With the Netherlands overrun by French Republican
forces, the British and Russian governments sent an allied army of 48,000 men
under the Duke of York to liberate the country and restore the House of Orange.
The largest operation mounted by Pitt’s ministry
during the French Revolutionary Wars, the amphibious expedition involved the
first ever direct cooperation between British and Russian forces, embroiled the
armies in five full-scale battles, and secured the capture of the Dutch fleet.
As Britain’s first major continental involvement since 1795, it played a part
in shaping the early careers of many famous military commanders of the
Napoleonic Wars. In the end, however, the campaign failed spectacularly. Its
inglorious end provoked parliamentary outrage and led to diplomatic rupture
between Britain and Russia. The Duke of York never commanded an army in the
This book examines British, French, Dutch and Russian
sources to reveal a fascinating tale of intrigue, diplomatic skullduggery and
daring action. Spies, politicians, sailors and soldiers all play a part in the
exciting story of an expedition that made (and broke) reputations and tested
alliances. It recounts in lavish detail the series of battles fought to
liberate a people who showed little interest in being saved and explores the story
behind the triumphs and failures of this forgotten campaign.
In 1799, as part of the Second Coalition against
France, an Anglo-Russian army landed in Holland to overthrow the Batavian
Republic and to reinstate the Stadtholder William V of Orange. Initially called
‘The Secret Expedition’, although not really a secret for both sides, the
description of the invasion reads like a novel. Five major battles were fought
between armies of four different nations, with unexpected deeds of heroism and
unexpected defeats. There were secret negotiations and rumors of bribery. More
than enough ingredients for biased opinions, historical errors, and incorrect
information copied from historians up to this day.
The aim of this book is to give a balanced, detailed,
and complete account of the events taking place during the invasion: the
preparations on both sides, detailed descriptions of the battles as well as the
events taking place at sea and in the eastern provinces of the Batavian Republic.
Also giving new opinions on questions like: What were the causes of ‘The Secret
Expedition’? Did Brune indeed delay reinforcing the Batavians? What caused the
frequent panics in the participating armies? Were the French veteran troops and
the Batavians soldiers unreliable? How was the treaty closed?
The book is based on source material from all
participating countries, including numerous firsthand accounts of eyewitnesses
and contemporaries, providing the reader with a mirror to the past.
The landing of an Anglo-Russian force, commanded by the Duke
of York, on the Dutch coast near Den Helder in 1799. The operation was part of
an unsuccessful invasion of the French-controlled Batavian Republic in an
attempt to restore the House of Orange.
In 1799 the British and Russian governments determined to
drive the French from Holland. Captain Home Popham was sent to Russia to help
with arrangements for the expedition, and succeeded in overcoming Russian
reluctance to provide and fit warships as transports. At Kronstadt he
supervised the fitting out of the ships and embarkation of the troops.
Transporting, deploying, and supporting armed forces by sea
required sophisticated organization and logistics. After a failure at Rochefort
in 1757, the British learned to specify the joint and separate responsibilities
of commanders of the navy and army and their subordinate officers. Troops and
their prepared weapons were landed under the command of naval officers, after
which army officers took control. The development of special landing craft with
distinguishing signs facilitated the coordination and deployment of the units
involved, while warships fired toward land until the troops arrived and
thereafter provided logistical support.
It is probable that the artist Dirk Langendijk was present,
as the drawing[see above] is inscribed by him ‘ad vivum 1799’ (from the life
1799), making this a very rare eyewitness depiction of an amphibious operation
in the age of sail and it is crammed with detail and great energy as 2500 men
were landed in the first wave alone. The defenders were positioned behind the
dunes on the right of the image and the attacking soldiers are shown making
The initial landing was a success and in the subsequent
battle of Callantsoog the Anglo-Russian troops defended their position, though
the invasion itself soon stalled and the Anglo-Russian forces ultimately had to
negotiate an unmolested withdrawal from the coast.
The campaign began in earnest in late August. On the 27th
thirty-two thousand British and Russian troops landed near Callantsoog in North
Holland, which is the peninsula that protrudes north of Amsterdam, separating
the North Sea and the Ijsselmeer. The invasion was not a surprise, and the
landing was opposed, but nevertheless succeeded, with the coalition forces
victorious at what is known as the Battle of Callantsoog (also known as the
Battle of Groot Keeten – the two are adjacent villages).
The invasion went well. Three days later the Dutch fleet,
stationed at Den Helder at the tip of the peninsula, was taken by Admiral Sir
Charles Mitchell. On the 10th September the coalition forces under Sir Ralph
Abercromby met and defeated a Dutch-French army, under the command of the
French general Guillaume Brune, at Krabbendam (also called the Battle of
Zijpedijk). The 20th Foot, consisting of two battalions under
Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth and Major Ross, played a major part in the capture of
the village, driving the French troops out, but as they did so both Smyth and
Ross were injured, and Major Bainbrigge took command of the 1st Battalion.
Five days after Krabbendam the commander of the army finally
arrived to take command; it would be interesting to know what the
so-far-successful Abercromby thought about the army now being led by His Royal
Highness Prince Frederick, Duke of York, second son of the King, George
III. Perhaps he thanked Heaven, as the
army would now become plagued by mishaps. The weather turned, and rain fell
consistently. As a result the already poor road system in North Holland
deteriorated further, and supplies from Den Helder failed to reach the troops.
To forestall enemy foraging the Dutch flooded farmland, removing food sources
and further damaging the infrastructure. The coalition troops, marooned in
low-lying swampy country, began to die from disease.
The bad luck, or poor planning and logistics, was to feature
in the next major confrontation of the campaign, the Battle of Bergen on
September 19th. Frederick’s army was in four columns, with Abercromby in charge
of the left column, which included Bainbrigge’s 20th Foot. Abercromby’s forces,
however, found themselves bogged down in the bad weather and the bad roads, and
failed to make the expected progress, and therefore failed to engage the enemy
when planned. In contrast the Russians in the centre took the village of Bergen
at 8 a.m., far earlier than planned and thus lacking any British support.
Apparently the commanders had failed to synchronise clocks. The Russians were
therefore forced to withdraw, and the coalition assault deemed unsuccessful.
The Republican forces were given the opportunity to realign and secure the
routes to Amsterdam which the coalition had been hoping to control.
The 2nd of October saw the 2nd Battle of Bergen, also known
as the Battle of Alkmaar. The coalition troops were successful in capturing the
town of Alkmaar, and thus securing the northern half of the peninsula, but were
now already being plagued by the problems mentioned above, all of which were to
get progressively worse. Realising his difficulties Frederick resolved to press
on and attack Brune’s forces at Castricum, south of Alkmaar. After a day of
fighting the right and central columns were eventually driven back in disarray,
so chaotic that two field hospitals with their wounded, and four hundred women
and children, soldiers’ families, were
allegedly forgotten about in the retreat. Abercromby’s left column fought to a
stalemate in a separate battle on the beach and dunes, and it was somewhere in
this engagement that Philip Bainbrigge of Ashbourne, forty-three year-old
father of seven, lost his life.
Despite their previous victories, despite the occupation of
Alkmaar and most of North Holland, the defeat at Castricum prompted Frederick
to make the decision to retreat to his original bridgehead, thus losing all the
territory gained since September. Within
a few weeks a lot of men had lost their lives for what looks like nothing, and
Frederick, short of supplies, with bad weather making replenishment by sea
unreliable, was suing for peace. It looks clearly like a futile adventure.
However, there were two positive outcomes. One was that the capture of the
Dutch fleet meant that the Batavian Government had lost over a third of their ships,
much reducing its effectiveness as a threat to Britain and its navy. The second
was that the logistical problems that had befallen him led Frederick, as
Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, to instigate reforms within that
institution that were aimed at improving its efficiency, including the creation
of Sandhurst for officer training in 1801.
His exploits as commander also gave us a nursery rhyme – “The Grand
Old Duke of York”.
When the first reliable news about the development of the
fifth-generation air defense system surfaced in 2009, the S-500 Prometey was
supposed to be introduced in 2012. The S-500 is under development by the
Almaz-Antey Air Defence Concern, initially planned to be in production in 2014
it is currently targeting 2020 for deployment. With its characteristics it will
be very similar to the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.
In contrast to the S-400, whose primary purpose was air
defense, the S-500 is intended to be a full-fledged anti-ballistic missile
(ABM) system. Rather than succeeding the S-400, it is intended to work in
conjunction with it. While the S-400 is designed to defend against short- and
medium-range missiles, the S-500 is designed to combat intercontinental
ballistic missiles (ICBMs). In 2012, the system had completed the technical
design phase and the estimated timeframe for its deployment was reported to be
The exact specifications of the new airspace defense system
remain classified, and the most detailed comment to date on the design
philosophy and implementation have been observations made by Russian defense
and industry officials in interviews. According to them, the S-500 is derived
from the existing S-400 Triumf, but reduced in dimensions and more
power-efficient. The choice of vehicles intended to carry the S-500 launchers,
radars, command posts, and other electronic equipment suggests a highly mobile
and survivable system, built for “hide, shoot and scoot” operations.
Designed to intercept ballistic missiles at a height of up
to 200 kilometers and a maximum range of 600 kilometers, the system is expected
to be able to shoot down up to ten incoming ballistic missiles simultaneously.
It also has an extended radar range compared to the S-400. Russia’s Air Force
Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Viktor Bondarev claimed that the S-500
will also have a response time of about three to four seconds, which is
considerably shorter than the S-400, which is rated at nine to ten
New S-500 Missiles.
What remains a source of speculation, however, is the kind of interception the S-500 missiles will use. One option is a nuclear blast because it can destroy “the entire cloud of incoming warheads with no need to determine true threats from dummies.” Most of the missiles in the S-300 and S-400 systems use high-explosive fragmentation warheads. Russia, however, is working on two new missiles that have been designed for the S-500 (and the S-400): the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1. They will be the first Russian missiles with inert warheads, which can destroy nuclear warheads by hitting them with precision at hypersonic speed (7-km per second). This would far outmatch even the American SM-3 block IIA missile, which is also currently under development and is beingdeployed from 2018 onwards. The Block II has a projected maximum speed of roughly 4.5-km per second and enhanced capability to address intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and a limited capability to address ICBMs. However, it is not clear when the 77N6-N and the 77N6-N1 may enter service, given that facilities for their production are still in construction.
The main components of the S-500 will be:
launch vehicle 77P6, based on the BAZ-69096
command posts 55K6MA and 85Zh6-2 on BAZ-69092-12
acquisition and battle management radar
91N6A(M), a modification of the 91N6 (Big Bird) towed by the BAZ-6403.01 8×8
96L6-TsP acquisition radar, an upgraded version
of the 96L6 (Cheese Board) on BAZ-69096 10×10
multimode engagement radar 76T6 on BAZ-6909-022
ABM engagement radar 77T6 on BAZ-69096 10×10
Initially, two large factories in Kirov and Nizhniy
Novgorod, the cost of which was estimated at 81 billion rubles, were supposed
to start production of 77N6N and 77N6-N1 missiles “at the beginning of
2014.” Latest reports suggest that the Kirov facility began production at
the end of 2015, with full capacity utilization available in 2017. The Nizhniy
Novgorod facility was finished in 2016 and employ 3,500 people.
The absence of more advanced missiles in general is one of
the major obstacles to fully equipping the VKO with modern systems. The missile
shortage worsened after the production of the old S-300 was stopped completely,
even for exports. This has also reflected workforce aging and the low
replacement rates of production equipment. In 2008, Almaz-Antey agreed with the
Defense Ministry on a plan for the company’s modernization, but, due to the
financial crisis, those intentions never materialized. It took an intensive
campaign calling for overhaul and refurbishment to induce the presidential
administration to act. In February 2012, President Putin signed a Federal
Targeted Program for the development of the defense industry to 2020, under
which three trillion rubles were promised to the military-industrial complex
for the modernization of its production facilities.
Bottlenecks in missile production could cause further delay
in the introduction of the S-500. The S-400 is already in operation and,
therefore, any further delays in 40N6 missile production will set upgrades back
still further. Unlike the S-400, the S-500 cannot employ missiles used in the
S-300 family, which means that the range of the missiles suitable for the
system is severely limited. There are already signs that additional delays are
to be expected. At first, the State Armament Program 2011-20 projected purchases
of 10 battalions of the S-500.
At the end of 2013, the Commander of the VKO expected five
batteries to be delivered by 2020, with first batches arriving in “several
The results of throwing more money at the defense industry
remain to be seen. As defense analyst Aleksandr Konovalov put it:
The country’s leadership looks at the defense sector like
a Coke machine. Put money in and get a bottle. Nothing is that simple with the
domestic military-industrial complex, and investing a lot of money doesn’t
guarantee getting production precisely on time. And the discussion about the
S-500 is questionable; it’s possible it doesn’t even exist in drawings.
Whether or not the system really exists and regardless of
what its real capabilities are if it does, Russian senior officers are publicly
confident about its performance, especially vis-a-vis American competitors.
Thus, the former Commander of the VKO, Colonel General Oleg Ostapenko, claimed
in 2012 that “the S-500 will be better than any similar U. S. system. The
Americans have so far only hyped them up in the electronic media, but we
already in effect have a real missile.” Declining to give the
specifications and performance characteristics of the missile for the S-500, he
said “until it flies, we do not talk about these things.”
Russia is also working on naval versions of the S-400 and
S-500, but their deployment seems also to be unlikely in the near future.
According to a source from the military-industrial complex, the S-400F, the
naval version of the S-400, was “practically ready” in 2012, but no
information about its commissioning has yet appeared in open sources. The
carriers of the systems were supposed to be the three mothballed
nuclear-powered Kirov-class missile cruisers (the Admiral Nakhimov, Admiral
Lazarev, and Admiral Ushakov), with 2020 given as the year of their
reintroduction into service. The naval version is the likely armament for the
new Lider-class air-defense destroyers due to enter service in 2023–25
After years of delays, the refit of the Admiral Nakhimov
finally began at the beginning of 2014. The cruiser will be equipped with P-800
Oniks (SS-N-26) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and the S-400 Triumf,
along with other weapon systems designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft
approaching the ship. The refit should be completed in 2018. The other missile
cruisers, including the Pyotr Velikiy, the only Kirov-class ship active in
service, are expected to be modernized as well, but no timeframes have been
In March 2013, the Navy reportedly decided to heavily
modernize antisubmarine ships of the Project 1155 Fregat (NATO codename Udaloy)
class and equip them with the Redut air defense system with interceptors from
the S-400. A representative from the Northern Shipyards design bureau, which
built the Project 1155 vessels and is among the front runners in the
competition for modernization of Project 1155, said that:
the first modernized big antisubmarine ship will appear
not earlier than in 2016: development of the lead project will take about 18
months. After that the technical project of modernization will be retrofitted
for 2 to 4 years more.
