The Imperial Russian Navy Submarine Program

The DELFIN was a product of the Bubnov committee at the tum of the century and was considered by many as the first true combat submarine in the Russian Navy. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

Russian submarine Kasatka.

British journalist Fred T. Jane, writing in 1899 after an extensive tour of naval installations in Russia, observed, “I may, however, mention that the Russians believe very much in underwater craft, and do not regard the submarine battleship as an idle dream.”

This statement, although an exaggeration of the situation in Russia at the time, was indicative of the high degree of interest in submarines among Russian naval authorities at the beginning of the 20th century. The modern Russian submarine fleet in many respects dates from the establishment, on 19 December 1900, of a special submarine committee of the Naval Technical Committee (MTK-Morskoy Technicheskiy Komitet). Its purpose was to evaluate foreign submarine designs and prepare proposals for one that could be constructed for the Russian Navy. The chairman of the submarine committee was the noted engineer Ivan Grigor’evich Bubnov, who would be responsible for most Russian submarine designs until the collapse of the tsarist government in 1917. The other committee members were Lieutenant Mikhail Nikolaevich Beklemishev, a graduate of the Naval Academy in the constructor branch, and mechanical engineer Ivan Semenovich Goryunov. The committee studied projects submitted to the 1898 competition held in Paris, and proposals by the Russian submarine pioneer Dzhevetskiy and the Frenchman Maxime Laubeuf. In 1901 Beklemishev visited the United States, where he became acquainted with the submarine designs of John P. Holland and Simon Lake. He also visited Great Britain, France, and Italy to look at contemporary submarine efforts in those countries.

While the Bubnov committee did its work, Russia’s first submarine of the 20th century was constructed in 1901 at Kronshtadt to the design of engineer Nikolai Nikolaevich Kuteinikov and Lieutenant (later Captain) Evgeniy Viktorovich Kolbas’yev. Their submarine was intended to be carried on deck of surface warships and to be launched when within attack range of enemy ships.

This submersible displaced 20 tons, was 50 feet (15.25 m) long, and had a beam of about 4 feet (1.2 m). Propulsion was provided by electric motors driving six propulsors (screws) with power supplied by six Bary accumulators, which were evenly divided be- tween three forward and three after compartments, as were the ballast tanks. (The hull was divided into nine watertight compartments, a precursor to the arrangement of later undersea craft) The interior of the boat was accessible through a hatch in the conning tower. Both a bow and a stern rudder were fitted. The armament for this craft consisted of two torpedoes mounted in external Dzhevetskiy drop collars. These could be trained and fired from within the boat.

Kuteinikov was responsible for the submarine’s hull and Kolbas’yev for the electrical installations. Upon completion in 1902 this craft was baptized PETR KOSHKA, after a Russian sailor who had distinguished himself during the defense of Sevastopol in the Crimean War. The craft was to be transferred to Sevastopol for trials.

Although it was apparent that the Russian Navy was proceeding with caution with regard to submarine construction and clearly did not intend to invest large sums of money, a number of projects were under some form of official consideration at the beginning of the century. One of these was designed by Dzhevetskiy, who had lived in Paris since 1893. The design had been reviewed at the New Admiralty yard in St. Petersburg for its practicability in 1901, but had been discarded.

In May 1901 the Bubnov committee completed its work and proposed to the Naval Technical Committee the development of a submarine based on the Holland design, with some major design changes coming from Bubnov. These changes principally consisted of situating the main ballast tanks aft and incorporating the Dzhevetskiy drop-collar launching system rather than internally (tube) launched torpedoes. These features would be standard on most submarine designs pre- pared in Russia up to 1915.

Detail design work on the undersea craft recommended by the Bubnov committee began forthwith, and on 5 July 1901 the prototype boat, ultimately named DELFIN, was ordered from the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. Construction proceeded under great secrecy under the direction of Bubnov and now-Captain Beklernishev. The installation of the DELFIN’S machinery and other equipment was completed by the spring of 1903, and sea trials began on 20 June 1903. They were evidently quite successful.

The DELFIN was considered by the Russians to have been the first true combat submarine in their Navy. After the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 the DELFIN was employed as a training ship in the St. Petersburg area for officers and men assigned to new construction submarines.

