Gulyay-gorod, also guliai-gorod, (Russian: Гуля́й-го́род, literally: “wandering town”), was a mobile fortification used by the Russian army between the 15th and the 17th centuries. Russian armies would construct a gulyay-gorod from large wall-sized prefabricated shields (with holes for guns) installed on wheels or sleds, a development of the wagon-fort concept. The usage of installable shields instead of permanently armoured wagons cost less and allowed the assembly of more possible configurations. The gulyay-gorod developed as a popular fortification in the Eastern European steppe nations, where flat, void landscape provided no natural shelter. Giles Fletcher, the Elder, English ambassador to Russia, left an early Western description of the gulyay-gorod in his Of the Russe Common Wealth.
Defensive construction used by Russian forces from the 15th to the 18th century.
The term guliai-gorod translates roughly as “wandering city.” Though the phrase is often used to denote any mobile fortification, a proper guliai-gorod generally consisted of a series of walls constructed with logs 1 to 2 meters in height and mounted on wheels, carts, or sleds. The walls, each about 2 meters wide, were linked with ropes or chains, leaving enough space between the walls for archers or (later) musketeers to fire through them. Often firing slits would be cut in the walls themselves.
Smaller versions were created later that resembled a turtle and provided cover for a company or squad. While most often deployed as a defensive structure, the flexibility and mobility of the smaller versions of the guliai-gorod also allowed soldiers to use it to approach fortresses during a siege, or as a wedge to break through enemy formations during battle. The guliai-gorod thus shared some characteristics of the “Wagenburg,” or “wagon fort” formation (roughly equivalent to “circling the wagons” for defense) and the Cossack “tabor” (a formation of sleds used as a temporary shield) but was cheaper, more flexible, and more mobile than either. A guliai-gorod could consist of two simple walls or, as at the Serpukhov Gate during the siege of Moscow in 1607- 1608, form an entire defensive line. The advent of field artillery rendered the guliai-gorod obsolete.
Defeating nomads on open ground – mobile linear barriers
The armies of sedentary states found it almost impossible to defeat a nomad horde that was well-led on open ground. The combination of mobility and bow-and-arrow power meant that such armies could destabilise and decimate the more static armies of sedentary states. Even if the body armour of elite troops could stop the nomads’ arrows, a terrible toll would still be taken of less well armed soldiery and horses. Nomad armies were, however, occasionally beaten. Crusaders defeated a Turkish force of mounted archers at the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) where a line of heavily armed dismounted knights defended less well armed compatriots, until reinforcements attacked the Turks in the rear. At Ain Jalut (1260) the Mamluks induced the hitherto invincible Mongols into an ambush by feigning retreat. The Mamluk forces used midfa, or portable hand cannons loaded with explosive gunpowder, to incite fear and disorder among the Mongol cavalry.
These battles anticipated the means to defeat nomad forces – the protected line that blocked arrows, and the explosive energy from gunpowder. If the line could be composed of a solid yet moveable inanimate material, one that obstructed nomad arrows, and incorporated crossbows and firearms that could outrange nomad projectiles on a flat trajectory, then the terms of battle could be more than equalised.
Linear barriers did not need to be static. They could be put on wheels or sledges and taken to the enemy. That way protection could be provided against nomad arrow storms and cavalry attacks. Meanwhile, the mobile barrier could provide a fortified screen through which the defenders’ bows, crossbows, firearms and cannon raked the enemy.
At the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC the Han general, Wei Qing, used rings of heavily armed chariots, or wu gang, first to break Xiongnu charges, and then to launch a successful counterattack. These vehicles protected infantry and crossbowmen from Xiongnu arrows and gave them the security to be able to shoot back accurately. Han cavalry dealt with any Xiongnu who broke through.
Mobile linear barriers could be improvised of the most obvious available vehicle used by most armies, that is, the wagon or cart, which had always been used to protect camps during halts and to defend camps behind the main battlefield. Mobile defences in Europe were developed first against non-nomad forces. For example, in 1428 at Rouvray, Sir John Fastoff, anticipating attack by larger forces, formed their convoy of carts into an enclosure. By the fifteenth century war wagons were being specially designed so that mobile barriers could be formed. The most famous war wagons were perhaps those of the Hussites, led by Jan Žižka in the early fifteenth century, and known as vozová hradba or wagon walls.
The Russian guliai-gorod, used in the sixteenth and early seventh centuries, have already been discussed. The Battle of Molodi in 1572 – where the protection afforded by the guliai-gorod was critical – perhaps marked a turning point in the fight between settled states and nomads. It has been seen how static linear barriers built by the Russians played a crucial part in closing down the Pontic Steppe. At the same time the Russians also used mobile linear barriers to defeat the nomads in the field.
These developments in military technology ultimately meant that the fight could be taken to the open ground preferred by nomad hordes of mounted archers, and for them to be defeated there. The importance of Molodi is not perhaps sufficiently recognised in the West – for never again did a major nomad army invade a great empire.
Further Reading Davies, Brian. Warfare, State, and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500- 1700. New York: Routledge, 2007. Dunning, Chester S. L. Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia, 980- 1584. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.