In February 2013, the Russian Navy approved a preliminary
design for the largest naval ship to be built since 1989. According to the
newspaper, Izvestia, the new ship will be armed with anti-ship missiles, cruise
missiles, air defense and ballistic defense systems, including the S-500.
However, no final decision about its construction has been made, and it will
take 2 to 3 years just to prepare technical documentation. Finally, the
official designation for the naval version of the S-500 does not appear to have
been made known publicly.
Over the last 8 years, Russia has significantly modernized
its air defense systems, expanding them geographically and making them more
versatile, mobile, and effective. The interceptors introduced in this period,
mainly on the S-400 platform, give Russia the capability to counter a wide
range of missile threats up to and including IRBMs in some of the most
important and/or vulnerable parts of its territory.
Further improvement and geographical expansion of air
defense capabilities will depend on the ability of arms manufacturers to deal
with increased demands of the State Armament Program. One of the main
bottlenecks-the design, production, and troubleshooting of the newest
long-range interceptors-significantly restricts the operational range of the
S-400 by denying it the intended long-range interceptors, and will in all
probability cause still further substantial delays in introducing the S-500.
The commissioning of this system before 2020 is unlikely.
If published figures are to be believed, the S-400
represents the apex of current air defense capabilities, and is in many
respects more capable than the U. S. Patriot series. However, comparisons with
THAAD and SM-3 missiles could be misleading, as these systems were developed
solely for the purpose of missile defense and their design follows an entirely
different philosophy. Russia’s goal is to protect its territory from within its
borders, using a multilayered shield of several complementary systems,
including, but not limited to, the S-400 and the S-500. The United States is
focusing heavily on countering ballistic missiles in various stages of their
flight, which requires a missile defense shield of global reach and presence.
Peter the Great founded the Russian Navy in the early 1700s.
The main fleet operated in the Baltic Sea with a squadron on the Sea of Azov
which expanded later that century to become the Black Sea Fleet. During the
Crimean War the sailors and guns of the Black Sea Fleet played a distinguished
role in the defence of Sebastopol. However, the Baltic Fleet was reduced to
passivity having proved itself incapable of breaking the Anglo-French blockade.
When the empire expanded eastwards a Pacific Squadron was established with its
base at Vladivostok. The remilitarization of the Black Sea at roughly the same
time led to a further period of expansion but due to limited resources, the
Baltic Fleet was somewhat overlooked. However, pressure from France following
the 1894 treaty led to an increase in the strength of the Baltic Fleet to
counter the growing naval power of Germany. As a result French companies received
ship-building orders as Russian heavy industry did not have the capacity to
build complete, modern warships.
The Russo-Japanese War was a disaster for the Russian Navy
that lost virtually all of the Pacific Squadron as well as much of the Baltic
Fleet which sailed to its doom at the battle of Tsushima. With severely limited
resources the navy was faced with the dilemma of, “we must know what we want”
in terms of ship types and whether it should concentrate on the Pacific Ocean,
the Baltic or Black seas.
Although there had been a Navy Minister for decades his role
was that of junior partner in the War Ministry where the army was regarded as
the more important service. Strategically the navy’s role was to support the
In 1906 a Naval General Staff was established under the new
State Defence Committee but was almost immediately at loggerheads with the Navy
Minister Admiral A. A. Birilov who regarded the new body as an upstart creation
of little value. Both the Navy Ministry and the Naval General Staff produced
plans for modernisation and reform, but neither was acceptable on the grounds
of cost. Furthermore the army and the Council of State Defence objected,
complaining that they exceeded the Navy’s defensive role. As the arguments and
politicking dragged on the Tsar intervened. Nicholas II, in common with his
cousins George V and Wilhelm II, liked ships and wished to expand Russia’s
overseas influence by the possession of a strong, modern navy. However, the
Third Duma (1907–12) preferred to invest the money that was available in the
army. Consequently the annual naval estimates became a matter of prolonged
A series of emergency grants provided for the replacement of
several ships lost at Tsushima and as money from increased state revenues and
French loans filled the treasury and Turkey began to expand its fleet in the
Black Sea, it was decided to increase the size of the fleet both there and in
the Baltic. While a considerable proportion of this money was invested in
capital projects such as shipyards, dry docks and improved port facilities, a
large ship building programme was also approved. With the appointment of a new
Navy Minister who was more receptive to reform, Admiral I. K. Grigorovich, in
1911 the Duma began to look more favourably on the naval estimates. On 6 July
1912 the Tsar signed a £42,000,000 expansion plan. The problem was that many of
the ships laid down under this programme were not scheduled for completion for
some time. Furthermore they were highly dependent on foreign expertise and
equipment, and the overseas contracts were not placed with Russia’s likely
allies. As with heavy artillery procurement orders were made with German
companies as well as those of Britain and France.
At the outbreak of war two Russian cruisers, paid for and on
the point of completion in German yards, were commissioned into the German
navy. According to the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, four Dreadnoughts
and two cruisers were also under construction for the Baltic Fleet, as were three
Dreadnoughts and nine cruisers for the Black Sea Fleet. These new capital ships
were to be complemented by thirty-six new destroyers and a large number of
submarines and auxiliary vessels. The majority of these ships were due for
completion within the next few years. By 1914 Russian naval expenditure only
lagged behind that of Britain and the USA having overtaken Germany and other
potential enemies. Indeed Russia and Britain were on the point of signing a
naval agreement when the war broke out. But the Russian Navy was not to be
committed offensively during the war years and the majority of its operations
As noted in Plan 19 both fleets were subordinated to Stavka.
The HQ of the Black Sea Fleet was at Sebastopol, the headquarters of the Baltic
fleet at Helsingfors (Helsinki) in Finland, having major bases at Kronstadt and
Riga. The Navy Ministry at Petrograd acted as a clearing house for orders from
As the Pacific Squadron took virtually no part in the war it
is mainly the operations of the Baltic and Black sea fleets that concern us
here and as little or no co-ordination was possible each will be dealt with
Baltic Sea Fleet
At the outbreak of war the Baltic Fleet put a carefully
planned defensive mining programme into operation. Russian mines were reputedly
the best and most effective used by any navy in the war. The objective of this
was to prevent the movement of German naval units against the capital or the
flank of NW Front. The officer in charge of mining was Captain A. V. Kolchak
who was to advance swiftly to the rank of Admiral. The major achievement of the
Baltic Fleet during 1914 was the capture of a set of German naval code books
from the Magdeburg during August thus enabling Allied intelligence officers to
monitor German movements.
For the next two years the Baltic Fleet’s major units were
preserved in anticipation of a decisive fleet action. The burden of offensive
operations was undertaken by the eleven submarines of the Baltic Fleet and a
small number of British submarines that reached Russia via the Arctic or by
running the gauntlet of German patrols at the mouth of the Baltic. Although the
submariners of both navies did sterling work against coastal traders plying the
Baltic, the bulk of the Russian fleet remained in harbour. Such passivity had a
dire effect on the officers and men leaving them prey to apathy and
politicisation. Protected by the increasingly complex web of minefields the
sailors’ discipline eroded slowly. Cruises were limited due to the lack of
British anthracite coal stocks which were in short supply (although
interestingly enough, thousands of tons of coal had in fact been stockpiled at
Archangel and Murmansk but were instead being used to ballast ships returning
to their home ports after delivering munitions to Russia). The sailors’
dockside work was also inhibited by the blanket of ice that built up on the
harbours and the ship building programme was held up because many of the
vessels under construction were designed only to take German-made turbines. The
overall result of all these problems was a number of crews with little or
nothing to do.
When the army’s rifle shortage became critical in 1915 the
navy exchanged its Russian rifles for the Japanese Arisaka to ease ammunition
supply problems. Japan also salvaged ships from the Russo-Japanese War, which
were re-commissioned by the Russians and a Separate Baltic Detachment was
formed but it did not manage to return to the Baltic.
The first outbreak of trouble occurred on the cruiser
Rossiia in Helsingfors during September 1915. The sailors protested about poor
food, overly harsh discipline and “German officers”. Rumours of the treachery
of the “German officers” had been growing since the loss of the cruiser Pallada
when on patrol duties in November 1914, though the fact that it went down with
all hands did not enter into the gossip mongers’ tales.
The navy seems to have had a greater proportion of officers
with German sounding names than the army and being a smaller service they were
more noticeable. Indeed the commander of the Baltic Fleet in 1915 was Admiral
N. O. von Essen who apparently considered “russifying” his name during this
period. Although the ringleaders aboard the Rossiia were arrested it did not
prevent further problems in November 1915 when part of the crew of the
battleship Gangoot rioted beyond their officers’ control over poor food. More
worrying for senior commanders was the refusal of neighbouring vessel’s crews
to train their guns on the mutineers. Finally the threat of a submarine putting
torpedoes into the Gangoot put a stop to the mutiny. A series of arrests were
made resulting in those men being assigned to disciplinary battalions.
Disciplinary battalions, usually 200 men at a time, were often sent to NW Front
until Twelfth Army complained that they more trouble than they were worth.
Subsequently the disciplinary battalions were detained at the naval bases where
they became progressively more difficult to control.
As 1916 wore on morale declined still further. Whenever
ships changed commanders or officers transferred and attempts were made to
tighten discipline where it was perceived to be too lax the men reacted with
dumb insolence or worked at a snail’s pace. That November Grigorovich expressed
his concerns to the Tsar during an interview at Stavka. However, Nicholas
refused to discuss internal security matters nor did he respond to written
reports on similar matters. The situation was summed up in a report from the
commander of the Kronstadt base to the navy’s representative at Stavka.
“Yesterday I visited the cruiser Diana…I felt as if I were on board an enemy
ship.… In the wardroom the officers openly said that the sailors were
completely revolutionaries.… So it is everywhere in Kronstadt.”
In November 1916 the Russian defences claimed their greatest
victory. A force of eleven German destroyers became entangled in minefields
while hunting coastal traffic and within forty-eight hours seven were lost and
one severely damaged. There was no Russian shipping in the area as they had
intercepted radio transmissions and stayed away.
Boredom and lack of activity were not the only reasons for
the men’s increased disillusionment with the war and the regime. Service in the
navy demanded a different sort of recruit to those of the army. The literacy
rate amongst sailors was approaching seventy-five per cent, (in the army it was
less than thirty per cent) a higher standard of proficiency with technology was
vital as were teamwork and initiative, all qualities which fostered a more
highly skilled and integrated body of men. The close proximity to urban,
industrial centres inevitably led them to be exposed to extreme political
viewpoints and the discussion of conditions ashore. Consequently when the
revolution came in March 1917 the sailors of the Baltic Fleet were ready and
willing to participate.
The Black Sea Fleet
The Black Sea Fleet (Admiral A. A. Eberhardt) followed a
more aggressive policy, mounting operations against the Bosporus on 28 March
1915 and again the next month in support of the Gallipolli expedition. By way
of drawing the Turks attention to the Black Sea coastline pretence was made of
reconnoitring the shore for possible landing sites as had been agreed with the
Western Allies. The Anatolian coastline slowly came to be dominated by the
Russians which forced the Turks to rely more and more on the slower overland
route to supply men and munitions for their Caucasian Front. When Bulgaria
entered the war several raids were made against coastal shipping but the
presence of German submarines limited such operations. However, it was in
support of the right flank of the Caucasian Front that the Black Sea Fleet made
its strongest contribution.
In August 1916 Kolchak was appointed commander of the Black
Sea Fleet. In November the Black Sea Fleet suffered its greatest loss, the
newly completed battleship Emperatritsa Mariia which blew up in Sebastopol
harbour with over 400 casualties. For the remainder of the war the Black Sea
virtually became a Russian lake and increasing use was made of the navy to
ferry and escort supplies to the army. The reasons noted for the decline of the
Baltic Fleet were much less pronounced amongst the Black Sea sailors. The
simple fact that the men were more or less continually involved in an active
war and were not subject to urban influences to the same extent as in the
Baltic saved the Black Sea Fleet from the worst excesses of the March
Revolution. Kolchak took many of his ships to sea when the situation in
Petrograd became serious and only returned to harbour when the Tsar had
abdicated. Thus, when dozens of officers of all ranks in the Baltic Fleet were
being murdered by their men the Black Sea Fleet remained comparatively quiet.
The navy and the revolutions
The speed with which the Baltic Fleet’s sailors responded to
the March events in Petrograd points to a sense of unity of purpose, although
not necessarily a carefully tailored uprising guided by a single mind. When the
revolution began the sailors supported it from the outset and were prepared to
shoot any who stood in their way. This included their officers, although many
were also killed as retribution for past behaviour. On 16 March Admiral A. I.
Nepenin, commanding the Baltic Fleet, informed the Provisional Government, “The
Baltic Fleet as a military force no longer exists.” As far as he could see his
ice bound ships had raised red flags.
In both fleets committees were established with powers
similar to those in the army. The difference between the fleets was Baltic
Fleet’s greater degree of militancy and involvement with the affairs of
Petrograd. During the July Days Baltic Fleet sailors were heavily involved but
the actions subsequently launched to contain radicalism seem to have achieved
little but the further alienation of the men. Despite this the sailors
supported Kerensky during the Kornilov affair but by the end of September the
Provisional Government exercised very little authority over them.
