Russian Army of Ivan the Terrible

A policy change introduced at this time was of major importance in the evolution of the relationship between the Tsar, the landowning class and the armed forces. For most of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries the main fighting force had been composed of cavalry, largely based on the princely appanages with little centralized organization. By the mid-sixteenth century these princely private armies were to be found only, if at all, in the appanages of Lithuanian origin, such as those of the Bel’skys and Mstislavskys, and in the retinues of the Russian ‘service’ princes of the Upper Oka, such as the Odoevskys and the Vorotynskys.

The development of a Russian army dependent on the grand prince alone began in the reign of Ivan III, who had already extended the grand prince’s control over the armed forces where he had been successful in absorbing a principality and destroying its separate identity. Princes and boyars, when not acting as governors and local commandants, were usually absorbed as commanders and senior officers in grand princely regiments, in accordance with the ranking laid down by the code of precedence, or mestnichestvo. The general run of service gentry, originally of mixed social origins, was gradually sorted out into those who served the grand prince directly, as members of his dvor, received estates in service tenure (pomest’ia), and were merged into the dvoriane or future service gentry, and those who had served local princes and boyars and who continued to carry out their service as pomeshchiki on a provincial basis. Lower-ranking cavalry officers were thus attached to provincial towns, resided on their estates and were summoned when required by the grand prince, bringing their servants with them. Both these groups received lands on a service tenure which in the early days of the system could not be sold or pledged, but could be passed on the death of the holder to a son or son-in-law fit to perform service. The service to be given was strictly calculated in terms of the amount and quality of land.

The system of pomest’ia was devised to enable cavalrymen to serve when called upon, and was to remain the basic way of paying for the cavalry army until the reign of Peter the Great. The Pomestnyi Prikaz, or Estates Office which administered the recruitment and the provision of land to the mounted cavalry, was founded in 1475. Further distribution of lands as pomest’ia took place under Vasily III and Ivan IV from a variety of sources. The estate was not regarded as the private property of the pomeshchik; it provided a fixed income for his maintenance and his equipment, and he was not expected to concern himself with its exploitation. He was not therefore a landowner in the Western sense of the word, but a land user entitled to a certain income from the land. It was thus quite distinct from the votchina or the patrimonial estate which formed the basis of the wealth of the aristocracy and the service gentry, which many pomeshchiki owned in addition to the land granted by the government.

The first major initiative in the remodelling of the armed forces taken in Ivan IV’s reign occurred in 1550. The Tsar’s dvor numbered some three thousand all told, and a specific group of one thousand cavalrymen, divided into three categories, was now provided with pomest’ia in the central provinces to enable them to lodge in Moscow and provide all their supplies from lands relatively near to the capital. They were to be available for immediate service as required, serving on a rota. The estates they were allotted were provided mainly from the Tsar’s own lands or from lands of free peasants around Moscow.46 Aleksei Adashev was one of these cavalrymen.

A corps of infantry equipped with firearms was also formed by Ivan, pishchal’niki, or ‘harquebuzzers’, as Jerome Horsey, a later English visitor, called them, who had already been used in 1480 in the nonexistent battle of the Ugra and who were replaced in 1550 by musketeers or strel’tsy, also on foot. These, together with Ivan’s chosen one thousand cavalry corps, formed his personal guard, ‘the forerunners of Peter I’ s guards regiments’, presumably to protect him against the sort of rioting which had so frightened him in 1547. The strel’tsy were to be part of the military scene until the reign of Peter the Great. Their function was not to fight with cold steel or pikes in hand-to-hand combat, but to use firepower. Their numbers fluctuated and probably reached some twenty thousand by the end of the sixteenth century. They were, unlike the cavalry levy, a permanent uniformed corps. Unlike the Ottoman janissaries they were free men; they received salaries in money and goods according to rank, but also maintained themselves and their families partly by artisan production and small-scale trading activities. Their officers belonged to the gentry and were allotted pomest’ia as well as salaries. The whole corps came under the authority of a new Streletskii Prikaz.

Artillery was also extensively and effectively used in Russia, and Ivan may have taken a personal interest in the manufacture of guns – from Russian-produced iron ore – and their utilization by his army. Each regiment was allocated a certain number of guns in the 1550s. Ivan took 150 heavy and medium pieces of artillery to Kazan’ with him in 1552, and in this respect Russia was not inferior to her Western enemies, though supplies of gunpowder and lead had to be imported and could therefore be subject to enemy blockade on land.

The origin of the idea of this corps of strel’tsy has been much debated in Russia. Clearly Russia needed more modern weaponry, namely firearms and heavy artillery, for her wars against Poland, Sweden and in Livonia, rather than cavalry armed with bows and arrows. Contemporaries and many military specialists have speculated on whether the new formations were borrowed from the Ottomans through the writings of a certain Ivan Semonovich Peresvetov, which may perhaps have been known to Ivan IV. For a long time Peresvetov’s very existence was in doubt and he was thought to be an assumed name or a collective personality. Not until the beginning of the twentieth century was his existence actually established. In the 1950s he was unfortunately treated as one of the powerful humanist thinkers of sixteenth-century Europe, comparable to Machiavelli or Bodin. A revision of his human and intellectual qualities has not yet been undertaken, nor is it certain that all his alleged writings can be attributed to him; thus his influence still needs to be questioned.