By mid-1903 a Dzhevetskiy submarine design of some 800 tons appears to have been under consideration or possibly under construction, also at the Baltic Works in St. Petersburg. There is no record that the 800-ton Dzhevetskiy boat was completed, if indeed she was actually begun. This particular unit was stilI listed in the 1909 edition of the German yearbook Nauticus, although by that time it had certainly ceased to exist.

In commenting on the Russian Navy’s attitude toward submarines at this time, the German naval attaché in St. Petersburg noted, “Although perhaps at the moment there are only limited funds available, I would like to bring to your attention that perhaps with the exception of some problems still to be resolved there will be no further delays in ordering submarines. There is a highly favorable attitude towards this new weapon in the officer corps as well as among the engineers, reinforced by the belief that both types are truly Russian inventions.

In this vein, encouraged by the success of the DELFIN, the Naval Ministry on 13 August 1903 ordered the development of a design for a larger submarine. On 20 December 1903, the Naval Technical Committee approved the design of the KASATKA class of 140 tons prepared by the team of Bubnov and Beklemishev. It was at the same time also agreed to construct ten sub- marines of this design through 1914. The lead unit, named KASATKA (swallow), was ordered from the Baltic Works on 2 January 1904, further establishing that shipyard as the premier Russian submarine builder.

The next four units were ordered from the Baltic Works on 24 February 1904, with a sixth, funded by public subscription, ordered on 26 March 1904. These submarines were:

SKAT (ray)

NALIM (burbot)

MAKREL (mackerel)

OKUN’ (perch)


Thus, the first five submarines of the class were named for fish, while the sixth remembered a Commander in Chief of Peter the Great’s forces in victories in the Baltic area. The construction of these six submarines was accelerated with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February 1904, and all six units were launched between July and August 1904. Under the pressure of war, the KASATKA was the only unit to be assembled for trials in the Baltic. The other were prepared for transfer in sections by railroad to the Far East.

The initial trials of the KASATKA were not very successful and steering difficulty was noted during the first dive. This was caused by a design fault that had placed the conning tower-and hence the center of buoyancy-too far forward. This stability problem was temporarily solved by adding a second conning tower aft. (Permanent new conning towers were not installed until 1906-1907.) Another defect was that the paraffin engines ordered from Germany had not been ready in time to be installed (and in fact were never delivered). The trouble was that these engines were to have been capable of burning either lamp paraffin or heavy oil. The German Koerting firm was to have provided these engines for the KASATKA as well as the subsequent KARP class. These engines were supposed to be safer than petrol or gasoline engines. However, Koerting had only built small, eight-horsepower engines of this type and had encountered delays in producing the larger engines. A makeshift solution was found for the Russian submarines by instead mounting a small dynamo for charging the storage batteries. Another problem occurred with the KASATKA on 2 October 1904, when it was found that a hatch was not watertight.

In general, however, the trials were sufficiently successful that the KASATKA, SKAT, NALIM. and FELDMARSHAL GRAF SHEREMETEV were loaded for transport by train to Vladivostok on 17 November 1904. Completion of the two remaining submarines was delayed until 1907.

During 1905 the small experimental submarine KETA was constructed by the engineering works of G. A. Lessner in St. Petersburg. This was a modified and lengthened Dzhevetskiy Type III craft, designed by a Lieutenant S. Yanovich. The craft was propelled by a gasoline engine driving one propeller shaft, and could be armed with two torpedoes. The KETA was also transferred to the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War. She was apparently not successful and was stricken from the Navy list on 19 June 1908.


Russian Guerrillas in 1812

Russian guerrillas in 1812 that fought against northern regions of Russia against the French Empire invasion. Anatoly Telenik


No hay or straw – Le Roy commands a marauding party – ‘every day the circle’s being drawn tighter’ – Césare de Laugier meets the locals – ‘I asked him politely in Latin’ – Paul de Bourgoing fights his way out – Ney’s reconnaissance in force

Nor is it only Murat’s men who are short of essentials. In a Moscow stuffed with tea and coffee, jams and liqueurs, bread and – above all – hay have quickly become rarities. Writing home around the turn of the month (but his letter will be captured by Cossacks) a French NCO tells his sister that ‘the horses are gnawing at their mangers for lack of it’. Even a general of brigade like Dedem, nursing his bruised chest in his mill on the outskirts, can’t

‘get a sack of oats without a permit from the Quartermaster-General, and that was hard to obtain. Only hay and straw were lacking. The Prince of Neuchâtel himself was sending out to the villages to get some.’

