Russian Military Weakness in the Seventeenth Century

It has often been said that prior to the accession of Peter the Great, Russia was in a condition of military weakness. Indeed, to Peter himself has gone the credit for transforming Russia into a first-class military power in the course of his twenty-one-year war with the Swedes. Yet what exactly is military weakness? And how, in particular, was Muscovite Russia militarily weak? Was it chiefly a question of technological backwardness? Inadequate numbers of troops? Poor training? A social structure that could not support the army? We shall attempt to answer these and some ancillary questions by examining the history of two of seventeenth-century Muscovy’s most resounding military catastrophes: the Smolensk War (1632–34) and the Crimean Campaigns (1687 and 1689).

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

Smolensk Voivodeship, showing in red the disputed territory.

The Smolensk War

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.6 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.

The war fund was particularly important to Filaret’s plan to stockpile in advance the resources he would need for his war. Between 1630 and 1632 the Muscovite state imported more than a million pounds of iron and lead for the casting of cannon and forging of bullets. Special purchasing commissions visited all the principal courts of Northern Europe in search of cannon, muskets, pistols, and rapiers. Personnel were no less important. Muscovy tried to hire foreign military specialists—experts in the Western way of war—and simultaneously tried to enroll entire regiments abroad. Although the Thirty Years War was raging and it was a sellers’ market for mercenaries, Muscovy’s two Scottish agents, Lesly and Sanderson, were eventually able to dispatch some 3,800 troops from Germany and England to Muscovy. Their frenetic and expensive recruitment resulted in a doubling of the number of foreigners in the tsar’s service.

Yet Russia could not afford enough foreign mercenaries to bear the brunt of its Polish war. The “German” soldiers (as all foreigners were called, regardless of nationality) typically demanded fat salaries and substantial fringe benefits, such as lifetime pensions for their heirs in the event of serious wounds or death. With a view to economy the tsarist government decided to try to train Russians to fight in the Western manner. This was the origin of the voiska inozemnogo stroia (troops of foreign formation). Enlisting landless deti boiarskie, Tatar converts, some peasants, and some Cossacks, these units began to drill under the supervision of their foreign officers in 1630. At the beginning of the war the government had eight infantry regiments (9,000 troops) of the “foreign” type on hand.

Diplomatic maneuvering in Stockholm and the Crimea completed Russia’s war preparations. Gustaphus Adolphus had recently intervened in the Thirty Years War as an ally of the Protestant princes and consequently welcomed Russia’s proposed attack on Poland, hoping that it would secure his Livonian flank. Negotiations with the Tatars, although less smooth, finally resulted in the Khanate’s promise of neutrality.

Confident that Russia was ready, Filaret made his final choice for war when he learned of the sudden death of King Zygmunt III in April 1632. A Poland distracted by the quarrels and intrigues of an interregnum, Filaret reasoned, would be more vulnerable than ever. Accordingly Moscow ordered the concentration of the troops of foreign formation and commanded the cavalry troops to “ready themselves for service, assemble supplies, and feed their horses.” Voevody (district military leaders) and namestniki (provincial viceroys) were ordered to cooperate with the recruiting officers who would shortly arrive to verify the musters of the local nobility. All those processes required time. At last, by August the Muscovite state had at its disposal 29,000 troops and 158 guns. Overall command rested with the aged boyar Mikhail Borisovich Shein. Shein’s qualifications for his post were his close association with Filaret (the two men hand endured Polish captivity together), his prestige as a hero of the Smuta and his intimate knowledge of the fortress of Smolensk (as commandant of the garrison there during the Polish siege of 1609–11).

A nakaz, an instruction issued in the name of the tsar, spelled out for Shein the general objectives of the war and the overall strategy he was to follow in their pursuit. Russia’s goals were in fact modestly limited to the reconquest of the territories that had been lost to Poland in 1618. Russia’s forces were supposed to capture Dorogobuzh and as many other frontier outposts as they could, as quickly as possible. Simultaneously, they were to issue proclamations calling on the Orthodox subjects of the Poles to rise in rebellion. Then they were to move briskly to invest and take the important town of Smolensk, some 45 miles southwest of Dorogobuzh. Possession of Smolensk was critical to Muscovy’s plan for the entire campaign. The lands Russia wanted to reacquire lay roughly within the oval described by the Dniepr river to the west and Desna to the east. Smolensk was located on the Dniepr at the northern end of the oval, less than 30 miles from the headwaters of the Desna.

The war began splendidly for the Muscovites. By mid-October 1632, Dorogobuzh and twenty other frontier forts were in Russian hands. On October 18, Shein and the main army arrived at the outskirts of Smolensk and prepared to besiege it.

To seize Smolensk was, however, no easy matter, for the town was protected by series of daunting natural and man-made obstacles. The core of the city was ringed by a wall almost 50 feet high and 15 feet thick. Thirty-eight bastions furthered strengthened this defense. Although those fortifications had been considerably damaged during the 1609–11 siege, the Poles had recently devoted great attention to their repair. They had augmented them by erecting a five-bastion outwork to the west of the city (known as King Zygmunt’s fort), which was furnished with its own artillery and subterranean secret passages to facilitate sorties and countermining. To the north the city was defended by the Dniepr and to the east by a flooded marsh. The southern side of the city consequently offered the most promising approach for an assault, but here the Poles had build a strong, palisaded earthen rampart. The garrison, under the Polish voevod Stanislaw, was also relatively strong, comprising 600 regular infantry, 600 regular cavalry, and 250 town Cossacks. Stanislaw could rely on the townspeople to man the walls in a pinch and could also enlist the services of several hundred nobles of the local levy, who, armed and mounted, had taken refuge within the town of Smolensk at the news of the Muscovite advance.

Smolensk thus confronted Shein with formidable military problems: a resolute garrison, strong fortifications, and natural obstacles. Shein’s troop dispositions were commendable for prudence, economy, and foresight. He recognized that the same natural obstacles (the Dniepr, the flooded marsh) that protected the Poles to the north and east also hemmed them in, serving as natural siege works. That made a complete set of lines of countervallation unnecessary. Shein therefore deployed his troops to achieve three purposes: the possession of all tactically significant positions, such as patches of high ground around the city; the protection of his own lines of communication, supply, and retreat; and defense against potential relief columns. He ordered Colonel Mattison to occupy the Pokrowska Hill due north of the town of Smolensk on the opposite side of the Dniepr. The site was clearly the one most suitable for the emplacement of artillery batteries. Due west of the city Shein stationed the formations of Prince Prozorovskii. Prozorovskii, whose back was to the Dniepr, enclosed the rest of his camp with an enormous half-circle of earthworks (the wall alone was over 30 feet high). His purpose was both to menace the Polish ramparts on his right flank and to serve as the first line of defense against any Polish army of relief coming from the west. Between Prozorovskii and the walls of Smolensk, Shein placed van Damm’s infantry and d’Ebert’s heavy cavalry. Colonel Alexander Lesly, Colonel Thomas Sanderson, and Colonel Tobias Unzen, in command of the main body of Russian forces (almost nine thousand men) positioned themselves along the perimeter of the enemy’s palisades to the south. To the east Karl Jacob and one thousand Russian infantry of new formation formed a screen behind the flooded marsh. Two and a half miles farther east, in a pocket formed by the bend in the Dniepr, was Shein’s own fortified camp. Shein’s camp protected not only the army’s wagon trains and magazines, but also two pontoon bridges the Muscovites had erected across the Dniepr to secure communications with Dorogobuzh, where the reserves of food were stockpiled.