Born and bred in Lithuania, conditioned by life in this borderland, divided between Polish Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy, offering his sword as a Polish cavalryman now to the Hungarian Jan Zapolya, a vassal of the Ottomans, now to the Habsburg King of Bohemia, now to the voevoda Peter IV Raresh of Moldavia, Peresvetov was a fairly senior officer serving with six or seven horses and the corresponding number of grooms and servants. Evidently resentful at his failure to make good in service, and distrusting boyars and their ilk, he attempted to enter Russian service in 1538, during the regency of Elena. He may have been attracted to Russian service by his connexion with Peter of Moldavia, whose wife was Elena’s cousin by marriage. He tried to interest the Russian court in a model shield ‘in the Macedonian manner’ which he had invented, and was taken up by the boyar M. Iu’rev Zakhar’in, the uncle of the future Tsaritsa Anastasia, and provided with a workshop and a pomest’ie. Unfortunately for Peresvetov, Zakhar’in died, he lost his patron, and all interest in his patent shield evaporated.

Peresvetov continued in increasingly impoverished circumstances for some ten years, after which all traces of him vanish. This was not surprising since he had no connexions in Russia with any of the boyar clans, or even with the gentry, who tended also to be united by fairly close local associations. Reduced in his own eyes to poverty, in 1549, at the time of the gathering of the so-called ‘assembly of reconciliation’, he personally submitted a petition, together with a number of other written works, to Tsar Ivan, accusing the ‘great’ of having despoiled him of his land, leaving him naked and destitute, without even a horse. Peresvetov’s not unjustified hope of achieving more in Russia, where a simple horseman could now count on some support as a pomeshchik, was not to be fulfilled, and as a man he disappears from sight. But the various writings attributed to him survived in a number of manuscript copies of the early seventeenth century and have led to a belated acceptance of his existence as a man and his importance as a ‘spokesman’ of the gentry or the holders of pomest’ia, as against the rich and powerful, in the sixteenth century.

It is this interpretation of the ‘class’ role of Peresvetov, considered to have been insufficiently appreciated by pre-revolutionary historians, which has contributed to his great importance in Soviet historiography. The relevant texts attributed to Peresvetov are ‘On the conquest of Tsar’grad by the godless Tsar Magmet Amuratov, son of the Turkish Tsar’, ‘The Tale of Magmet Saltan’, and ‘The Great Petition’, which contains Peresvetov’s account of the five months he spent in the service of Peter IV Raresh, his only Orthodox patron. Mehmet II’s victory over the last Paleologus emperor, Constantine, was in great part attributed by Peresvetov to the selfishness, cowardice and incapacity of the ‘great’ men surrounding the Emperor and his failure to support the more lowly men-at-arms. (‘The rich never think of fighting, they think of peacefulness and gentleness and rest.’) He argued in favour of a centrally recruited, controlled and paid army, like the Turkish janissaries, but he also argued that free men fight better than slaves, and the Russian cavalry was free, while the janissaries were slaves as were all the civil employees of the Ottoman court. In Russia the kholopy or bondsmen of various kinds in the armed forces were at this time mainly employed either in the transport of food, fodder and munitions, or in labouring on engineering projects.

Another great virtue of the Ottoman system in Peresvetov’s eyes was its concentration on pravda rather than vera – truth or justice, rather than faith. This makes one wonder whether the long years in foreign parts, before he came to Russia, had somewhat dented the purity of Peresvetov’s Orthodox faith. The sense of the Russian word ‘pravda’ is impossible to convey in English, where in dictionaries the emphasis is almost always on the notion of truth, whereas in Russian the notion of justice or righteousness is fundamental. The most articulate expression of Peresvetov’s ideas (if they were his ideas) comes in his version of the tale of Prince Peter IV of Moldavia, where the Prince praises Mehmet the Conqueror for having restored justice to Constantinople, and explains that ‘God does not love faith, but pravda or justice’. Through his Son he left us the gospel of truth (pravda), loving the Christian faith above all other faiths, and showed us the path to heaven. But the Greeks, though they honoured the gospel, listened to others and did not carry out the will of the Lord and fell into heresy (i.e. the decision to unite with Rome, taken at the Council of Ferrara/Florence).

But Peresvetov was primarily concerned with the practical problems of governing a warlike society. He favoured the institution of a professional army (like the Ottoman janissaries), but free, government by state employees, and the bridling of the high nobility. It is difficult to see in him the spokesman of the gentry, he seems rather to place his faith in a state ruling by ‘groza’, terror or awe. Mehmed was again quoted as an example, for when he discovered that his judges were being dishonest he had them flayed alive, saying:

if their flesh grows back again their crime will be forgiven. And he ordered their skins to be stretched out and ordered them to be stuffed with cotton and ordered them to be affixed with an iron nail in places of judgment and ordered it to be written on the skins: without such terrors, justice and sovereignty cannot be introduced.

Mehmed was also praised for being dread, or terrible, in fact ‘grozen’: ‘If a tsar is mild and peace-loving in his realm, his realm will become impoverished and his glory will diminish. If a tsar is dread and wise, his realm will expand and his name will be famous in all lands.’ ‘A kingdom without terror [groza] is like a horse without a bridle.’ Peresvetov’s admiration for the efficiency of Ottoman rule is by no means unique at that time, when it was very much a lieu commun in that part of Europe which had had dealings with the Porte.

To be ‘dread’ Ivan did not need any advice from Peresvetov, and there is not in fact any evidence that Ivan IV ever read anything written by Peresvetov; and if the idea of creating the corps of musketeers came from outside Russia, a more convincing source is in fact Moldavia, where voevoda Peter Raresh had introduced a corps of musketeers who were not slaves like the janissaries, but free like the strel’tsy, and with which of course Peresvetov would have been familiar. It seems, therefore, unlikely that Peresvetov exercised any influence on Ivan’s policy in the 1550s as a spokesman for the gentry.

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