the divers steppe peoples on the southern frontier, who could not be stopped by immobile early cannon. To counter the cavalry threat from Tatar and Cossack hosts who entered the Russias at will on extended raids, Muscovy built a complex defensive system of earthworks, log forts, and trenches. The defensive line these formed was garrisoned and patrolled by servitor cavalry established by Ivan III (1440–1505). It was their job to move rapidly to reinforce threatened positions upon receiving warnings by sentries in hundreds of guard posts built at six- to eight-mile intervals. Later, bribed or cowed Cossacks were brought into the system and helped buffer Muscovy from the Tatars. During the first quarter of the 16th century the Muscovite army was organized into five regiments comprised largely of cavalry and named according to their predetermined position in battle: the Advanced (the van), Left Wing, Right Wing, Main, and Guard (rearguard). A smaller Reconnaissance regiment was available by 1524, joined subsequently by Transport and Artillery regiments. Specialized troops who drilled and fought under instruction and command of Western military advisers were called ‘‘New Formation Units.’’

Muscovy expanded westward during the reign of Ivan III and under his successor, Vasily III (1479–1533, r.1505–1533). It lost an army of 40,000 to a force of just 12,000 Brethren of the Livonian Order and auxiliaries at the Seritsa River (January 1501). Three months later, 100,000 Muscovites and 30,000 allied Tatars annihilated the Livonian Knights at Dorpat. However, the Muscovites suffered another major defeat at Smolino River (September 1502) and in 1503 a truce was agreed upon. By 1510, Muscovy had advanced deep to the south, while acquisition of Novgorod and Pskov made it a Baltic Power. Under Ivan IV (1530–1584), Muscovy’s appanage princes were brought to heel through terror and murder. Muscovy next expanded northward and then in all other directions: south against the Tatars, where successor khanates to the Golden Horde of Kazan (1552) and Astrakhan (1556) were overrun; east into the vast expanses of Siberia; and west during the First Northern War (1558–1583) against Livonians, Poles, and Lithuanians. The western thrust was the least successful because it was the most heavily resisted by equal or superior military forces. Indeed, it was still possible in 1600 that Poland rather than Muscovy might emerge from a century of war and palace intrigue as the dominant power in ‘‘The Russias.’’ Even to the far south, wrongly thought tamed by 1510, Muscovy faced powerful enemies: Crimean Tatars sacked Moscow in 1571 and again in 1591.

Worse awaited. From 1604 to 1613 came the ‘‘Time of Troubles’’ (Smutnoe Vremia), characterized by social unrest, famine, peasant uprisings, and harsh repression. All that was aggravated by dynastic struggles among several claimants to the throne, starting with the ‘‘False Dmitri’’ during the reign of Boris Godunov. Poland also invaded twice, in 1610 and 1612. This baleful period for Muscovy ended with establishment of a new dynasty under Michael Romanov in 1613. More war with Sweden and Poland over Livonia and the eastern Baltic ports followed, 1617–1618, as Wladyslaw tried to claim the Muscovite throne his father, Sigismund III, first claimed for him. There was also fighting with Poland from 1632 to 1634. Otherwise, Michael I’s reign restored the old religion, politics, and social order. Under Michael, Muscovy could field over 92,000 men in its armies. Of these, 28,000 were strel’sty, 27,000 were servitor cavalry, 11,000 were Cossacks, 10,000 were Tatars, 4,300 were artillerymen, and the rest were foreign mercenaries. In 1648, just as religious peace broke out in Germany, the Morozov riots broke out in Moscow as outbursts of rabid and violent piety directed against the boyar retainers of Tsar Alexis frightened him into undertaking a bloody purge. Muscovy did not resume its drive to the west until the second half of the 17th century.

Suggested Reading: Gustave Alef, Ruklers and Nobles in 15th Century Muscovy (1983); R. Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy, 1304–1613 (1987); R. Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (1971); Lindsay Hughes, ed., New Perspectives on Muscovite History (1993); J. L. Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar (1985); C. B. Stevens, Soldiers on the Steppe (1995).