Where has it all gone to? Evidently Daru is doing his job of getting in stocks for the winter only too well. By no means all the villagers have fled,

‘probably because flight had presented greater difficulties, there being so many of them and the environs of Moscow being so densely populated. Perhaps also because some who’d meant to flee hadn’t been able to because the French army, as soon as it had taken possession of Moscow, had spread out in all directions. Finally, it’s possible that, being more affluent, they’d found it hard to abandon home and hearth.’

Whether the analysis of the artillery officer, the Marquis de Chambray, is right or not, when Dedem sends a sergeant and some men to get him some eggs, chickens, etc., with strict orders to pay for them, ‘taking’ only some hay, the peasants beg the soldiers to make haste, for fear of the Cossacks; who treat them as an inferior species.

These are everywhere in the town’s environs. The very first day after settling at Petrovskoï, Laugier had seen them hovering only a few hundred yards away, waiting to pounce on anyone who strayed from the Italian camp. At dawn on 21 September, notwithstanding Le Roy’s well-posted sentries,

‘the Guard Chasseurs who’d gone reconnoitring were driven back at the double by enemy cavalry as far as the houses where I’d stationed my two companies. Being under arms, they opened fire and shot down three Cossack regulars. But that didn’t mean a dozen of our men weren’t stabbed by these gentlemen’s lances.’

Dedem makes a pact with the local priest, allowing him to go on ringing his church bell provided his parishioners supply him with necessaries, but the men of the 4th Line, bivouacked with the rest of Ney’s III Corps to the west of the city, have all this time been

‘so short of almost everything, and only with difficulty managing to get hold of black bread and beer, that strong detachments were having to be sent out to seize cattle in the woods where the peasants had taken refuge, and yet often returning empty-handed. Such was the supposed abundance from the looting. Though the men were covering themselves with furs, they soon no longer had clothes or shoes. In short, with diamonds, precious stones and every imaginable luxury, we were on the verge of starving to death.’

This being the state of affairs, marauding parties are the only solution, not always a very successful one. Simple at first, they’ve soon become exceedingly problematic:

‘Our outposts extended hardly two days’ march beyond the town. The Emperor could get no certain information on the Russian army’s position. The Russians, on the contrary, were informed about every movement we made; and few days passed without our hearing painful news of their having carried off such or such a battalion, such or such a squadron, sent out to protect our marauders searching for food,’

writes Fezensac. At Davout’s headquarters in the monastery at the Doroghomilov Gate his reluctant chief-of-staff General Baron L-F. Lejeune – that future painter of elegant and colourful battle scenes – is daily having to organize ever stronger expeditions. On 17 September, while the fire had still been raging, one of his subordinates had sighted ‘a herd of cattle, hidden in a marsh between two forests ten miles away’. And instantly orders had come to Le Roy2 to take a mixed detachment from the 85th Line and go and grab it. At blush of dawn next day, with a soldier to guide his party, he’d set off:

‘At 9 a.m. we got to the edge of the marsh. I had it searched by two detachments of 50 men each and two officers who, each following his own side of it, were to join up at the other side. In the event of their seeing the herd or meeting with any resistance they were to warn me by firing shots or by beat of drum.’

While the remainder of his detachment rests, Le Roy goes up to a nearby isolated church, 200 yards to his right, between himself and the Moskova, and sees, about five miles away on the left bank, in the direction of the city, several foraging horsemen who’re returning at a brisk canter, apparently pursued. On his own thickly wooded and deeply ravined river bank he can see nothing. Yet the existence of a church seems to indicate a number of small communities. By and by a Russian peasant appears, but doesn‘t notice him; and at the same moment a drum roll tells him someone – or something – has been captured without resistance. Half an hour later the head of a very variegated herd of animals appears – oxen, cows, little ponies, sheep and pigs. ‘Having massed them together, we set out to our left and followed a track which the livestock seemed to follow of their own accord.’ Sure enough, it leads to a village by the river, and into the courtyard of a ‘pretty château no Frenchman from the Army had as yet visited’. Deciding to halt for a couple of hours to rest his men, he notes that he’s now about seven and a half miles from his camp. He’s just starting to count the captured herd when his son, a sergeant in the 85th, brings him one of the château’s inhabitants.

