The Smolensk War (1632–1634)

Surrender of Mikhail Shein at Smolensk, painted by Christian Melich, 1640s

Smolensk Voivodeship, showing in red the disputed territory.

This unsuccessful campaign to recover the western border regions lost to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the Time of Troubles marked Muscovy’s first major experiment with the new Western European infantry organization and line tactics.

The Treaty of Deulino (1618) ended the Polish military intervention exploiting Muscovy’s Time of Troubles and established a fourteen-year armistice between Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. But it came at a high price for the Muscovites: the cession to the Commonwealth of most of the western border regions of Smolensk, Chernigov, and Seversk. This was a vast territory, running from the southeastern border of Livonia to just beyond the Desna River in northeastern Ukraine. It held more than thirty fortress towns, the most strategic of which was Smolensk, the largest and most formidable of all Muscovite fortresses and guardian of the principal western roads to Moscow. Upon his return from Polish captivity in 1619, Patriarch Filaret, father of Tsar Mikhail, made a new campaign to recover Smolensk, Chernigov, and Seversk from the Poles the primary objective of Muscovite foreign policy.

Most of the diplomatic preconditions for such a revanche appeared to be in place by 1630, and by this point the Muscovite government had succeeded in restoring its central chancellery apparatus and fiscal system. It was now able to undertake a mas sive reorganization and modernization of its army for the approaching war with the Commonwealth. It imported Swedish, Dutch, and English arms to the cost of at least 50,000 rubles; it offered large bounties to recruit Western European mercenary officers experienced in the new infantry organization and line tactics; and it set these mercenary officers to work forming and training New-Formation Regiments-six regiments of Western style infantry men (soldaty), a regiment of heavy cavalry (reitary), and a regiment of dragoons (draguny). These regiments were drilled in the new European tactics and outfitted and salaried at treasury expense, unlike the old Pomestie-based cavalry army. The New Formation infantry and cavalry would comprise a little more than half of the 33,000-man expeditionary army on the upcoming Smolensk campaign. Muscovy had never before experimented with New Formation units on such a scale.

The death of Polish King Sigismund III in April 1632 led to an interregnum in the Commonwealth and factional struggle in the Diet. Patriarch Filaret took advantage of this confusion to send generals M. B. Shein and A. V. Izmailov against Smolensk with the main corps of the Muscovite field army. By October, Shein and Izmailov had captured more than twenty towns and had placed the fortress of Smolensk under siege. The Polish-Lithuanian garrison holding Smolensk numbered only about two thousand men, and the nearest Commonwealth forces in the region (those of Radziwill and Gonsiewski) did not exceed six thousand. But the besieging Muscovite army suffered logistical problems and desertions; their earthworks did not completely encircle Smolensk and did not offer enough protection from attack from the rear. Meanwhile the international coalition against the Common wealth began to unravel, with the result that in August 1633, Wladyslaw IV, newly elected King of Poland, arrived in Shein’s and Izmailov’s rear with a Polish relief army of 23,000 and placed the Muscovite besiegers under his own siege. In January 1634 Shein and Izmailov were forced to sue for armistice in order to evacuate what was left of their army. They had to leave their artillery and stores behind.

On their return to Moscow, Shein and Izmailov were charged with treason and executed. By the terms of the Treaty of Polianovka (May 1634) the Poles received an indemnity of twenty thousand rubles and were given back all the captured towns save Serpeisk. The next opportunity for Muscovy to regain Smolensk, Seversk, and Chernigov came a full twenty years later when Bogdan Khmelnitsky and the Ukrainian cossacks sought Tsar Alexei’s support for their war for independence from the Commonwealth.


The term new-formation (“western-model,” “foreign-model,” or “western-formation”) regiment refers to military units organized in linear formations, utilizing gunpowder weapons and tactics developed in the West. These regiments consisted of eight to ten companies, each ideally numbering 100 (infantry) to 120 (cavalry and dragoons) soldiers, though few regiments were at full strength. The colonel and lieutenant colonel commanded the first and second companies of the regiment, though de facto command of the colonel’s company was given to a first (lieutenant) captain. Captains or lieutenants (either Russian or European) commanded the remaining companies. Other personnel included ensigns, sergeants, and corporals, at the company level, and administrative officers, such as captains of arms, quartermasters, camp masters, clerks, priests, drummers, and buglers. The regiments featured combined arms: muskets, pikes, artillery, grenadiers, and engineers (sappers, miners). The predominant organizational features of the new-formation regiment were its hierarchical command structure and its relative tactical flexibility.

New-formation regiments participated in the major campaigns of the seventeenth century. The first regiments were formed prior to the Smolensk War (1632-1634). The state employed European officers to train and arm Russians to fight in the Western manner, which represented a significant departure from the former practice of hiring entire regiments of foreign troops. The impact of these officers is reflected in the fact that the Treaty of Polyanovka (1634) ordered Russia’s foreign mercenary commanders to leave Muscovy after the war, though Alexander Leslie, Adam Gell-Seitz, and others returned to help reorganize Muscovy’s regiments again during the 1640s.

Between 1630 and 1634 ten regiments were formed, comprising seventeen thousand men, nearly half of the Russian army at Smolensk. During the Thirteen Years’ War, new-formation regiments constituted a significant portion of Russia’s armed forces: fifty-five infantry and twenty cavalry regiments. The cost of these regiments was greater than traditional forces because the state supported their supply and salary needs.

The regiments in the 1630s were formed from marginal groups, such as landless gentry, Cossacks, Tatars, and free people (volnye liudi, unattached to towns, estates, or communes). Increased income and status associated with state service motivated these groups to assimilate into the new formation regiments. During the 1650s and 1660s the new-formation regiments included more and more peasants and townsmen, whom the Russians conscripted to offset heavy wartime losses. The nature of the soldiers serving in the new-formation regiments changed over time, though they continued to include marginal groups. Later in the century (1680s-1690s), the new-formation regiments continued to be a stage for retraining traditional forces.

The state continued to hire European officers to command new-formation regiments throughout the seventeenth century. Russians also held command positions in the regiments, most predominantly in ranks below colonel. Tensions existed among the foreign and Russian officers, especially regarding administration and implementation of the regiments. The foreign officers brought with them their military experience and technical literature to train their regiments. Since few printed military manuals were available in Russian, the foreign officers’ contribution to military reform is immeasurable. Nonetheless the state distributed a translation of Johann Jacobi von Wallhausen’s Kriegskunst zu Fuss (Military Art of Infantry) to the colonels for use in training, and the state also received input from European officers-in the form of reports and letters-about the training and equipment needs of the regiments.



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