This rare German film shows the World War I assault known as Operation Albion. This was the German land and naval operation in September–October 1917 to invade and occupy the West Estonian Archipelago, then part of the Autonomous Governorate of Estonia, Russian Republic. The land campaign opened with landings at the Tagalaht, Saaremaa on 11 October 1917, after extensive naval activity to clear mines and subdue coastal artillery batteries. The Germans secured the island by 16 October. The Russian Army evacuated Muhu on 18 October. After two failed attempts, the Germans managed to land on Hiiumaa on the 19th and captured the island on the following day. The Russian Baltic Fleet had to withdraw from the Suur Strait after major losses (see Battle of Moon Sound). The Germans claimed 20,000 prisoners and 100 guns captured during the Operation Albion from 12 October.
However, when the Germans launched Operation Albion Kerensky
sent an inspirational message to the sailors, which elicited the reply, “We
will fulfil our duty… [but] not by order of some kind of pitiful Russian
Bonaparte.… Long live the world revolution.”
The squadron in Moon Sound had been on station for over a
month and knew the waters well. Although outnumbered the Russians inflicted
considerable damage on the German capital ships but were unable to reach the
transports. The British submarines were not called into action but from their
commander’s diary the commander of the Baltic Fleet (Admiral A. V. Razvozov),
“expected to give battle with his big ships as the enemy try and force the
outer minefields.” The Germans ventured no further for the rest of the war. The
ships of the Baltic Fleet had fought their last action and within a month the
cruiser Aurora was to provide support for the Bolshevik coup. Ownership of the
Black Sea Fleet passed to the Ukrainian Rada and Ukrainian sailors were
transferred from the Baltic Fleet late in 1917.
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
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.
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.
Ivan III tearing the khan’s letter to pieces, an apocryphal 19th-century painting by Aleksey Kivshenko.
The messengers turned back. They were on their way from
Moscow, the capital or courtly center of Muscovy—an upstart state that had
become, in twenty years of aggressive dynamism, the fastest-expanding empire in
Christendom. Their destination was the court of Casimir IV, king of Poland and
sovereign—“Grand Prince” or “Grand Duke” in the jargon of the time—of
Lithuania. Casimir was, by common assent, the greatest ruler in Christendom.
His territory stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Its eastern
frontier lay deep inside Russia, along the breakwater between the Dnieper and
Volga valleys. Westward, it unfolded as far as Saxony and the satellite
kingdoms of Bohemia, and Hungary, which Casimir more or less controlled. On the
map, it was the biggest and most formidable-looking domain in the Latin world
since the fall of the Roman Empire.
The envoys from Moscow, however, were undaunted. They were
carrying breathtakingly defiant demands for the surrender of most of Casimir’s
Russian dominions, which Muscovites had been infiltrating for years, into the
hands of their own prince. They turned back, not because the power of Poland
and Lithuania deterred them, nor because the summer roads were hot, boggy, and
mosquito-ridden, but because the world had changed.
By rights, the world should have been close to ending. According
to Russian reckoning, 1492 marked the close of the seventh millennium of
creation, and prophets and visionaries were getting enthusiastic or
apprehensive, according to taste. Calendars stopped in 1492. There were
skeptics, but they were officially disavowed, even persecuted. In 1490, the
patriarch of Moscow conducted an inquisition against heretics, torturing his
victims until they confessed to injudicious denunciations of the doctrine of
the Trinity and the sanctity of the Sabbath. Among the proscribed thoughts of
which the victims were accused was doubt about whether the world was really
about to end.
The news that made the Muscovite messengers backtrack
reached them in the second week of June. Casimir IV had collapsed and died
while hunting in Trakal, not far from Vilnius, where they had been hoping to
meet for negotiations. For Russia, the prospects defied the prophecies.
Casimir’s death improved Muscovy’s outlook. The messengers rode hard for
Moscow. It was time for new instructions and even more outrageous ambitions.
Between the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkan uplands in
the south and the Baltic Sea in the north, eastern Europe’s geography is
hostile to political continuity. Cut and crossed by invaders’ corridors, it is
an environment in which—with its flat, open expanses, good communications, and
dispersed populations—states can form with ease, survive in struggle, and
thrive only with difficulty. There are forty thousand square miles of marshland
in the middle of the region, covering much of what is now Belarus, around the
upper Dnieper. Around this vast bog, the steppeland curls to the south and the
bleak, ridgeless North European plain—choked with dense, dark forests—stretches
uninterruptedly westward from deep inside Siberia. The lay of the land favors
vast and fragile empires, vulnerable to external attack and internal rebellion.
Armies can shuttle back and forth easily. Rebels can hide in the forests and
swamps. Volatile hegemonies have come and gone in the region with bewildering
rapidity. In the fifth century the Huns extended their sway from the
steppelands to the east around the marshes and into the northern plain. In the
ninth century a state the Byzantines called Great Moravia reached briefly from
the marshes to the Elbe. In the late tenth and eleventh centuries a native Slav
state occupied most of the Volga Valley. The most spectacular empire makers to
unify the region arrived sweating from the depths of Asia in the thirteenth
century, driving their vast herds of horses and sheep. The Mongols burst into
Western history—like a scourge, as some chroniclers said, or, said others, like
The earliest records of Mongol peoples occur in Chinese
annals of the seventh century. At that time, the Mongols emerged onto the
steppes of the central Asian land now called Mongolia, from the forests to the
north, where they lived as hunters and small-scale pig breeders. Chinese
writers used versions of the name “Mongols” for many different communities,
with various religions and competing leaderships, but their defining
characteristic was that they spoke languages of common origins that were
different from those of the neighboring Turks. On the steppes they adopted a
pastoral way of life. They became horse-borne nomads, skilled in sheep
breeding, dairying, and war.
The sedentary peoples who fringed the steppelands hated and
feared them. They hated them because nomadism and herding seemed savage.
Mongols drank milk—which the lactose-intolerant sedentarists found disgusting.
They drank blood—which seemed more disgusting still, though for nomads in need
of instant nourishment it was an entirely practical taste. The sedentarists’
fear was better founded: Nomads needed farmers’ crops to supplement their diet.
Nomad leaders needed city dwellers’ wealth to fill their treasure hoards and
pay their followers. In the early twelfth century, the bands or alliances they
formed got bigger, and their raids against neighboring, settled folk became
more menacing. In part, this was the effect of the growing preponderance of
some Mongol groups over others. In part, it was the result of slow economic
Contact with richer neighbors gave Mongol chiefs
opportunities for enrichment as mercenaries or raiders. Economic inequalities
greater than the Mongols had ever known arose in a society in which blood
relationships and seniority in age had formerly settled everyone’s position.
Prowess in war enabled particular leaders to build up followers in parallel
with—and sometimes in defiance of—the old social order. They called this
process “crane catching,” like caging valuable birds. The most successful
leaders enticed or forced rival groups into submission. The process spread to
involve peoples who were not strictly Mongols, though the same name continued
to be used—we use it still—for a confederation of many peoples, including many
who spoke Turkic languages, as the war bands enlarged.
The violence endemic in the steppes turned outward, with
increasing confidence, increasing ambition, to challenge neighboring
civilizations. Historians have been tempted to speculate about the reasons for
the Mongols’ expansion. One explanation is environmental. Temperatures in the
steppe seem to have fallen during the relevant period. People farther west on
the Russian plains complained that a cold spell in the early thirteenth century
caused crops to fail. So declining pastures might have driven the Mongols to
expand from the steppes. Population in the region seems to have been relatively
high, and the pastoral way of life demands large amounts of grazing land to
feed relatively small numbers of people. It is not a particularly energy-efficient
way to provide food because it relies on animals eating plants and people
eating animals, whereas farming produces humanly edible crops and cuts out
animals as a wasteful intermediate stage of production. So perhaps the Mongol
outthrust was a consequence of having more mouths to feed.
Yet the Mongols were doing what steppelanders had always
sought to do: dominate and exploit surrounding sedentary peoples. The
difference was that they did it with greater ambition and greater efficiency
than any of their predecessors. In the late twelfth or early thirteenth century
a new ideology animated Mongol conquests, linked to the cult of the sky, which
was probably a traditional part of Mongol ideology but which leaders encouraged
in pursuit of programs of political unification of the Mongol world. Earth
should imitate the universal reach of the sky. Mongol leaders’ proclamations
and letters to foreign rulers are explicit and unambiguous in their claims: the
Mongols’ destiny was to unify the world by conquest.
Wherever the Mongol armies went, their reputation preceded
them. Armenian sources warned Westerners of the approach of “precursors of the
Antichrist…of hideous aspect and without pity in their bowels,…who rush with
joy to carnage as if to a wedding feast or orgy.” Rumors piled up in Germany,
France, Burgundy, Hungary, and even in Spain and England, where Mongols had
never been heard of before. The invaders looked like monkeys, it was said,
barked like dogs, ate raw flesh, drank their horses’ urine, knew no laws, and
showed no mercy. Matthew Paris, the thirteenth-century English monk who, in his
day, probably knew as much about the rest of the world as any of his
countrymen, summed up the Mongols’ image: “They are inhuman and beastly, rather
monsters than men, thirsting for and drinking blood, tearing and devouring the
flesh of dogs and men…. And so they come, with the swiftness of lightning to
the confines of Christendom, ravaging and slaughtering, striking everyone with
terror and with incomparable horror.”
When the Mongols struck Russia in 1223, the blow was
entirely unexpected: “No man knew from whence they came or whither they
departed.” Annalists treated them as if they were a natural phenomenon, like a
briefly destructive bout of freak weather or a flood or a visitation of
pestilence. Some Russian rulers even rejoiced at the greater destruction the
Mongols visited on hated neighbors. But the first Mongol invasion was no more
than a reconnaissance. When the nomads returned in earnest in 1237, their campaign
lasted for three years. They devastated and depopulated much of the land of
southern and northeastern Russia and ransomed or looted the towns.
The Mongols’ vocation for world rule, however, was
theoretical. They demanded submission and tribute from their victims, but they
were not necessarily interested in exercising direct rule everywhere. They had
no wish to adapt to an unfamiliar ecosystem, no interest in occupying lands
beyond the steppe, and no need to replace existing elites in Russia. They left
the Christian Russian principalities and city-states to run their own affairs.
But Russian rulers received charters from the khan’s court at Saray on the
lower Volga, where they had to make regular appearances, loaded with tribute
and subject to ritual humiliations, kissing the khan’s stirrup, serving at his
table. The population had to pay taxes directly to Mongol-appointed tax
gatherers—though as time went on, the Mongols assigned the tax gathering to
native Russian princes and civic authorities. They passed their gleanings on to
the state, centered at Saray, where the Mongols came to be known as the Golden
Horde, perhaps after the treasure they accumulated.
The Russians tolerated this situation, partly because the
Mongols intimidated them by selective acts of terror. When the invaders took
the great city of Kiev in 1240, it was said, they left only two hundred houses
standing and strewed the fields “with countless heads and bones of the dead.” Partly,
however, the Russians were responding to a milder Mongol policy. In most of
Russia, the invaders came to exploit rather than to destroy. According to one
chronicler, the Mongols spared Russia’s peasants to ensure that farming would
continue. Ryazan, a Russian principality on the Volga, south of Moscow, seems
to have borne the brunt of the Mongol invasion. Yet there, if the local
chronicle can be believed,
the pious Grand Prince
Ingvary Ingvarevitch sat on his father’s throne and renewed the land and built
churches and monasteries and consoled newcomers and gathered together the
people. And there was joy among the Christians whom God had saved from the
godless and impious khan.
Many cities escaped lightly by capitulating at once.
Novgorod, that famously commercial city, which the Mongols might have coveted,
they bypassed altogether.
Moreover, the Russian princes were even more fearful of
enemies to the west, where the Swedes, Poles, and Lithuanians had constructed
strong, unitary monarchies capable of sweeping the princes away if they ever
succeed in expanding into Russian territory. Equally menacing were groups of
mainly German adventurers, organized into crusading “orders” of warriors, such
as the Teutonic Knights and the Brothers of the Sword, who took monastic-style
vows but dedicated themselves to waging holy war against pagans and heretics.
In practice, these orders were self-enriching companies of professional
fighters, who built up territorial domains along the Baltic coast by conquest.
In campaigns between 1242 and 1245, Russian coalitions fought off invaders on
the western front, but they could not sustain war on two fronts. The experience
made them submissive to the Mongols.
Muscovy hardly seemed destined to dominate the region. The
principality owed its existence to the Golden Horde. Muscovite princes proved
that they could manipulate Mongol hegemony to their own advantage, but they
remained the Mongols’ creatures. Indeed, it was hard to imagine Muscovy unless
backed by Mongol power. In the mid–thirteenth century, Alexander Nevsky, prince
of Novgorod, showed the way to make use of the Mongols. He created the basis of
his own myth as a Russian national hero by submitting to the Golden Horde and
turning west to confront Swedish and German aggressors. His dynasty levered
Muscovy to prominence by stages. His son Daniel (1276–1303), who became ruler
of Moscow, proclaimed the city’s independence from other Russian principalities
and ceased payment of tribute, except to the Mongols. Daniel’s grandson became
known as Ivan the Moneybag (1329–53) from the wealth he accumulated as a farmer
of Mongol taxes. He called himself “Grand Prince” and raised the see of Moscow
from a bishopric to an archbishopric.
Muscovy still depended on the Mongols. The principality’s
first challenge to Mongol supremacy, in 1378–82, proved premature. The
Muscovites tried to exploit divisions within the Golden Horde in order to avoid
handing over taxes. They even beat off a punitive expedition. But once the
Mongols had reestablished their unity, Muscovy had to resume payment, yield
hostages, and stamp coins with the name of the khan and the prayer “Long may he
live.” In 1399 the Mongols fought off a Lithuanian challenge to their control
of Russia. Over the next few years they asserted their hegemony in a series of
raids on Russian cities, including Moscow, extorting promises of tribute in
perpetuity. Thereafter, the Muscovites remained meekly deferential, more or
less continuously, while they built up their own strength.
They could, however, dream of preeminence, under the
Mongols, over other Christian states in Russia. Muscovy’s great advantage was
its central location, astride the upper Volga, controlling the course of the
river as far as the confluence of the Vetluga and the Sura. The Volga was a
sea-wide river, navigable almost all along its great, slow length. Picture
Europe as a rough triangle, with its apex at the Pillars of Hercules. The
corridor that links the Atlantic, the North Sea, and the Baltic forms one side;
the linked waters of the Mediterranean and Black Sea form another. The Volga
serves almost as a third sea, overlooking the steppes and forests of the
Eurasian borderlands, linking the Caspian Road and the Silk Roads to the
fur-rich Arctic forests and the fringes of the Baltic world. The Volga’s trade
and tolls helped fill Ivan’s money bags and elevate Muscovy over its neighbors.