‘He’d arrested him just as I, together with three others, was getting out of a ferry. He tells the major he has evacuated his family to another of his properties and has come to see whether the invaders have any knowledge of it, and if not, to rescue some of his possessions. “Monsieur,” I told him, [says Le Roy pompously, stretching truth further than it was ever stretched before] ‘The French soldier only makes war on armed men. You have nothing to fear. And if all Russians had done as you have, the countryside our army has passed through wouldn’t have been ravaged.”’

With these words he sends off 50 men to explore the other part of the village on the far bank of the river, which laps the edge of the château’s garden. Muskets and lances have been found in the village – the former of Russian manufacture, the latter simply long rods with a long nail or knife blade at the end, the kind the Cossacks are using:

‘I assumed they belonged to peasants who were being incited to rise against us, and that the persons we’d just arrested were leading the insurrection. I tacitly decided to take these gentlemen to Moscow: and, what strengthened me in this resolution, two of them seemed to be disguised Russian officers. The elder was about forty, the youngest about twenty. They were wearing French-style tail-coats, hussar-style boots with spurs, had little moustaches and round hats. The other individual had a serious air, a malicious eye, and the muscles in his face never stopped twitching. He was dressed like the first ones, in French clothes, a furred cap, big and roomy trousers strapped underfoot. I was going to question them when the master arrived. I was astonished to hear him speak Russian to the fellow with the sinister face and to hold his cap in his hand, while the other didn’t take his hat off. His son said: ‘This gentleman has just had a meal prepared and we’ve stewed it up.”’

And in fact the Russian invites all the detachment’s officers to refreshment, ‘apologizing for not being able to treat us as we deserved. He’d also provided beer for the men.’ Le Roy – with his embonpoint, he’s a man who relishes his victuals – thanks him and orders an officer to follow him to the table of a pretty room which seems to have lost half its furniture.

There’s an old cooked ham, a quarter of cold mutton and sausages, two dishes of dessert, wine and liqueurs. At first, having decided to leave in good time, I was loath to depart. But unable to resist our host’s insistence I took my place at table opposite the eldest of them, and didn’t lose sight of a single one of his movements. I kept an eye on him like a cat watches a mouse, without his noticing it; because the main door of the dining-room, which was behind him, had been left open and to all appearances I was watching what was going on down in the courtyard. So I had one eye on him and the other on the château’s courtyard. Beside this man sat an old tippler of a captain of the 33rd Regiment, who got thoroughly tipsy. Next was the young man with the little moustaches, speaking German to his neighbour. Then another Russian, all of whose manners struck me as military. From time to time he looked at the man sitting opposite me and smiled.’

Le Roy also notices that the number of servants waiting on them is steadily growing. Some have moustaches, while others are bearded peasants. His neighbour tries to reassure him by saying they’ve come bringing more provisions in case the French would like to stay the night. At 4 p.m. Le Roy goes down into the courtyard and orders a captain of the 17th Light Infantry – his party, regrettably, has been taken from several regiments – to form an advance guard with the herd and not leave the road. Vodka in great bowls has been served to the men and by now many of them are drunk. Going back into the dining-room, Le Roy peremptorily asks the four Russians to be so good as to accompany him to Moscow. The poor devils seemed thunderstruck – and this confirmed me in my idea that they all spoke French.’ He threatens to use force if they resist. The first young man asked if he could go into the next room and get his clothes. I consented, ordering the drunken captain to go with them.’

Now Le Roy assembles his detachment, meaning to place his four prisoners in the middle of it, and calls up to the officers he’s left in the dining-room to bring these gentlemen, whether they like it or not.

‘I was just about to mount my horse, when the sergeant of the Moscow outpost came and told me he’d seen a couple of groups higher up river, which some horsemen were fording. He was sure they were Cossacks. I was just going to go and see, when the officers came out of the château and approached me, laughing. They told me the Russians, having gone through several rooms, had asked the old drunk to wait for them while they went into the little room – saying they’d only be long enough to fetch their coats. Of course they’d escaped by another passage that lead out of it into the garden.’

