The Russian Army: Greanadier, summer dress (1808), Carabinier NCO, Jägers (1812), Grenadier (1812), Musketeer, winter dress 1809 (down)


Uniforms of Lejb-Guard Konnyj regiment of Russian Empire army in 1848.

At the outset of the century, Alexander I inherited a sizeable and unaffordable army, many of whose commanders were seasoned veterans. After instituting a series of modest administrative reforms for efficiency and economy, including the creation of a true War Ministry, the Tsar in 1805 plunged into the wars of the Third Coalition. For all their experience and flexibility, the Russians with or without the benefit of allies against Napoleon suffered a series of reverses or stalemates, including Austerlitz (1805), Eylau (1807), and Friedland (1807). After the ensuing Tilsit Peace granted five years’ respite, Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded Russia in 1812. Following a fighting Russian withdrawal into the interior, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov in September gave indecisive battle at Borodino, followed by another withdrawal to the southeast that uncovered Moscow. When the French quit Moscow in October, Kutuzov pursued, reinforced by swarms of partisans and Cossacks, who, together with starvation and severe cold, harassed the Grand Armée to destruction. In 1813, the Russian army fought in Germany, and in 1814 participated in the coalition victory at Leipzig, followed by a fighting entry into France and the occupation of Paris.

The successful termination of the Napoleonic wars still left Alexander I with an outsized and unaffordable military establishment, but now with the addition of disaffected elements within the officer corps. While some gentry officers formed secret societies to espouse revolutionary causes, the tsar experimented with the establishment of settled troops, or military colonies, to reduce maintenance costs. Although these colonies were in many ways only an extension of the previous century’s experience with military settlers on the frontier, their widespread application spawned much discontent. After Alexander I’s death, unrest and conspiracy led to an attempted military coup in December 1825.

Tsar Nicholas I energetically suppressed the socalled Decembrist rebellion, then imposed parade ground order. His standing army grew to number one million troops, but its outdated recruitment system and traditional support infrastructure eventually proved incapable of meeting the challenges of military modernization. Superficially, the army was a model of predictable routine and harsh discipline, but its inherent shortcomings, including outmoded weaponry, incapacity for rapid expansion, and lack of strategic mobility, led inexorably to Crimean defeat. The army was able to subdue Polish military insurrectionists (1830–1831) and Hungarian revolutionaries (1848), and successfully fight Persians and Turks (1826–1828, 1828–1829), but in the field it lagged behind its more modern European counterparts. Fighting from 1854 to 1856 against an allied coalition in the Crimea, the Russians suffered defeat at Alma, heavy losses at Balaklava and Inkerman, and the humiliation of surrender at Sevastopol. Only the experience of extended warfare in the Caucasus (1801–1864) afforded unconventional antidote to the conventional “paradomania” of St. Petersburg that had so thoroughly inspired Crimean defeat. Thus, the mountains replaced the steppe as the southern pole in an updated version of the previous century’s north-south dialectic.


During the first half of the nineteenth century, the navy, too, experienced its own version of the same dialectic. For a brief period, the Russian navy under Admiral Dmity Nikolayevich Senyavin harassed Turkish forces in the Aegean, but following Tilsit, the British Royal Navy ruled in both the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In 1827, the Russians joined with the British and French to pound the Turks at Navarino, but in the north, the Baltic Fleet, like the St. Petersburg military establishment, soon degenerated into an imperial parading force. Only on the Black Sea, where units regularly supported Russian ground forces in the Caucasus, did the Navy reveal any sustained tactical and operational acumen. However, this attainment soon proved counterproductive, for Russian naval victory in 1853 over the Turks at Sinope drew the British and French to the Turkish cause, thus setting the stage for allied intervention in the Crimea. During the Crimean War, steam and screw-driven allied vessels attacked at will in both the north and south, thereby revealing the essentially backwardness of Russia’s sailing navy.

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