Rulership was ferociously contested, because the rewards
made the risks seem worthwhile. In consequence, political instability racked
the state and checked its ascent. For nearly forty years, from the mid-1420s,
rival members of the dynasty fought each other. Vasily II, who became ruling
prince at the age of ten in 1425, repeatedly renounced and recovered the
throne, enduring spells of exile and imprisonment. He blinded his rival and
cousin and suffered blinding in his turn when his enemies captured him: as a
way of disqualifying a pretender or keeping a deposed monarch down, blinding
was a traditional, supposedly civilized alternative to murder. When Vasily died
in 1462, his son, Ivan III, inherited a realm that
war had rid of internal rivals. Civil wars seem destructive and debilitating.
But they often precede spells of violent expansion. They militarize societies,
train men in warfare, nurture arms industries, and, by disrupting economies,
force peoples into predation.
Thanks to the long civil wars, Ivan had the most efficient
and ruthless war machine of any Russian state. The wars had ruined aristocrats
already impoverished by the system of inheritance, which divided the patrimony
of every family with every passing generation. The nobles were forced to serve
the prince or collaborate with him. Wars of expansion represented the best
means of building up resources and accumulating lands, revenues, and tribute
for the prince to distribute. For successful warriors, promotions and honors
beckoned, including an enduring innovation: gold medals for valor. Nobles moved
to Moscow as offices of profit at court came to outshine provincial
opportunities of exploiting peasants and managing estates. Adventurers and mercenaries—including
many Mongols—joined them. By the end of Ivan’s reign, an aristocracy of service
over a thousand strong surrounded him.
A permanent force of royal guards formed a professional
kernel around which provincial levies grouped. Peasants were armed to guard the
frontiers. Ivan III set up a munitions factory in Moscow and hired Italian
engineers to improve what one might call the military infrastructure of the
realm—forts, which slowed adversaries, and bridges, which sped mobilization. He
abjured the traditional ruler’s role of leading his armies on campaign. To run
a vast and growing empire, ready to fight on more than one front, he stayed at
the nerve center of command and created a system of rapid posts to keep in
touch with events in the field. None of his other innovations seemed as
important, to him, as improved internal communications. At his death, he left
few commands to his heirs about the care of the empire, except for instructions
about the division of the patrimony and the allocation of tribute; but the
maintenance of the post system was uppermost in his mind: “My son Vasily shall
maintain, in his Grand Princedom, post stations and post carts with horses on
the roads at those places where there were post stations and post carts with horses
on the roads under me.” His brothers were to do the same in the lands they
Backed by his new bureaucracy and new army, Ivan could take
the step so many of his predecessors had longed for. He could abjure Mongol
suzerainty. In the event, it was easy, not only because of the strength Ivan
amassed but also because internecine hatreds shattered the Mongols’ unity. In
1430, a group of recalcitrants split off and founded a state of their own in
the Crimea, to the west of the Golden Horde’s heartland. Other factions usurped
territory to the east and south in Kazan and Astrakhan. Russian principalities
began to see the possibilities of independence. Formerly, once the shock of
invasion and conquest was over, their chroniclers had accepted the Mongols,
with various degrees of resignation, as a scourge from God or as useful and
legitimate arbitrators, or even as benevolent exemplars of virtuous paganism
whom Christians should imitate. Now, from the mid–fifteenth century, they
recast them as villains, incarnations of evil, and destroyers of Christianity.
Interpolators rewrote old chronicles in an attempt to turn Alexander Nevsky,
who had been a quisling and collaborator on the Mongols’ behalf, into a heroic
adversary of the khans.
Ivan allied with the secessionist Mongol states against the
Golden Horde. He then stopped paying tribute. The khan demanded compliance.
Ivan refused. The horde invaded, but withdrew when menaced with battle—a fatal
display of weakness. Neighboring states scented blood and tore at the horde’s
territory like sharks at bloodied prey. The ruler of the breakaway Mongol state
in the Crimea dispersed the horde’s remaining forces and burned Saray in 1502.
Russia, the chroniclers declared, had been delivered from the Mongol yoke, as
God had freed Israel from Egypt. The remaining Mongol bands in Crimea and
Astrakhan became Ivan’s pensioners, for whom he assigned one thousand gold
rubles at his death.
The Mongols’ decline liberated Ivan to make conquests for
Muscovy on other fronts. From his father, Vasily II, he inherited the ambition,
proclaimed in the inscriptions on Vasily’s coins, to be “sovereign of all
Russia.” His conquests reflect, fairly consistently, a special appetite to rule
people of Russian tongue and Orthodox faith. His campaigns against Mongol
states were defensive or punitive, and his forays into the pagan north, beyond
the colonial empire of Novgorod, were raids. But the chief enemy he seems
always to have had in his sights was Casimir IV, who ruled more Russians than
any other foreigner. How far Ivan followed a systematic grand strategy of
Russian unification is, however, a matter of doubt. No document declares such a
policy. At most, it can be inferred from his actions. He may equally well have
been responding pragmatically to the opportunities that cropped up. But
medieval rulers rarely planned for the short term—especially not when they
thought the world was about to end. Typically, they worked to re-create a
golden past or embody a mythic ideal.
To understand what was in Ivan’s mind, one has to think back
to what the world was like before Machiavelli. The modern calculus of profit
and loss probably meant nothing to Ivan. He never thought about realpolitik.
His concerns were with tradition and posterity, history and fame, apocalypse
and eternity. If he targeted Muscovy’s western frontier for special attention,
it was probably because he had the image and reputation of Alexander Nevsky
before his eyes, refracted in the work of chroniclers who turned back to rewrite
their accounts of the past, to burnish Alexander’s image, after a spell of
neglect, and reidealized him as “the Russian prince” and the perfect ruler.
Ivan did not initiate this rebranding, but he paid for chroniclers to continue
it in his own reign.
Therefore, when Ivan began turning his wealth into
conquests, he first tackled the task of reunifying the patrimony of Alexander
Nevsky. Ivan devoted the early years of the reign to suborning or forcing Tver
and Ryazan, the neighboring principalities to Muscovy’s west, into
subordination or submission, and incorporating the lands of all the surviving
heirs of Alexander Nevsky into the Muscovite state. But thoughts of Novgorod,
where Alexander’s career had begun, were never far from his mind. Novgorod was
an even bigger prize. The city lay to the north, contending against a hostile
climate, staring from huge walls over the grain lands on which the citizens
relied for sustenance. Famine besieged them more often than human enemies did.
Yet control of the trade routes to the river Volga made Novgorod cash rich. It
never had more than a few thousand inhabitants, yet its monuments record its
progress: its kremlin, or citadel, and five-domed cathedral in the 1040s; in
the early twelfth century, a series of buildings that the ruler paid for; and,
in 1207, the merchants’ church of St. Paraskeva in the marketplace.
From 1136, communal government prevailed in Novgorod. The
revolt of that year marks the creation of a city-state on an ancient model—a
republican commune like those of Italy. The prince was deposed for reasons the
rebels’ surviving proclamations specify: “Why did he not care for the common
people? Why did he want to wage war? Why did he not fight bravely? And why did
he prefer games and entertainments rather than state affairs? Why did he have
so many gyrfalcons and dogs?” Thereafter, the citizens’ principle was: “If the
prince is no good, throw him into the mud!”
To the west, Novgorod bordered the small territorial domain
of Russia’s only other city-republic, Pskov. There were others again in Germany
and on the Baltic coast, but Novgorod was unique in eastern Europe in being a
city-republic with an extensive empire of its own. Even in the West, only Genoa
and Venice resembled it in this respect. Novgorod ruled or took tribute from
subject or victim peoples in the boreal forests and tundra that fringed the
White Sea and stretched toward the Arctic. Novgorodians had even begun to build
a modest maritime empire, colonizing islands in the White Sea. The evidence is
painted onto the surface of an icon, now in an art gallery in Moscow but once
treasured in a monastery on an island in the White Sea. It shows monks adoring
the virgin on an island adorned with a golden monastery with tapering domes, a
golden sanctuary, and turrets like lighted candles. The glamour of the scene
must be the product of pious imaginations, for the island in reality is bare
and impoverished and surrounded, for much of the year, with ice.
Pictures of episodes from the monastery’s foundation legend
of the 1430s, about a century before the icon was made, frame the painter’s
vision of the Virgin receiving adoration. The first monks row to the island.
Young, radiant figures expel the indigenous fisherfolk with angelic whips. When
the abbot, Savaatii, hears of it he gives thanks to God. Merchants visit. When
they drop the sacred host that the holy monk Zosima gives them, flames leap to
protect it. When the monks rescue shipwreck victims, who are dying in a cave on
a nearby island, Zosima and Savaatii appear miraculously, teetering on
icebergs, to drive back the pack ice. Zosima experiences a vision of a
“floating church,” which the building of an island monastery fulfils. In
defiance of the barren environment, angels supply the community with bread, oil,
Whereas Zosima’s predecessors as abbots left because they
could not endure harsh conditions, Zosima calmly drove out the devils who
tempted him. All the ingredients of a typical story of European imperialism are
here: the more than worldly inspiration; the heroic voyage into a perilous
environment; the ruthless treatment of the natives; the struggle to adapt and
found a viable economy; the quick input of commercial interests; the
achievement of viability by perseverance.
Outreach in the White Sea could not grasp much or get far.
Novgorod was, however, the metropolis of a precocious colonial enterprise by
land among the herders and hunters of the Arctic region, along and across the
rivers that flow into the White Sea, as far east as the Pechora. Russian
travelers’ tales reflected typical colonial values. They classed the native
Finns and Samoyeds of the region with the beast men, the similitudines hominis,
of medieval legend. The “wild men” of the north spent summers in the sea lest
their skin split. They died every winter, when water came out of their noses
and froze them to the ground. They ate each other and cooked their children to
serve to guests. They had mouths on top of their heads and ate by placing food
under their hats; they had dogs’ heads or heads that grew beneath their
shoulders; they lived underground and drank human blood. They were exploitable
for reindeer products and fruits of the hunt—whale blubber, walrus ivory, the
pelts of the arctic squirrel and fox—that arrived in Novgorod as tribute from
the region and were vital to the economy.
Ivan coveted this wealth, and even sent an expedition to the
Arctic in 1465 in an attempt to grab a share of the fur trade. But in the 1470s
an opportunity arose to seize Novgorod itself. A dispute over the election of a
new bishop rent the city. Partisans on both sides looked for protectors or
arbitrators in neighboring realms. Should Novgorod submit to Ivan’s
overlordship by sending the bishop-elect to Moscow for consecration? Or should
the city try to perpetuate its independence by sending to Kiev, which was
safely distant, in the realm of Casimir of Lithuania? For the city’s incumbent
elite, Casimir was the less risky bet. He could be invoked in Novgorod’s
defense, as a deterrent against a Muscovite attack. But he was so busy on other
fronts that he was most unlikely ever to interfere with Novgorod’s autonomy.
The city fathers voted to make Casimir their “sovereign and master” and send
their bishop to Kiev.
Ivan called their bluff and prepared to attack. He justified
war by sanctifying it. The people of Novgorod were, he claimed, guilty of
punishable impiety—abandoning Orthodoxy and bowing to Rome. The accusation was
false. While encouraging Catholicism, Casimir tolerated other creeds among his
subjects, and a bishop consecrated in Kiev would not necessarily be compromised
in his Orthodoxy. Ivan, however, claimed to see Novgorod’s bid for independence
as a kind of apostasy, whoring after false gods—like the Jews, he said,
breaking their divine covenant to adore a golden calf. By conquering them he
would save them.
Ivan’s propaganda also besmirched Novgorod with
denunciations, on more secular grounds, as a nest of habitual recalcitrants.
“The habit” of the citizens, a chronicler in Ivan’s pay complained, was to
disagree with a great
prince and dispute with him. They will not pay respect to him, but instead they
are taciturn, obstinate, and stubborn, and do not adhere to the principles of
law and order…. Who among the princes would not become angry with them…? For
even the great Alexander [Nevsky] did not tolerate such behavior.
Ivan’s enemies in the Novgorod elite appealed to Casimir IV
to rescue them. But they sought to put intolerable restrictions on him,
demanding of the Catholic prince that he build no Roman churches, appoint only
Orthodox governors, and allow bishops of Novgorod in future to seek
consecration outside his realms. They even demanded that he settle territorial
disputes between Novgorod and Lithuania in favor of “the free men of Novgorod.”
Casimir remained aloof. There seemed no point in spilling blood and spending
treasure for such obstreperous allies. Novgorod’s citizen army of “carpenters,
coopers and others, who from birth had never mounted a horse,” was on its own. When
Ivan invaded, he crushed resistance within a few weeks. Simultaneously, with an
army of mercenaries and tributaries, he occupied the remote provinces of
Novgorod’s colonial frontier.
The terms of the peace were full of face-saving formulas,
but the upshot was clear. “You are free to do as you please,” said Ivan,
“provided you do as I please.” After a few years, he did away with all pretence
of respect for Novgorod’s autonomy. He moved in another army, abolished
residual privileges, and annexed the territory to Muscovy. The great bell that
had summoned the “free men” to assemble ended up in Moscow in the belfry of the
Kremlin. Ivan had, as he wrote to his mother, “subjected Novgorod the Great,
which is part of my inheritance, to my entire will and I am sovereign there
just as in Moscow.”
The Kremlin, the “citadel of Moscow,” as it appeared to an ambassador
from the Holy Roman Empire in 1517, with the stone structures conspicuous among
the wooden houses.
The expansion of Muscovy under Ivan III.
The conquest of Novgorod shocked Ivan’s most powerful
neighbors—Casimir in the west and Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde in the south.
Had they joined in attack, they could have matched Ivan’s power, but
Casimir—distracted as ever by rival concerns, and sanguine, as ever, in
evaluating the Muscovite threat—relied on Ahmed as a surrogate. When the khan
invaded Russia in 1480, Ivan, as we have seen, was free to concentrate his
forces and repudiate the Golden Horde’s historic claims to tribute.
