Battle of Kulikovo
The armies of north-eastern Russia from the Mongol conquest until the accession of Ivan the Terrible. Dvor were the paid troops of the prince and the more important boyars. This period saw the rise of Moscow to preeminence under the protection of Mongol overlordship. Muscovite rulers were said to be skilled in both ingratiating themselves with the Mongols and in discreetly leaving Mongol armies on the eve of battle. Open war in 1380 saw the defeat of the Mongols at the epic battle of Kulikovo. Russian armies of this period were predominantly of cavalry, and their tactics were similar to those of the Mongols. The usual formation consisted of an advance guard, a strong centre, the “bolshoi polk”, left arm, right arm and rearguard, the right arm having seniority over the other divisions. Infantry were first used for offensive campaigning by Ivan III in 1469 and provided almost exclusively by town militia in separate bodies of spearmen and bowmen and by Cossacks. Muscovite grand prince Ivan III began using the term TSAR to introduce an added level power and majesty to his rule. Cossacks (“adventurers”) were originally renegade Tartars and Russian peasants not on the tax rolls or who refused to work another’s land and were free associations who settled along distant borders in areas of uncertain control. Although we think of them today as light horse, they at this time provided many infantry and specialised in boat work, taking quickly to handguns when these became available.
The musketeers, or streltsy (literally “shooters”), were organized as part of Ivan IV’s effort to reform Russia’s military during the sixteenth century. In 1550 he recruited six companies of foot soldiers armed with firearms, organized into tactical units of five hundred, commanded and trained by officers from the nobility. These units were based from the beginning in towns, and eventually took on the character of garrison forces. Over time their numbers grew from three thousand in 1550 to fifty thousand in 1680.
Militarily, they were ineffectual, mainly because of their economic character. The musketeers were a hereditary class not subject to taxation, but to state service requirements, including battlefield service, escort, and guard duties. During the seventeenth century, the state provided them with grain and cash, but economic privileges, including permission to act as merchants, artisans, or farmers, became their principal support. One particular plum was permission to produce alcoholic beverages for their own consumption. They also bore civic duties (fire fighting and police) in the towns where they lived. Pursuing economic interests reduced their fighting edge.
Throughout the seventeenth century the musketeers proved to be fractious, regularly threatening, even killing, officers who mistreated them or represented modernizing elements within the military. By 1648 it was apparent that they were unreliable, especially when compared with the new-formation regiments appearing prior to the Thirteen Years War (1654–1667) under leadership of European mercenary officers. Rather than disband the musketeers entirely, the state made attempts to westernize them. Many units were placed under the command of foreigners and retrained. Administrative changes were made during and after the war, including placing certain units under the jurisdiction of the Tsar’s Privy Chancery, which appointed officers and collected operations reports. The Privy Chancery, and by extension, the Tsar, was at the center of the attempt to transform the musketeers into more thoroughly trained western-style infantry.
THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY ARMY
The Imperial Russian Army and Navy owed their origins to Peter I, although less so for the army than the navy. The army’s deeper roots clearly lay with Muscovite precedent, especially with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s European-inspired new regiments of foreign formation. The Great Reformer breathed transforming energy and intensity into these and other precedents to fashion a standing regular army that by 1725 counted 112,000 troops in two guards, two grenadier, forty-two infantry, and thirty-three dragoon regiments, with sup- porting artillery and auxiliaries. To serve this establishment, he also fashioned administrative, financial, and logistical mechanisms, along with a rational rank structure and systematic officer and soldier recruitment. With an admixture of foreign- ers, the officer corps came primarily from the Russian nobility, while soldiers came from recruit levies against the peasant population.
Although Peter’s standing force owed much to European precedent, his military diverged from conventional patterns to incorporate irregular cavalry levies, especially Cossacks, and to evolve a military art that emphasized flexibility and practicality for combating both conventional northern European foes and less conventional steppe adversaries. After mixed success against the Tatars and Turks at Azov in 1695–1696, and after a severe reverse at Narva (1700) against the Swedes at the outset of the Great Northern War, Peter’s army notched important victories at Dorpat (1704), Lesnaya (1708), and Poltava (1709). After an abrupt loss in 1711 to the Turks on the Pruth River, Peter dogged his Swedish adversaries until they came to terms at Nystadt in 1721. Subsequently, Peter took to the Caspian basin, where during the early 1720s his Lower (or Southern) Corps campaigned as far south as Persia.
After Peter’s death, the army’s fortunes waned and waxed, with much of its development characterized by which aspect of the Petrine legacy seemed most politic and appropriate for time and circumstance. Under Empress Anna Ioannovna, the army came to reflect a strong European, especially Prussian, bias in organization and tactics, a bias that during the 1730s contributed to defeat and indecision against the Tatars and Turks. Under Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the army reverted partially to Petrine precedent, but retained a sufficiently strong European character to give good account for itself in the Seven Years’ War. Although in 1761 the military-organizational pendulum under Peter III again swung briefly and decisively in favor of Prussian- inspired models, a palace coup in favor of his wife, who became Empress Catherine II, ushered in a lengthy period of renewed military development.
During Catherine’s reign, the army fought two major wars against Turkey and its steppe allies to emerge as the largest ground force in Europe. Three commanders were especially responsible for bringing Russian military power to bear against elusive southern adversaries. Two, Peter Alexandrovich Rumyantsev and Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov, were veterans of the Seven Years War, while the third, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, was a commander and administrator of great intellect, influence, and organizational talent. During Catherine’s First Turkish War (1768–1774), Rumyantsev successfully employed flexible tactics and simplified Russian military organization to win significant victories at Larga and Kagul (both 1770). Suvorov, meanwhile, defeated the Polish Confederation of Bar, then after 1774 campaigned in the Crimea and the Nogai steppe. At the same time, regular army formations played an important role in suppressing the Pugachev rebellion (1773–1775).
During Catherine’s Second Turkish War (1787–1792), Potemkin emerged as the impresario of final victory over the Porte for hegemony over the northern Black Sea littoral, while Suvorov emerged as perhaps the most talented Russian field commander of all time. Potemkin inherently understood the value of irregular cavalry forces in the south, and he took measures to regularize Cossack service and bring them more fully under Russian military authority, or failing that, to abolish recalcitrant Cossack hosts. Following Rumyantsev’s precedent, he also lightened and multiplied the number of light infantry and light cavalry formations, while emphasizing utility and practicality in drill and items of equipment. In the field, Suvorov further refined Rumyantsev’s tactical innovations to emphasize “speed, assessment, attack.” Suvorov’s battlefield successes, together with the conquest of Ochakov (1788) and Izmail (1790) and important sallies across the Danube, brought Russia favorable terms at Jassy (1792). Even as war raged in the south, the army in the north once again defeated Sweden (1788–1790), then in 1793–1794 overran a rebellious Poland, setting the stage for its third partition.
Military Parade of Emperor Paul in front of Mikhailovsky Castle painting by Alexandre Benois.
Under Paul I, the army chaffed under the imposition of direct monarchical authority, the more so because it brought another brief dalliance with Prussian military models. Suvorov was temporarily banished, but was later recalled to lead Russian forces in northern Italy as part of the Second Coalition against revolutionary France. In 1799, despite Austrian interference, Suvorov drove the French from the field, then brilliantly extricated his forces from Italy across the Alps. The eighteenth century closed with the army a strongly entrenched feature of Russian imperial might, a force to be reckoned with on both the plains of Europe and the steppes of Eurasia.