The Smolensk War

Surrender of Mikhail Shein at Smolensk.

After the death of Tsar Boris Godunov in 1605, Russia was plunged into crisis. The extinction of the original dynasty meant that there was no universally recognized claimant to the throne. The Smuta, a period of anarchy, civil war, and peasant rebellions, ensued. Eventually the disorder in Muscovy caught the attention of neighboring states: both the Swedes and the Poles intervened in force. Although the election of Michael Romanov as tsar in 1613 nominally resolved the domestic unrest, war with Sweden dragged on until 1617, and the conflict with Poland until 1618. Muscovy had to pay dearly for peace. Under the Stolbovo treaty Moscow ceded to Stockholm a huge swath of territory curving around the northern and western shores of Lake Ladoga. Russia was now cut off completely from the Gulf of Finland. For their part the Poles, in return for the fourteen-year Deulino armistice, exacted important lands along the western border of the state, including the strategic city of Smolensk. For the rest of the seventeenth century the government of Muscovy saw as one of its most pressing tasks the recovery of those alienated possessions. Muscovy had to choose which of its two adversaries to confront first. In the 1620s and 1630s the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was viewed as the principal enemy.

There were several reasons behind Moscow’s preference for a Polish war: personal, dynastic, religious, historical, and pragmatic. First, the most powerful man in the Muscovite state—the tsar’s father, Patriarch Filaret—was profoundly antagonistic toward Poland, and with good reason. Arrested by the Poles in 1611, he had languished almost ten years in captivity before the Deulino armistice had resulted in his release. Second, there was an important dynastic consideration. During the time of the troubles King Zygmunt III of Poland had proposed his son Wladyslaw as candidate for the Muscovite throne. Many of the most prominent boyars in the realm (including Michael Romanov) had in fact sworn fealty to Wladyslaw. On that basis the Poles refused to the recognize Michael’s claim and throughout the 1620s routinely denied his title in diplomatic correspondence. From the standpoint of the Muscovite ruling elite this behavior was more than a discourtesy; it represented a clear danger to the state. The Smuta had been the result of contention over the right to rule, after all, and had come to an end only when all of the main political factions had agreed to respect Michael’s somewhat dubious title. For a foreign power to dispute Michael’s claim was a direct attack on the political compact that held the Muscovite state together and an open invitation to internal subversion and disloyalty.

Another factor in the targeting of Poland was a profound religious antipathy. To be sure, the Orthodox hierarchy of Moscow had no fondness for the Lutherans of Sweden or the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. But Catholicism was perceived as more threatening to Orthodoxy than either Protestantism or Islam. Muscovites were particularly alarmed at the proselytizing efforts the Catholic and Uniate clergy had been making among the Orthodox Christians of the Ukraine ever since the late sixteenth century. That missionary effort was simultaneous with an increasingly onerous domination by Polish landlords in the Ukraine and carried a heavy risk for Warsaw. In the 1620s Orthodox Ukrainians began to petition Muscovy for aid against the Polish Catholics. The rebellion of the Ukrainian Cossacks under Khmel’nitskyi against Poland (1648) cannot be explained without reference to the religious issue. And, in 1654, Muscovite intervention on the Cossack side (the Thirteen Years War) had the religious controversy as its backdrop.

Yet another reason for discord between Moscow and Warsaw was the very existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which frustrated Muscovy’s own imperial ambitions. One of the tsar’s honorifics, after all, was samoderzhets vseia Rusi, or autocrat of all Rus’. Its implication was that Muscovy alone was the true successor to the old Kievan state of the ninth through the twelfth century. Some of the lands and cities of Kievan Rus’, however, including the city of Kiev itself, lay under the sway of Poland. As Polish peace commissioners were to point out to their Muscovite counterparts in 1634, “the tsar should most properly style himself autocrat of his own Rus’ since Rus’ is located both in the Muscovite and in the Polish state.”

If all those considerations militated in favor of a war with Poland, there were eminently pragmatic motivations as well. As we shall see somewhat later, given the composition and logistics of the Muscovite army in the first half of the seventeenth century, a foray into Polish white Russia, where food and forage were readily available, had a greater chance of success than a war against Sweden, which would, perforce, be fought in the barren wastes of Karelia, Finland, or Ingria.

In any case, for Muscovy to undertake a full-blown war with any other state was hardly an easy matter in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. There was, of course, a financial problem: the time of the troubles had emptied the tsarist treasury, and many years would be required to achieve that solvency and those fiscal surpluses without which war would be unthinkable. The difficulty here was compounded by the fact that in the 1620s and 1630s Muscovy received more than three-fourths of its revenues from import duties and a tax on the sale of alcohol in the taverns. It was obviously hard to squeeze more money from those sources than they already provided. Throughout the seventeenth century the Muscovite administration therefore continuously tried to find new ways of raising revenue, usually by imposing higher and (theoretically at least) more collectable new direct taxes.