Rather as Sonni Ali did in Timbuktu, Ivan dispersed
Novgorod’s elite. The first purge came in 1484, when a large force of mailed
Muscovites tramped into the city and rounded up suspected foes. In 1487, when
Ivan launched the first of a series of border raids against Lithuania, he
secured Novgorod by expelling thousands of inhabitants—members of the families
of leading citizens—on the alleged grounds that they were plotting against the
authorities. Another one thousand expulsions followed in 1489. The expulsees’
property went to some two thousand loyal colonists whom Ivan introduced.
Meanwhile, the historic principalities that fringed Muscovy’s ancient patrimony
to the West—all of which were already under Ivan’s control—were formally
Muscovy’s sudden and vertiginous rise took all Europe by
surprise. The Saxon traveler and diplomatist Nikolaus Poppel, who arrived in
Moscow in 1486, thought Ivan must be Casimir’s vassal. He was astonished to
find that the Russian ruler had more power, more wealth, and possibly, by that
date, more territory than the master of Poland and Lithuania. Fascinated, he
contemplated the vast, open, exploitable lands that stretched to the Arctic,
full of sable and copper and gold. But Ivan would not let him, or his successor
as imperial ambassador in 1492, go there. In the Latin West, Russia assumed the
mysterious renown of a fantasy land, an icy Eldorado full of strange wealth,
with monster-haunted frontiers reaching toward the unknown. In the
circumstances, Casimir might be forgiven for underestimating his eastern
neighbor and neglecting the threat from Russia. He was always juggling
conflicting responsibilities on other fronts, squeezing Prussia into
submission, insinuating his brothers or sons into power in Hungary and Moldova,
dueling with the Habsburgs for control of Bohemia.
Ivan could therefore go on provoking Casimir with impunity.
As soon as Novgorod fell to the Muscovites, Ivan forbade Lithuanian enclaves
within Novgorod’s territory from paying the taxes they owed to Casimir. In the
1480s, complaints lodged by Casimir’s envoys accumulated in Moscow: “thieves”
from Muscovy were raiding across the border, burning and pillaging villages,
sewing terror. Ivan professed ignorance and claimed innocence, but clearly the
raids had his backing. They were part of a systematic strategy for
destabilizing the border. Toward the end of the decade they escalated
outrageously. In 1487, one of Ivan’s brothers occupied a slice of borderland on
the Lithuanian side, and Ivan appointed a governor in districts traditionally
part of Lithuania. A raid in 1488 carried off seven thousand of Casimir’s
subjects. Many border towns reported repeated raids between 1485 and 1489.
Border warfare was effective. Casimir’s subjects, when he
was unable to protect them, transferred their allegiance to the aggressor as
the price of peace. Orthodox Russian lords, who had long lived under Lithuanian
rule without resentment, began to defect to Muscovy, declaring their lands to
be under Ivan’s “jurisdiction and protection.” When Casimir died, Ivan
suspended negotiations and adopted the title “Sovereign of all Russia”—an
explicit avowal of his intention of stripping Lithuania of all its Russian and
Orthodox subjects. He launched full-scale invasions on two fronts, gobbling up
the valley of the upper Oka River and advancing through the uplands of the
Vyazma region, as far as the headwaters of the Dnieper. Almost everywhere his
forces went, local rulers who submitted were reinvested with their rights as
subjects of Muscovy. In two decades, Lithuania lost control of seventy
administrative districts, twenty-two forts, nineteen towns, and thirteen
The frontier that emerged was both linguistic and religious.
Russian identity was measurable in Russian speech. But religious orthodoxy was
the identifier Ivan preferred. Doctrinally, Russia was close to Rome. The
difference that meant a lot to theologians concerned the emanation of the Holy
Spirit: “from the Father and the Son,” said the Western creed; “from the
Father,” said Orthodox Russians. This was too arcane a dispute to mean much to
most laymen, but the culture and liturgy of the two churches were mutually offensive.
Westerners found married, compulsorily bearded clergy alarming and the Slavonic
language indecorous in church. Russians felt the same way about clean-shaven
celibates spouting Latin. It is tempting to dismiss as mere posturing Ivan’s
self-proclaimed role as a crusader for Orthodoxy. But it really seems to have
meant a lot to people at the time and to have influenced many defectors from
Lithuanian allegiance. Though Ivan had occasional disputes with the Turks,
Russian propagandists almost never denounced the Ottomans as “infidels.” They
generally reserved that insult for Catholics, and for Orthodox who were in
communion with Rome.
To understand the power of anti-Catholic language in Ivan’s
rhetorical armory, awareness of the sense of threat that loomed over the
Orthodox world is essential. Even when 1492 came and went without provoking the
apocalypse, fear that the end of the world could not be far off persisted. Even
after two generations, the events of 1453, when the Turks wrenched
Constantinople from Christendom and extinguished an empire sanctified by
Christian tradition, still disturbed and challenged Orthodox thinkers.
Orthodoxy seemed beleaguered. Theologically informed minds in Russia naturally
thought of the trials of faith in ancient Israel and regarded stubborn,
uncompromising adherence to every peculiarity of their faith as the only way to
restore divine favor.
Catholic gains, meanwhile, exacerbated the centuries-old
enmity between the churches. Catholic diplomacy and evangelization had seduced
many Orthodox communities on the fringes of the Latin world back into communion
with Rome. Theological debate, meanwhile, gradually resolved most of the credal
issues between the two churches. The main outstanding disagreement was—on the
face of it—too arcane to matter to any but the subtlest and most disputatious
minds: toward the end of the eighth century, the Western churches added a
phrase to the creed, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” not from the
Father alone, as the Easterners continued to say, but also from God the Son.
Each church regarded the other’s formula as an offense against the unity of
God. Westerners said the Eastern formula degraded the Son. Easterners said the
Westerners were relegating the Holy Spirit to a sort of second-rank Godship.
In the 1430s, on Byzantine initiative, the leaders of the
churches of Rome and Constantinople agreed to leave the controversy unresolved
and to patch up their differences in order to collaborate against the Turks.
Russian sees, including that of Moscow, had representatives among the
seven-thousand-strong Eastern contingent at the Council of Florence in 1439,
where the deal was clinched and the reunion of Christendom proclaimed. But
outstanding issues remained. When the archbishop of Moscow returned to his see,
the local clergy and citizens were outraged at what they denounced as betrayal.
They flung the newcomer into prison and elected a successor who would stand up
for the independent traditions of Orthodoxy. Most other churches in the Greek
tradition also reneged on the deal, but in Byzantium, the emperors adhered to
it. The monarchs who, more than all others, bore the responsibility of
defending Orthodoxy seemed to have sold out to heresy.
What happened in the Byzantine empire mattered in Moscow,
because even when the Russians emerged from the Mongols’ thrall, they remained
under the spell of Constantinople. Toward the end of the tenth century, the
founder of the first documented Russian state applied to Constantinople for his
religion and his wife. In politics and aesthetics Russians’ models remained
Byzantine for the rest of the Middle Ages. It is not surprising that the
Russians, who owed so much to Byzantine culture, revered the Byzantine
emperors. The Turks, who owed Byzantium nothing, and reviled Christianity,
revered them, too. By the time Ivan III ruled in Muscovy, the Turks had
Byzantium surrounded. The empire was reduced to a rump. The city was at the
sultan’s mercy. But the victors held back, unwilling to break the traditions of
the people who still called themselves Romans. Of course, there were solid
reasons for keeping Byzantium independent. The Turks could control the city’s
elites with threats and promises. The emperor and patriarch could guarantee the
loyalty of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects. But whenever the Turks
contemplated the extinction of the empire, there was something numinous about
Byzantium that stayed their hands.
When they finally lost patience, the blow came quickly and
inevitably. The accession as sultan of Mehmet II in 1451 at the age of nineteen
marked the end of counsels of prudence. He resented foreign control of a
stronghold that dominated the Dardanelles—a strait vital for the communications
of his empire. He fancied himself in the Roman emperors’ place. Every contrivance
of the siege engineer’s craft prepared the fall of the city. Huge forts, known
respectively as the castles of Europe and Asia, rose on either shore to command
access to the Bosporus. The heaviest artillery ever founded arrived to batter
the walls. Ships came overland in kit form to outflank the defenders’ boom. The
Byzantine church made submission to Rome in order to secure Latin help, which
came reluctantly and too late. In the end, sheer weight of numbers proved
decisive. The attackers climbed the breaches over the bodies of dead comrades.
The corpse of the last Constantine was identified only by the eagle devices on
his foot armor.
Formerly, there had been other contenders for the role of
the third Rome, but they had all dropped out of the running. In the middle of
the thirteenth century, the recently Christianized Serbian kingdom already
housed, in monasteries founded by kings at Sopocani and Mileseva, some of the
most purely classical paintings—modeled, that is, on those of ancient Greece and
Rome—of the Middle Ages. About a century later, the Serbian monarch Stefan
Dusan dreamed of beating the Turks to the conquest of Constantinople, and
described himself with pride—if a little exaggeration—as “lord of almost the
whole of the Roman Empire.” His younger contemporary the Bulgarian czar John
Alexander claimed lordship over “all the Bulgarians and Greeks” and had himself
painted in boots of imperial scarlet—a fashion exclusive to emperors—with a
halo of gold. A translator at his court, working on a version of a Byzantine
chronicle, substituted for “Constantinople” the name of John Alexander’s
capital at Trnovo, and called it “the new Constantinople.” Serb and Bulgarian
bids for empire, however, proved too ambitious. Both states fell to the Turks.
Even at Byzantium’s last gasp, in 1452, when the Russian
church reluctantly transgressed its tradition of deference to the see of
Constantinople—defying the Byzantine rapprochement with the Latin communion by
electing a patriarch of its own—Vasily II felt obliged to apologize to the
emperor: “We beseech your sacred majesty not to blame us for not writing to
your Sovereignty beforehand. We did this from dire necessity, not from pride or
arrogance.” When the imperial city fell, Russia felt bereft. What did God mean
by allowing it to happen? How did he want the Orthodox faithful to respond? One
obvious answer began to gain acceptance in Muscovy: responsibility for
safeguarding Orthodoxy must move from Constantinople to Moscow.
Ivan staked a claim to a Byzantine inheritance when he
married a Byzantine princess. Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea was the pope’s.
In 1469, when the marriage was first mooted, Ivan was a twenty-nine year-old
widower. Zoe—or Sophia, as Russians called her—was a twenty-four year-old spinster,
plump but pretty, who was, as her tutor reminded her, “a pauper,” but who
embodied the prestige of the Byzantine imperial dynasty and legacy. She was the
niece of the last Byzantine emperor. She lived in Rome, as the ward and guest
of the pope, a fugitive from the Turkish conquest. Pope Paul II offered Ivan
Sophia’s hand. This shows that Rome was relatively well informed about Russia.
The pope knew that Ivan would find a Byzantine pedigree hard to resist. He
hoped that Sophia would make Ivan an ally in a new crusade against the Ottomans
and would provide the Russians with a shining example of conversion from
Orthodoxy to Catholicism. But for Sophia the long journey to Russia was a
spiritual homecoming that reunited her with the church of her ancestors. As she
traveled across country, through Pskov and Novgorod to Moscow, she worshipped
with reverence wherever she went. She did not jib at rebaptism in the Orthodox
rite, before her marriage in 1472, or at the orders Ivan gave her entourage
forbidding them to display their crucifixes in public.
In the 1470s—hesitantly and unsystematically at first—Ivan
began to call himself “Czar” of all Russia, in allusion to the title of
“Caesar” that Roman emperors had affected. Previously, the monarch of
Constantinople and the khan of the Golden Horde were the only rulers Muscovites
had flattered with so resounding a title. In the next decade Ivan’s escalating
pretensions became obvious during his sporadic negotiations with the Holy Roman
Empire. When Frederick III offered to elevate Ivan from the rank of Grand
Prince and invest him as a king, Ivan replied disdainfully.
By God’s grace we have been sovereigns in our own land since
the beginning, since our earliest ancestors. Our appointment comes from God, as
did that of our ancestors, and we beg God to grant to us and our children to
abide forever in the same state, namely as sovereigns in our own land; and as
before we did not seek to be appointed by anyone, so now do we not desire it.
When Nikolaus Poppel offered to arrange for Ivan’s daughter
to marry Frederick’s nephew, the margrave of Baden, Ivan’s response was equally
peremptory. “It is not fitting,” read the instructions he gave to his own
ambassador. The lineage of the rulers of Muscovy was more ancient than that of
the Habsburgs. “How could such a great sovereign hand over his daughter to that
margrave?” When, in answer to the prophets who foresaw the imminent end of the
world, Patriarch Zosima of Moscow recalculated the calendar in 1493, he took
the opportunity to reinvent “the pious and Christian-loving Ivan” as “the new
Czar Constantine,” in allusion to the first Christian emperor, who founded
Constantinople. Moscow, he continued, was “the new city of Constantinople, that
is to say, The New Rome.” Soon after, a false genealogy circulated in Muscovy,
tracing the dynasty back to a mythical brother of Augustus, first emperor of
Rome. In a work addressed to either Ivan III or his son, a pious monk, Filofei
by name, in the frontier-state of Pskov proclaimed Moscow “the Third Rome”
after Rome itself and Constantinople. The first had fallen through heresy. The
used their scimitars
and axes to cleave the doors of the second Rome,…and here now in the new, third
Rome, your mighty empire, is the Holy Synodal Apostolic Church, which to the
ends of the universe in the Orthodox Christian faith shines more brightly than
the sun in the sky. Pious czar, let your state know that all Orthodox empires
of the Christian faith have now merged into one, your empire. You are the only
czar in all the Christian universe.
Filofei called Orthodoxy “synodal” to distinguish it from
Catholicism, which exalted the pope above other bishops.
In endorsing the notion of the third Rome, Ivan appropriated
what seems originally to have been a propaganda line spun in Novgorod to exalt
that city’s bishop as a rival to Moscow’s. In 1484, the clergy of Novgorod
elected a bishop whom Ivan rejected, and claimed that Novgorod had received a
white cowl from Rome at the behest of Constantine, the first Roman emperor, as
a sign that “in the third Rome, which will be Russia, the Grace of the Holy
Spirit will be revealed.” Toward the end
of his reign Ivan adopted a new seal: a double-headed eagle, which, whether he
copied it from the Byzantines or from the Holy Roman Empire, was an
unmistakably imperial motif.
He rebuilt Moscow to clothe it in grandeur befitting its new
imperial status and, perhaps, to array it for the apocalypse expected in 1492.
The new palace chapel of the archbishop of Moscow was dedicated to Our Lady’s
Robe—a holy relic that had protected Constantinople many times before the
failure of 1453. There could be no clearer symbol that Moscow had taken over
Constantinople’s former sanctity. Other buildings contributed to the general
embellishment of what was still a modest-looking city, built mainly of wood.
The Kremlin acquired formidable brick walls. Agostino Fioravanti—one of Ivan’s
imported Italian engineers—made the Cathedral of the Assumption rise over the
city in gleaming stone in celebration of the conquest of Novgorod. In the 1480s
the Cathedral of the Assumption followed to provide a space for the czar to
worship in, while the archbishop’s palace acquired a sumptuous new chapel.
Other Italian technicians built a new audience chamber for Ivan, the Palace of
By taking his wife from Rome and architects from Italy, Ivan
tugged the Renaissance eastward. He set a trend that reached Hungary in 1476,
when King Mathias Corvinus married an Italian princess, abandoned the gothic
plans for his new palace, and remodeled it on Italian lines in imitation of one
of the most famous architectural texts of antiquity: the younger Pliny’s
description of his country villa. One of the Italian humanists the king
employed was explicit about the building’s inspiration. “When you read,” he
told Mathias, “that the Romans created gigantic works that proved their
magnificence, you do not permit, invincible prince, that their buildings should
surpass yours,…but you revive once again the architecture of the ancients.” The king also compiled a much envied classical
library. Over the next couple of generations, Renaissance taste would dominate
the courts of Poland and Lithuania. Revulsion from Catholicism made Russia a
tough environment for Latin culture of any sort, but Ivan showed at least that
the cultural frontier was permeable.
Ivan turned Russia into the uncontainable, imperial state
that has played a major role in global politics ever since. In his reign, the
extent of territory nominally subject to Moscow grew from fifteen thousand to
six hundred thousand square kilometers. He annexed Novgorod and wrenched at the
frontiers of Kazan and Lithuania. His priorities lay in the West. He defined
Russia’s championship of Orthodoxy. He drew a new frontier with Catholic
Europe, but, while excluding Catholicism, he opened Russia to cultural
influences from the West. He discarded the Mongol yoke and reversed the direction
of imperialism in Eurasia. From his time on, the pastoralists of the central
Asian steppes would usually be victims of Russian imperialism rather than
empire makers at Russian expense. In all these respects the influence of his
achievements has endured and helped shape the world in which we live, in which
Russia seems to teeter on the edge of the West, never utterly alien but
maddeningly inassimilable. But the most striking effect of his reign on the
subsequent history of the world has usually gone unremarked: the opening of
Russia’s way east, toward what contemporaries called “The Land of
Darkness”—Arctic Russia and Siberia, which, of all the colonial territories
European imperialists conquered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is
the only land where empire endures today.
Here, to the northeast, Ivan’s armies ventured into
little-known territory, along a route explored by missionaries in the previous
century, following the river Vym toward the Pechora. The object of this thrust
into the Land of Darkness was the effort to control the supply of boreal
furs—squirrel and sable—for which there was enormous demand in China, central
Asia, and Europe. Sable was black gold, and fur was to the Russian empire what
silver was to Spain’s and spices to Portugal’s. In 1465, 1472, and 1483, Ivan
sent expeditions beyond the reach of Novgorod’s empire, to Perm and the Ob,
with the aim of imposing tribute in furs on the tribespeople who lived there.
The biggest invasion was that of 1499, when the city of Pustozersk was founded
at the mouth of the Pechora. Four thousand men crossed the Pechora on sleds in
winter and made for the Ob, returning with a thousand prisoners and many pelts.
Ivan’s ambassador in Milan claimed that his master received a thousand ducats’
worth of fur in annual tribute. The region remained occluded by myth. When
Sigmund von Herberstein served as the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoy to Moscow in
1517, he picked up some of the stories of monstrously distended giants, men
without tongues, “living dead,” fish with men’s faces, and “the Golden Old
Woman of the Ob.” Nonetheless, by comparison with the previous state of
knowledge, Russian acquaintance with the boreal north and with Siberia was
transformed by the new contacts.
Something of the feel of this new adventure is detectable in
the testament Ivan left at his death. The laws of succession of Muscovy were
vague. That is why Ivan’s father had fought long wars against his cousins. Ivan
imprisoned two of his own brothers. In an attempt to preempt rebellions, every
ruler of Muscovy left a testament, bequeathing his lands and revenues to his
heirs. Ivan’s conquests made his testament especially long, brimming with the
names of exotic communities and distant frontiers. After pages devoted to the
many communities gained from Lithuania, and among lists of the appurtenances
and possessions of the independent Russian principalities Muscovy had absorbed,
with the territories Ivan confiscated from his brothers, the document turns to
the eastern borderlands and the strange, vast empire acquired with the conquest
of Novgorod. The Mordvins appear—pagan forest dwellers, speakers of a Finnic
tongue, who occupied the slopes of the Urals and the strategic frontier along
the northern border of Kazan. The lands of their neighbors the Udmurts are
listed, which Ivan seized in 1489. The “Vyatka land” is mentioned—but not its
once indomitable people. These herdsmen of the northern plains had tried to
remain independent by shifting allegiance between the Russians and the Mongols.
When Ivan lost patience with them, he invaded with overwhelming force, put
their leaders to death, carried off thousands of Vyatkans into captivity, and
resettled their territory with reliable Russians. Novgorod’s territories are
painstakingly enumerated, with eighteen places dignified as cities, and the
five provinces into which the territory was divided, stretching north to the
White Sea and, beyond Novgorod’s colonial lands, the valley of the northern
Dvina, and the savage tributaries known as the Forest Lop and the Wild Lop.
Pskov is bestowed, even though it remained a sovereign city-state, allied with
Ivan but outside his empire.
And from the pages of Ivan’s testament, the sources and
rewards of his success gleam. After bestowing sealed coffers of treasure to
various heirs, and the residue of his treasury to his successor, Ivan listed
the small change of empire:
rubies, and sapphire, and other precious stones, and pearls, and any articles of dress decorated with precious stones, and belts, and golden chains, and golden vessels, and silver ones, and stone ones, and gold, and silver, and sables, and silk goods, and divers other belongings, whatever there is, as well as whatever is in the treasury of my bedchamber—icons and golden crosses, and gold, and silver, and other belongings—and whatever is in the custody of my major-domo…and my palace secretaries—silver vessels and money, and other belongings and similar hordes in the care of other officials and in provincial palaces, “my treasure and my treasures, wherever they shall be.”
The year 1492 was the decisive one for the reign, not only
because the world failed to end but also because a new world began for Russia
when Casimir IV died. His sons divided his inheritance. The only power capable
of challenging Muscovy in the vast imperial arena between Europe and Asia
dissolved. The frontier between Orthodoxy and Catholicism wavered a great deal
in future centuries, but it never strayed far from the lines laid down in the
treaties Ivan and his son made with Casimir’s heir. Muscovy became
Russia—recognizably the state that occupies the region today. Russia was able
to turn east toward the Land of Darkness and begin to convert the great forests
and tundra into an empire that has remained Russia’s ever since.
Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro) by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.
The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Civil War, was also made possible by the weakness of their enemies. The parties of the Right had never commanded many followers, and the centre-right Kadet party was hardly in a better state. The educated minority who opposed the revolution became more and more aware of their isolation as time went by. Gorn, an official active in the Baltic, was probably typical:
It would be a mistake
to think that Bolshevism was an alien element in Russia. Multi-million
illiterate Russia nurtured it, she bore it and belched it forth from inside
herself. The Russian intelligentsia was the thinnest film on the surface of the
Russian muzhik [peasant] ocean.
G. K. Gins wrote something similar after the disaster of the
Our culture was a
frail boat in the midst of a raging sea but we, the representatives of the
intelligentsia, argued among ourselves on the boat and did not notice the
elemental force coming at us. The ocean swallowed the boat, and us with it.
Paradoxically, the moderate agrarian socialists who tried to
swim in the ‘muzhik ocean’ also drowned. This was partly a failure of will and
organization, but it also came from a kind of peasant passivity, a passivity
that was a key to the outcome of the Civil War. The secret Soviet Tambov report
is useful here too. Even the kulaks, it noted,
the most cultured, the
most politically developed stratum . . . do not, in general, show any capacity
for raising their sights to thinking in terms of the state as a whole; their
economic [mental outlook] has not carried them . . . very far beyond the
outskirts of their villages or rural districts . . . without the guidance of
the parties of the industrial bourgeoisie this movement can lead only to
anarchical rioting and to bandit destruction.
The SRs were never able to mobilize peasant support, to
defend the Constituent Assembly, to oppose the ‘commissarocracy,’ or to counter
the pressure of the White generals.
Given the weakness of the anti-Bolshevik civilians, it is
not surprising that the soldiers took over. They alone had effective force.
‘Kto palku vzial, tot i kapral,’ ‘He who has the stick is the corporal,’ summed
up the power relationships in anti-Bolshevik Russia.
The Whites are sometimes said to have lost because petty
rivalries blocked a common military strategy. It is true that their attacks
were not coordinated, but this could not have been avoided. The difficulties of
communication were immense. The four White fronts – south Russia, western
Siberia, north Russia, the Baltic – were all far distant from one another; the
two main fronts, Denikin’s and Kolchak’s, were separated by a 10,500-mile
voyage around the Middle East and Asia, and then a 4000-mile rail trip across
Siberia. The fate of General Grishin-Almazov, captured and executed while trying
to take the ‘short’ route to Omsk across the Caspian Sea, showed the danger.
Denikin and Kolchak never met one another and could not have done so during the
Civil War. The various White armies simply launched their attacks as soon as
they were ready. There were sound reasons for this. With each month the Red
army became larger. The Allies would only give support if there were successful
White advances. Civil War armies did better on the offensive. The one serious
mistake of grand strategy was the failure of the Siberian and South Russian
armies to link up – either in the summer of 1918 or the summer of 1919, and at
the time there seemed good reasons for advancing in other directions. The
failure of the Poles to march in 1919 was also critical, although this was
outside White control.
The anti-Bolshevik democrats had a popular programme but few
military resources. The White generals and colonels had better armies but made
few promises to the population of their base territories and of the large
captured regions. This was partly because the Whites’ social foundation was the
property-owning minority (the tsenzovoe society). But it also came from their
very dislike of politics. The White leaders were narrow conservative
nationalists. Sakharov, one of Kolchak’s generals, summed up the White outlook
in his 1919 appeal to the Urals population: ‘Our party is Holy Russia, our
class is the whole Russian people.’ The Whites ignored parties and classes;
they thought, moreover, in terms not of revolution or even of civil war, but of
the likholet’e or smuta (time of troubles); the great smuta dated from the
early 1600s. Denikin entitled his massive memoirs Sketches of the Russian Time
of Troubles. One anti-Bolshevik Cossack politican, defending demands for
autonomy against the disapproval of the White generals, had to insist, ‘This is
not a smuta but a popular movement.’ But the Whites were even afraid of a
The Whites feared the people; paradoxically, they counted on
some vague popular upsurge to bring them victory. Sakharov again, talking about
the late autumn of 1919, was typical. If the rear would give his poorly
equipped army some support he would pursue the Reds back beyond the Urals.
And then the road to Moscow would be clear, then the whole people
would come over to us and stand openly under the Admiral’s banner. The
Bolsheviks and the other socialist filth would be destroyed – from the roots up
– by the burning rage of the popular masses.
But the Whites, unlike the Reds, made little effort to
mobilize the population in a political way, and their social and political
programme was not one that bred spontaneous popular support. Sakharov proudly
wrote that ‘the White movement was in essence the first manifestation of
fascism’ (he was writing in Munich, nine months after Mussolini’s March on
Rome). But this was distorted hindsight; the Whites lacked the mobilization
skills and relatively wide social base of the Italian or German radical Right.
Linked to narrow political horizons was another vital
drawback of White rule: arbitrary conduct by White authorities and a general
lack of order. The source of this was the crude nature of White ‘politics’ and
the lack of vital resources; civilian administrators, an enthusiastic
population, and time. The Whites also failed properly to organize their armies.
This may seem odd, given that the movement was dominated by military officers.
But they actually lacked properly trained military specialists, especially in
Siberia. The Cossacks gave them a major advantage in south Russia, but the Cossacks
were jealous of their own autonomy and fought best within their ‘host
territories.’ The Whites had only a small base of manpower and material
compared to Sovdepia. And, as was the case with general administration, they had
less time than the Reds to organize their forces.
The Whites, as Great Russian nationalists, were also opposed
to any concessions to the minorities. They had no tolerance for ‘the sweet
poisonous dreams of complete independence’ (Denikin’s words) of people such as
the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Baltic and Transcaucasian minorities.
Denikin was right when he said that his officers, Russian nationalists, would
not have fought for the ‘Federated Republic.’ Although the Whites were prepared
to accept some form of independence for Poland and possibility for Finland,
they could not agree to all the territorial claims of the Warsaw and Helsinki
governments. Polish action on the western border in 1919 might have made
possible the capture of Moscow, while Finnish support would certainly have made
Red Petrograd indefensible.
The Whites had little chance of winning. Certainly by 1920
Vrangel could only have won if there had been a catastrophic internal collapse
on the Soviet side. But even Kolchak and Denikin faced, from the winter of
1918–1919, a struggle against great odds. The Bolsheviks had had a year to
consolidate their position, they controlled most of the military resources of
old Russia, they had more popular support, and their forces outnumbered those
of the Whites by ten to one.
The ‘Russian’ Civil War was a three-cornered struggle.