Another impediment to war was the perceived inadequacy of Muscovy’s indigenous military system. The Livonian wars of the late sixteenth century plus the Smuta itself had aroused doubts about the training, equipment, and tactics of the traditional cavalry army. That army, consisting of members of the petty nobility (dvoriane and deti boiarskie) along with their armed dependents, was not a standing force. In exchange for service (and years sometimes went by between musters) these nobles received estates in usufruct or sometimes modest cash payments from the crown. Augmenting the horsemen were the so-called strel’tsy or musketeers, who, when not campaigning or serving in a garrison, engaged in petty trading and small-scale agriculture in the principal towns of the country. Although the Muscovite army had an artillery branch, there were few arsenals. Master gunners were in short supply. Such an army had its advantages: it was both relatively mobile and relatively inexpensive, at least by Western standards. It also had its uses in pitched battle against other cavalry formations. Indeed, this military system, which had been created for fighting Tatars, was to some extent modeled on similar Tatar military institutions. Yet by the early seventeenth century this army had ceased to be an army of aggressive conquest: it did not have the power to occupy any territory permanently, nor was it of significant use in siege warfare.

A final check on Muscovite belligerence was the geopolitical position of the Muscovite state itself. To the northwest, west, and southwest, Muscovy shared borders with three powerful potential enemies: Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Khanate of the Crimea. Those states were so embroiled in rivalry with Muscovy and with each other that Muscovy did not dare to go to war against one of them without an alliance with, or at least a promise of neutrality from, the other two. As the Smuta had demonstrated, Muscovy simply could not afford a two-front, let alone a three-front war. And there were many reasons for it to fear the power and intentions of each of those three states.

Muscovy had been at peace with Sweden since the Stolbovo treaty. The Swedish monarchy was satisfied with its terms and for the moment entertained no more territorial designs on Russia. But the Kremlin could not be certain that matters would stay that way. There was an anti-Muscovite party active at the Swedish court, and Sweden manifested a suspicious interest in monopolizing the proceeds of Muscovy’s transit trade with the rest of Northern Europe.

Swedish military might, founded on its vastly profitable iron industry, its effective system of conscription, and the military reforms of the great Gustaphus Adolphus, could not be taken lightly.

For the reasons already cited, relations between Moscow and Warsaw were tense. There was growing evidence of the political decomposition of the Commonwealth, beginning in the early seventeenth century, which for the Muscovites could only be a cause for satisfaction. The monarchy, elective since 1572, was becoming progressively weaker vis-à-vis the powerful noble clans. Soon the Polish-Lithuanian state would recognize the right of Liberum veto, which permitted any noble delegate to the Diet (or parliament) to “explode” it, thereby paralyzing the government. The state was further afflicted with poisonous feuds between the great magnates, to say nothing of religious, ethnic, and national tensions. All this notwithstanding, with a population of more than 8 million and a land area of almost 400,000 square miles, Poland was one of the largest of European states. Then, too, although the Polish army was small (fielding no more than 60,000 men in wartime) it was formidable beyond its numbers. The Polish light cavalry was the terror of Eastern and Southern Europe: between the late sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries it fought outnumbered and often prevailed against Turks, Tatars, Cossacks, Swedes, Prussians, and Russians. In the early decades of the seventeenth century King Zygmunt had embarked on a series of Western-style military reforms of his own.

The territory of the last great security threat to the Muscovite state, the Crimean Khanate, lay roughly 600 miles south of the city of Moscow proper. The Girei dynasty, which ruled the Khanate, was one of the last in the Muslim world that could trace itself back to Genghis Khan. Although they were nominally tributaries of the Turkish Sultan, the Gireis reserved to themselves considerable freedom of military and diplomatic action. The danger of raids upon Muscovy by the Crimean Tatars and their Nogai allies was in theory averted by the annual tribute that the tsar delivered to the Khan. Yet those bribes did not buy total protection. There were always free spirits and outlaws among the Tatars—men who mounted their own attacks on Polish, Ukrainian, or Russian territories in defiance of the Khan’s orders. And given the economic problems of the Khanate (including inadequate stocks of food and overpopulation), the Khan at times yielded to the temptation to break his word and go on raids in search of plunder, slaves, and prisoners to ransom. As the Khan was able to put from 40,000 to 100,000 warriors in the saddle for a single campaign, this was no small worry. Muscovy had endured more than thirty major Tatar attacks during the sixteenth century; from 1611 through 1617 southern Russia had annually been ravaged by them. Muscovy was concerned with the Tatar danger throughout the seventeenth century and experimented with a variety of means (settlement of permanent garrisons, enlistment of the Don Cossacks, construction of fortified lines) in order to contain it.

Despite all of these problems—financial, military, geopolitical—Patriarch Filaret and the people around him were bent on war with Poland. In preparing for it they took steps to overcome each difficulty. In the mid-1620s Filaret decreed a new system of direct taxation (the dvorovaia chef), which enabled the government to compute taxes on the basis of the number of households in a region rather than their productivity. This fiscal measure and others permitted Filaret to restore financial stability while building up a substantial war chest.

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