Russian revolutionaries fought Russian counterrevolutionaries, but the national
minorities resisted both. The Civil War was about what would become of all the
peoples of the Empire. (And it was an internal affair; the only fighting
outside the old Empire was the 1920 Lvov campaign – in what had been Austrian
Galicia – and the 1921 Mongolian expedition.) Those regions that broke away
were among the ‘winners’ of the Civil War. They succeeded for various reasons.
Finland and Poland won their own independence. Bessarabia, five
Belorussian–Ukrainian provinces, and Kars Province had the pull of neighbouring
states (Rumania, Poland, and Turkey). Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were
helped by German and Allied forces. All benefited from the Red Army’s
preoccupation with other fronts. But more than 80 per cent of the former
subjects of the Tsar became citizens of the Soviet federation. Half of these
people were not Great Russians. The multinational Russian Empire, the famous
‘prison of peoples,’ did not break up, a remarkable development in an age of
Demographic, geographical, and cultural factors were
involved. The Great Russians outnumbered each individual minority by fifteen to
one or more (except in the case of the Ukrainians). Alliances that might have
countered this – the Transcaucasian Federation, the cossacks and their
southeastern allies, the Poles with the Ukrainians and Belorussians,
Pan-Turkism – remained only theoretical projects. The central provinces, the
Sovdepia heartland, were Russian-dominated. Even in the minority areas Russians
often controlled the towns and transport. The trained military leaders were
Russian, and the nature of Tsarism predetermined the minorities’ weakness, just
as it predetermined the weakness of Russian political parties. The
Petersburg-centreed Romanov autocracy had allowed little political or national
activity. Even in areas where the minorities came to see themselves as distinct
nations – and 1917 was a great awakener – they lacked the experience and the
time to create an effective administration.
Bolshevik Moscow’s social revolution attracted the
intelligentsia, workers, and peasants of the outlying regions. Bolshevik
national policy, too, seemed better than the ‘Russia, One and Indivisible’ of
the Whites, for whom cooperation with the ‘separatists’ was ruled out from the
start. It is hard to understand Richard Pipes’s view that the Bolsheviks were
‘the least qualified of all the Russian parties (save for those of the extreme
right) to solve the national problem.’ The Cossack politician who spoke of
‘Trotsky’s dreams of a Sovdepia, one, great, and indivisible’ was making a
crude oversimplification. Bolshevik policy rejected Russian chauvinism, and the
most enthusiastic ‘internationalists’ were reined in; the Bolsheviks granted
self-government, however imperfect, to a number of peoples, and to the Ukraine,
Belorussia, and other regions they even granted a form of independence. Moscow
allowed wide cultural autonomy and encouraged a national awakening that would
cause problems for itself in the 1920s. And it combined this with the
maintenance of centralized institutions such as the party and the army and with
the unifying idea of social revolution. This was just the right – possibly the
only – formula for holding multinational ‘Russia’ together.
It was important that the Russian Bolsheviks had strong
motives for holding the Empire together. Their leaders saw the nationalists as
just a form of bourgeois rule. Their spetsy military commanders had simpler
nationalist motives. For both, the defeat of ‘Russian’ counterrevolutionaries
and Allied intervention demanded an advance into the borderlands. And there
were broad continuities. Denikin put it as follows:
The state link of
Russia with her borderlands was preordained by history, economics, markets, the
railway system, the need for defendable frontiers, the psychology of Russian
society, and the whole totality of the cultural-economic development of both
sides and of mutual interests. The link would be restored, sooner or later,
voluntarily – by treaty – or through compulsion – economic (tariff) war or an
army offensive. And that would have been done by any Russia – ‘Red,’ ‘Pink,’
‘White,’ or ‘Black’ – which did not want to suffocate inside the limits of
those artificial boundaries which the World War and internal chaos had confined
The link was something that the newly conscious, newly
organized minorities could not tear apart.
Defeated with the Whites was foreign intervention. Bolshevik
Civil War propaganda stressed Allied intervention, and later Soviet historians,
following Stalin, reduced the Civil War to three ‘Entente Campaigns.’ An
imperialist conspiracy fitted in with the Bolshevik world outlook; a foreign
threat mobilized nationalist feeling; and the ‘Entente cannibals’ (Stalin’s
phrase) gave a reason why the Civil War lasted so long. But Lenin had predicted
on the eve of October 1917 that the Allies would not be a serious problem: ‘a
combination of English, Japanese, and American imperialism against us is
extremely difficult to realize, and is not at all dangerous to us, if only
because of Russia’s geographical position’; there is much to be said for this
Contrary to what is often thought, the most important
‘intervention’ was not by the Allies but by the Central Powers. Up until
November 1918 they held much of western and southern Russia. The
‘fourteen-power’ anti-Bolshevik Allied alliance that was featured in Soviet
propaganda was a myth. The Americans were cool about intervention; the Japanese
stayed on the Pacific coast. The French gave up an active role after the spring
of 1919 Odessa shambles and concentrated on a cordon sanitaire of the border
states. (Even then, neither the French nor the British did much to help the
border state of Poland in 1920.) Few Allied troops were sent; none fought in
the main battles. The western Allies neither created the Czechoslovak Corps nor
planned its uprising. The Czechoslovaks did clear a rallying area, but they
were few in number and fought only for six months. Their success was a symptom
not of Allied manipulation but of Soviet impotence and unpopularity. It is true
that Allied munitions and supplies made possible the furthest White advance,
but this material only arrived in quantity in the summer of 1919; Kolchak’s
spring offensive and Denikin’s conquest of a south Russian base area came
earlier. Even the Allied blockade had little effect. Bolshevik Russia’s foreign
trade possibilities were limited anyway (especially after the renunciation of
foreign debts), and for most of 1919 Whites or nationalists held the major
ports (Petrograd was the exception, but it had already become an economic
Intervention was not a disaster for the Allies, if only
because they committed so few resources to it. True, it did not defeat the
Central Powers, save the anti-Bolsheviks, or deflect a Soviet onslaught on
Central Europe (something the Red Army was hardly up to). The Reds were
distracted from some of the border regions. Some White leaders resented the
intrusions of the ‘dress-circle internatsional’, but Allied support was a major
part of White propaganda. There is little evidence that intervention helped the
Bolsheviks by making their cause a nationalist one. And if intervention
lengthened the Russian crisis it did not create dictatorship and terror; they
had deep enough roots in the soil of Imperial Russia.
The outcome of the Civil War has much to do with Russian
history. Tsarist Russia contained elements of both backwardness and modernity.
Russia’s peculiar state-sponsored modernization meant that there was a
considerable working class (although small in per capita terms) and only a
small middle class. The victory of extreme radicals during the Civil War had
much to do with the very strength of the autocracy before 1917. Until less than
ten years before the start of the World War there had been no legal political
parties. The Tsarist state had never tolerated rival forces in the form of
political parties or the national minorities, or even in the form of the army
or the church. As a result there were no strong forces on hand to take over the
country when the autocracy disappeared in February 1917.
The Bolsheviks were able to take over, in the October 1917
Revolution and the ‘Triumphal March of Soviet Power,’ because they followed the
popular movement. The workers and Tsarist soldiers, with their particular
discontents, helped carry the Bolsheviks to power – and then economic collapse
and demobilization largely ended their political role. The Right was still
shattered by the impact of the World War, the fall of the autocracy, and the
impact of social revolution. After that there was no one to challenge the ‘dictatorship
of the proletariat.’ The reason the country did not just slide into anarchy
with the October Revolution was, ironically, because of the state tradition
that had been created under the autocracy. Modernization had progressed far
enough to give a railway network that enabled the centre to regain control of
the periphery, and meanwhile the Bolsheviks were able and willing to make use
of much of the apolitical debris of the Tsarist state, including the army
officer-corps and the civil service.
Several milestones mark the decline of nomad predominance: the battle
of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 when the Moscovites first defeated the Mongols of the
Golden Horde, although it was not until the fall of Kazan to the troops of Ivan
IV in 1552 that the triumph of the settled people was finally consolidated.
Russian cavalry first appeared in 971, in a war against Byzantium, but
it could not compare with the Byzantine armoured riders. In the eleventh
century, it was organized according to the decimal system, and armed with short
lance, sword, bow and large shield. Three centuries later, under Mongol
influence, it became one of the main elements of the army, and at the Battle of
Kulikovo (1380) against the Mongols, an attack by the Russian cavalry decided
the outcome. From the end of the fourteenth century, it was more effective and
its equipment improved. Armament consisted of a long lance with pennant, strong
sword, battle-axe, bow and dagger; protection was provided by helmet, mail coif
or hauberk and large kite shield. The Russian battle formation was akin to that
of the Tartars: five groups of scouts (polk), centre, left wing, right wing,
and rearguard (reserve).
The Muscovite appanage was further enlarged in the 14th century, and
Daniel’s great-grandson Dmitry Donskoi (1359-1389) defeated the Tatars in the
battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. This victory marked the beginning of the end
of Tatar domination of Russia. The power of the Golden Horde never fully
recovered after Tamerlane’s attack on the khanate in the 1390s, and in the 15th
century the Tatar state fell apart.
Dmitry’s disposition of his forces, with his flanks anchored to rivers
or marshland and regiments placed in reserve and ambush, reflected how much the
Russians had learned about turning their Tatar enemies’ tactics against them.
Before the break of dawn on September 8, 1380, Grand Prince
Dmitry-Ivanovich of Moscow, accompanied by his general, Bobrok, made a personal
reconnaissance of Kulikovo Field near the Don River, approximately 300
kilometers south of Moscow. The wide field, which got its name from the
multitude of small swamp birds, or kulik, that inhabited it, was crisscrossed
by many gulches, with small hillocks topped by copses of trees and swampy
lowlands nestled between the hills. It was here that he would arrange the
12,000 warriors from various Russian principalities who had agreed to fight for
him and a cause that amounted to suicide. Approaching to engage him were some
18,000 Tatars of the Golden Horde, a branch of the Mongol empire that had
dominated Russia for almost a century and a half. Russian princes and dukes had
challenged the Tatars before. All had gone down in defeat followed by a
terrible retribution from their Asiatic overlords.
Russia’s ordeal under the eastern invaders began in 1237,
when a 130,000-strong army under the command of Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis
Khan, thundered across its steppes and claimed them for the Mongol empire. One
after another the small and disunited Russian principalities, engaged in
constant war against each other, fell under Mongol rule. The fall of Kiev in
1240 left almost all Russian territory, save for some of the northern lands
around Novgorod, under Mongol domination. As tragic as those events were for
the Russians, the Mongols regarded Russia as an area of little importance,
merely a stopover on their way to conquer richer lands in Eastern Europe and
the Middle East. Unlike the conquered regions inhabited by nomadic Turkic
tribes, the Russian lands were not incorporated into the Mongol empire, or
khanate, but remained semi-independent vassals, paying an annual tribute and
providing troops for Mongol campaigns.
After his campaigns in Russia and Eastern Europe, Batu Khan
established the Kipchak Tatar khanate that became known as the Golden Horde,
after the color of its warriors’ tents. After Batu’s death in 1255, the Golden
Horde went into a gradual decline. By the mid-14th century, the empire Genghis
Khan built had lost its Mongol identity. Its power base shifted to the Tatars,
nomadic Turkic peoples inhabiting the vast steppes bordering southern Russia.
When the ruling khan was assassinated in 1357, the Golden Horde entered a long
period of internecine warfare. During a span of 20 years the Horde had almost
as many rulers. By 1378, a Mongol general named Mamai, who was a longtime
powerbroker behind the throne, finally emerged at the forefront and declared
himself the khan of the Golden Horde.
Mamai’s political position remained tenuous. Since he was
not of a Genghizid line, he was challenged for the supreme position by
Tokhtamysh, khan of the Blue Horde, the eastern offshoot of the Mongol empire,
who was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Sensing that Mamai’s grasp on
Russian lands was weakening. Grand Prince Dmitry increased the pace of unifying
the many duchies and principalities around Moscow under his own control through
astute politics, religion and marriage. Dmitry, who hailed from a line of
decisive and capable princes, was one of those rare people in history who was
the right man at the right place at the right time. He subjugated the
principality of Tver by force of arms, then secured an alliance with Suzdal by
marrying the daughter of Suzdal’s prince. Novgorod and its adjacent lands came
under his control when Patriarch Sergei Radonezhsky, an ardent supporter of
Dmitry, excommunicated the city’s residents and closed its churches until they
acknowledged the Muscovite prince’s authority over them.
Golden Horde 1. Khan Mamai 2. Standard Bearer 3. Warrior 4. Drummer 5. Trumpeter 6. Noble 7. Noble Horse Archer
In order to curb Prince Dmitry’s growing influence and
reassert his own authority, Khan Mamai demanded a large tribute from Moscow in
1380. The prince sent gold and silver, but in what Mamai regarded as no more
than a token quantity. The Tatar khan mobilized his army for a campaign to
bring Dmitry in line.
The forces that Mamai assembled to oppose the Moscovite
prince were varied in character. In addition to the khan’s own Tatars there
were contingents from vassal steppe nomads, such as Polovtsi, and Circassian
and Arrmenian tribes living in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Prince
Oleg of Ryazan, chief among Dmitry’s Russian rivals, also promised Mamai his
support. Lithuanian King Jogaila may have also pledged to send his troops to
support Mamai. (Jogaila, the son of King Olgerd and Russian Princess Ulyana of
Tver, considered himself a rightful heir to some of the Russian lands). Aid
also came from an unexpected quarter. The Genoese merchants from colonies in
the Crimean Peninsula wanted to minimize the disruption of trade along the
Great Silk Road, a portion of which ran through Mamai’s territory. With that in
mind, they hired more than 2,000 mercenary pikemen from all over the Eastern
Mediterranean to support the Golden Horde.
ARMY OF PRINCE DMITRY Prince with retinue: 1. Prince 2. Squire-page 3. Standard Bearer 4. Trumpeter 5. Drummer
In the early spring of 1380, Prince Dmitry received news of
the impending invasion from his ally Prince Gleb of Bryansk. At once Dmitry
dispatched messengers to all the territories loyal to him, with requests for
soldiers to come to his aid. At the same time he ordered the strengthening of
fortifications in Kolomna and Tula, two border towns that would bear the first
brunt of the Tatar onslaught.
Soon thereafter, Dmitry received word that Prince Oleg of
Ryazan and King Jogaila had thrown in their lot with Khasn of the Golden Horde Mamai.
Dmitry immediately called a council of nobles, or boyare, to decide on a course
of action. Dmitry backed up by the veteran general Bobrok and Dmitry’s cousin,
Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov, decided to immediately advance against Mamai
before Oleg and Jogaila joined him.
Not wasting any time, Dmitry sent out a strong cavalry
detachment under the command of experienced warriors Rodion Rzhevsky, Andrey
Volosaty and Vasily Tupik. They were ordered to get as close as possible to the
main encampments of the Golden Horde and take a prisoner for interrogation.
This reconnaissance detachment took all the precautions to make its approach
unobserved. The men wrapped their horses’ hooves and all the metal horse
equipment, as well as their personal weapons, with rags in order not to make
noise. Each trooper, emulating the Tatar custom, brought along a reserve horse
for faster movement.
Five days later, the scouts reached the outer edges of the
Tatar camp, to be confronted with the intimidating sight of innumerable
campfires stretching to the far horizon. After setting up an ambush, they
succeeded in capturing a minor Tatar noble. In questioning him, the Russian
scouts found out that Mamai was waiting for the w heat to mature a little more
so that his warriors could live off the land while campaigning. The Tatars were
also waiting for the arrival of King Jogaila, who was not expected earlier than
That intelligence spurred Dmitry to hasten his mobilization
effort. The troops who would not have time to gather in Moscow by the start of
the campaign were redirected to the border town of Kolomna. As his forces began
to gather, Dmitry took stock of the situation. Only a small portion of his force
was made up of seasoned soldiers from the household war bands of Russian
nobles. Those troops were armed with swords, war axes and heavy spears, and
wore chain or scale armor with high-peaked helmets. A heavy metal
teardrop-shaped shield, traditionally painted deep red, rounded off their armor
Only a fraction of them were mounted. The bulk of the Muscovite army was made
up of peasants and city residents with limited military’ experience at best.
Barely one in three of them had any armor, and even that was simply fashioned
from sewing metal plates onto heavy clothing. This militia was mainly armed
with wooden shields, bows and spears.
The basic unit making up a Russian regiment was called a
“banner,” comprising “lances” of 10 warriors each. The
strength of each banner generally varied from 20 to 100 men, based on
recruiting efforts in each area and the wealth that each particular prince had
to raise and equip his retinues.
In his preparations for the upcoming campaign Dmitry proved
himself an experienced administrator He attended to myriad details, from
gathering materials for wound dressing and finding people knowledgeable in
treating wounds to planning routes of march for individual units.
After leaving strong garrisons in Moscow and Serpukhov,
Dmitry’s army left Moscow for Kolomna on August 20, 1380. In order to alleviate
crowding on poor roads, the Russian forces moved along three different routes.
Ten merchants who knew the route through the steppes as well as the location of
watering holes and other water sources guided the columns. Reaching Kolomna on
the 24th, Dmitry called a halt to rest his troops and give his late arriving
detachments time to catch up. In order to facilitate the crossing of Oka River,
he ordered his soldiers to improve the available fords by dumping large amounts
of sand, gravel and dirt in the river. Some of these artificial sandbanks
survive to the present day, and navigators on the Oka take careful measures to
Learning that Jogaila’s forces were on the move as well,
Dmitry led his army south along the left bank of the Oka. In choosing that
route, Dmitry placed his forces between Mamai and his Lithuanian allies. Ever\’
day mounted scouts brought news of Mamai’s progress. They reported that the
forward detachments of Tatar cavalry’ were already approaching the Nepryadva
River delta at the Don River. The main Russian force was rapidly advancing toward
the Don as well, gaining several days’ march ahead of Jogaila.
Dmitry’s route took his forces through the edge of Ryazan’s
territory. In spite of Prince Oleg’s alliance with the Golden Horde, Dmitry
ordered his troops to leave the Ryazan lands unmolested. In so doing, the
Muscovite prince displayed a canny understanding of the fact that Ryazan was
one of the most geographically vulnerable Russian principalities, lying directly
between Moscow and the Golden Horde. Oleg had the unenviable job of trying to
safeguard even a modicum of independence in the face of two voracious
neighbors. And Dmitry’s nonthreatening behavior paid off-although he was within
easy reach of the Tatar army, Oleg did not hurry to join Mamai, but cautiously
hung back, to see how the upcoming confrontation would play out.
The Russian forces approaching the Don were divided into
four components. The main body, called the Grand Regiment, was under Dmitry’s
immediate command. This unit also included the war bands of the Belozersk
princes. The Right Regiment, as its name implied, was moving to the right of
the Grand Regiment, under the command of Prince Vladimir. This unit also
included troops from the city of Yaroslavl. The Left Regiment was commanded by
Prince Gleb. Marching in the van, in front of the Grand Regiment, the Forward
Regiment’s task was to scout out the route of march and receive the brunt of a
Tatar offensive if necessary.
In the beginning of September; the forward Russian
detachments reached the Don. Prince Dmitry ordered a halt to give all the
troops who had fallen behind a chance to catch up, assemble and rest.
Meanwhile the Russian scouts took another prisoner who told
them that Mamai was advancing slowly, waiting for Jogaila’s and Oleg’s armies
to arrive. The Tatar forces, mostly composed of light cavalry, did not have the
siege train necessary for taking Russian cities and were relying on the
Lithuanians to provide them with the needed equipment. Not yet aware that
Dmitry had already reached the Don, Mamai was still under the impression that
the Russian forces would not dare to make a major move against him, and he was
preparing to cross the river in three days’ time.
Russian scouts also reported that King Jogaila’s forces were
making good time and were only two days away from joining Mamai. Prince Dmitry
called for another war council, in which several courses of action were
discussed. Some princes favored not crossing the Don, but remaining on their
side and attempting to prevent Mamai from crossing the river. Dmitry, supported
by his hotheaded cousin Prince Vladimir and General Bobrok, were for crossing
the river and taking the war to Mamai. After much deliberation, Dmitiy decided
to cross the river and meet the invader head-on. This decision did not come
lightly. The Russian commander was well aware that should he fail and his army
be annihilated, and as had happened so often in the past century, the majority
of the Russian lands would be wide open to the ravages of Tatar retribution.
On September 7, the entire Russian army, numbering about
12,000 men, gathered on the banks of the Don, getting ready to cross this
formidable obstacle. Numerous militia detachments were put to work felling
trees to build temporary bridges. Cavalry detachments were sent out to search
for fords, Dmitry wanted to be across before Mamai had time to join up with
Oleg and Jogaila. Work on the bridges proceeded at a good pace, and several fords
were discovered as well. By nightfall, the whole of Dmitry’s army had crossed
over and halted in the swampy terrain near the confluence of the Don and
Tension ran high in the Russian camp that night. A strong
wind picked up, and the river became shrouded with fog. Around midnight the
wind finally died down and an uneasy calm fell over the encampment. Not many
slept that night. Scouts reported that Mamai. with his whole force of roughly
18,000 troops, was already approaching the expected battlefield. The forward-most
Russian detachments had fought several running skirmishes with the advancing
Tatars. Now only a tiny river, the Smolka, divided the converging armies.
So it was that Dmitry and Bobrok surveyed Kulikovo Field and
made their preparations for the battle to come on the morning of September 8,
Knowing that the favorite Tatar tactic was to move around the flanks of an
opposing force and take it from the rear, Dmitry and Bobrok deployed their
forces in such a way as to anchor them on defensible terrain features. Their
goal was to deny the Tatars mobility and channel them into a narrow field in
order to negate their numerical superiority.
The Russian forces were deployed in their traditional
three-deep battle formation. The detached scout element formed the first line.
Directly behind it, in the second line, was the Forward Regiment. The third
Russian line consisted of the Right, Left and Grand regiments. The Right
Regiment was deployed with its flank resting on the Lower Dubyak River. The
shallow Smolka anchored the Left Regiment, under the command of two brothers,
the princes of Belozersk. The Grand Regiment under Dmitry’s personal command
took up the center position, with a small reserve held behind it. An even
smaller detachment guarded the several temporary bridges located behind the
Left Regiment. Dmitry combined almost all of his available cavalry, consisting
of the experienced war bands of various princes’ household troops, into a new
unit. This so-called Ambush Regiment, placed under the joint command of Prince
Vladimir and Bobrok, was hidden in the Dubrava Wood, on the extreme left of the
According to Russian Orthodox Christian beliefs, September 8
coincided with the birthday of the Virgin Mother, and a priest walked up and
down the Russian ranks imploring the troops to be worthy of the occasion.
Shortly after 10 a. m., a solid wall of Tatar cavalry appeared on the field.
Denied the opportunity to encircle the Russian deployment, the Golden Horde
also deployed in linear-formation. The center of the Tatar line was occupied by
Genoese mercenary pikemen and dismounted tribesmen, Tatar cavalry coveied their
flanks, and a strong detachment of cavalry was kept in reserve.
Around 11 a. m. following a ritualistic duel between two
horsemen, the Tatars opened the battle by shooting a volley of arrows that
darkened the sky, then surged forward. The Russian scout force and Forward
Regiment were severely pressed by the Genoese and their long pikes,
supplemented by dismounted Tatars. After a short period of pushing and shoving,
the Russians began to give way. Some Russian archers, however, managed to bring
down several of the front-rank Genoese pikemen, and the Russian infantry got in
among them. In the melee that ensued, the swords and war axes of the Russians
began to exact a heavy toll on the Genoese, whose pikes became a liability’ in
close combat. The Russian success did not last long, however, as fresh waves of
Tatars swung the advantage back in Mamai’s favor.
After almost an hour of fighting, the survivors of the
Forward and scout units were pushed back onto the Grand Regiment. The Tatar
warriors charged headlong to close with the Russian main body, while their
archers showered the tight Russian formations with arrows. The fight became a
vicious brawl. Fallen wounded were crushed underfoot, men slipped on grass
slick with blood, and horses stumbled over piles of bodies.
At that critical moment, Prince Dmitry himself went down
under a fresh rush of Tartars. Instead of discouraging the Russian forces, however,
this only strengthened their resolve. On the right flank. Prince Andrey of
Ryazan, a noblemen who had renounced Prince Oleg’s alliance to the Golden
Horde, slowly began to gain ground. He personally led a small band of his
mounted retainers in a mad charge that drove the enemy back.
From his observation post on top of Krasny Hill, Mamai
became enraged to see some of his troops retreat. Around 2 p. m., he sent in
his last reserves in an attempt to overwhelm the Russian left wing and break
into the Russian tear. As the fresh Tatar forces crashed into the exhausted
Russians, the Left Regiment slowly began to give way. For the first time in the
course of the battle, the Grand Regiment was in real danger of being surrounded.
At that time, both of the Belozersk princes fell in battle. The small Russian
reserve detachment was brought forward but could not restore the situation. The
fight continued, with the Russian left wing being slowly pushed back onto the Grand
As it often happens, the side that hoards the last reserves
wins the day. At that crucial time, the Russian Ambush Regiment attacked from
its position in the Dubrava Wood, taking the Tatars in their right flank and
rear. The fresh Russian horsemen, bent on revenge for the carnage that had
unfolded before their eyes, gave no quarter. The remnants of the Grand Regiment
under Prince Gleb, who assumed command after Dmitry fell, rushed forward,
trapping fleeing Tatars between them and the cavalry.
After another hour of savage fighting, the Tatars finally
gave way and began to retreat in earnest. Some of them tried to rally and make
a stand at Mamai’s camp but were quickly overrun by jubilant Russian troops.
Mamai, screaming with rage, abandoned his camp and followed the survivor’s in
Back on the corpse-strewn battlefield. Prince Vladimir
launched a desperate effort to find Dmitry. Twice, fallen noblemen resembling
the grand prince were discovered and word spread of his death. That feeling of
despair ultimately turned to widespread joy, however, when Prince Dmitry was
finally found alive. He was covered in blood from a head wound, but his helmet
bad absorbed the blow-he had been knocked unconscious rather than seriously
wounded. Dmitry s personal standard with the image of Christ the Savior was
hoisted high amid the exhausted but jubilant Russian troops.
After a short pursuit, the Russian cavalry’ returned to the
battlefield. It was a Pyrrhic victory, with more than 3,000 Russians lying dead
and roughly the same number wounded. Because of the large number of casualties,
seven days had to be spent at the battlefield resting, tending the wounded and
burying the dead. Disproportionate to the overall Russian casualties was the
butcher’s bill of their leaders, who had fought at the forefront throughout the
battle, with 15 princes killed. Tatar dead numbered roughly the same as the
Russians, but the wounded they left on the field received no mercy from the
King Jogaila was still a day’s march away when he received
news of Mamai’s defeat, at which point he turned around and retired to
Lithuania, laying waste to Russian lands as he passed. As Dmitry’s detachments
began returning to their homes, several small units were set upon and destroyed
by retreating Lithuanians and Prince Oleg’s forces, who until then had showed
no activity. The brutal nature of the civil war was clearly demonstrated when
at least two wagon trains of Dmitry’s Russian wounded were massacred by Oleg’s
Ryazanians and Jogaila’s Kievan and Belorussian troops.
Upon returning to his base of operations, Mamai began to
gather another army to take revenge on the upstart Russians. Significant
numbers of his troops who were dispersed after the Battle of Kulikovo rejoined
him and provided the backbone of his new force. Before he had time to assemble
his new horde, however, Mamai was attacked and defeated in 1381 by his Tatar
rival, Khan Tokhtamysh. Accompanied by just a few followers, Mamai escaped to
Crimea to seek shelter with his recent backers, the Genoese. Now carried in the
liability portion of their ledger, Mamai was quietly murdered by his former
allies in Kaffa, present-day Feodosiya.
Dmitry died on May 19, 1389, nine years after the victory on
the Don River, for which he forever became known as Dmitry Donskoi. While the
immediate military-political gains of victory on Kulikovo Field were minimal,
it gave a huge boost to Russian national pride and identity. Even though the
Tatar yoke would not be thrown off for another century, the Russian people now
recognized that their liberation was only a matter of time.