Le Roy, furious, decides to ask permission to return next day with a battalion of his own regiment – the 85th – to search the château and capture its occupants. Guided by the flames and smoke of Moscow ‘the detachment, having doubled its advance guard, returns to its encampment at 9 p.m. with its herd of cattle, sheep, pigs and ponies.’

But were those four Russians newcomers who’d come to fan the flames of an insurrection? Or were they in charge of one that’s already been organized? He can’t be sure. ‘In either case the hidden weapons would have justified my arresting them,’ he concludes. And the moral? ‘Always prefer a detachment made up of men from your own company or regiment to ones supplied from different units.’ But he’d accomplished his most important task: to get his lowing, mooing, bleating, neighing booty back to camp before nightfall. General Friedrichs comes and promises him a light cavalry escort and men from his own unit to return next day and wreak vengeance on the fugitives and their château,

‘not because they’d run off, but for having assembled a lot of men strange to the village, as well as some soldiers. If I’d let myself be lulled by their fine promises what happened two days later to a detachment of the 108th regiment would have happened to me.’

Luckily, next day (19 September) he’s suddenly ordered by Davout to take his battalion to the outskirts to support the Chasseurs of the Guard on the Kaluga road:

‘“I’m sorry, my dear Le Roy”, he said, “you can’t go back to look for what you left behind out there either on the road or in the marsh. Soon we shan’t have any meat, even for our sick and wounded. I’m going to send a detachment of 300 men from the 108th under a bright and efficient captain called Toubie.”’

Le Roy hands over the livestock to his general’s ADC, ‘keeping only two pretty little Russian horses to carry my baggage’. But Toubie and his party aren’t sufficiently on the qui vive, and are massacred.

As the days pass, then weeks, such marauding expeditions are having to range ever farther afield and be provided with ever heavier escorts. Far from responding to de Lesseps’ appeal to ‘come out from the woods where terror retains you’ and sell their ‘superfluous’ produce to market, the peasants are (as Le Roy had suspected) forming themselves into efficient guerrilla bands. Hardly a day goes by without at least 300 French or Allied soldiers being snapped up by the Cossacks or by bands of guerrillas. ‘The circle is daily being drawn tighter around us,’ a French officer writes home,’ – but his letter too is intercepted by the Cossacks:

‘We’ve having to put 10,000 men with artillery into the field outside Moscow to forage, and still can’t be sure of success unless we fight. The enemy is gaining the energy we’re losing. Now audacity and confidence are on his side.’

A despondent General Gelichet, posted at a point some forty miles from the city, writes that every order he gets is only making him

‘want to resign my command. As for the victuals you ask from me, the thing’s impossible. The 33rd would be helping us out if it still had the horses killed the day before yesterday. As it is, it has only two head of cattle left.’

Even on 30 September Césare de Laugier has written in his diary that ‘the colonels of the Royal Guard are taking turns with the Army of Italy’s generals of brigade to direct and command such flying columns. The good and intrepid Colonel Moroni, the vélites’ colonel, being more than once detailed off for this kind of job, I, by virtue of my rank, am having to go with him.’ And goes on:

‘So yesterday about 1,000 infantrymen, 200 troopers and two pieces of cannon were placed under Moroni’s orders, to attempt a reconnaissance along the Tver road, as well as to protect numerous Saccomans’ [Sacs-au-mains = bagmen] bringing with them carts and pack horses. The greater part of the villages we passed through were totally deserted, and had been searched from top to bottom by earlier reconnaissances. Between Czerraio-Griaz and Woskresensk, about 28 versts [20 miles] from Moscow, we’d reached the extreme limit of our earlier excursions. In the plain a few sparse villages and country houses which, albeit abandoned, were still completely intact and witnessed to the sudden flight of the inhabitants. There we camped for the night’

The Italian vélites realise that they’re in the presence of enemy troops. But at dawn they form two columns and pursue their way without troubling themselves:

‘And in fact the enemy withdrew as we advanced. We passed through more villages without trouble, guaranteed as they were by the chain of posts set up by cavalry and infantry. The heat was excessive, and a magnificent forest spread out beyond the advanced posts to the right, where I was. Accompanied by some NCOs, I wanted to push on that far.’

But then something surprising happens:

‘I’d only gone a few paces when I heard voices. Alone, I walked calmly over to the side the noise was coming from. There I saw through the trees, in the middle of the wood, a clearing where there was crowd of people, men and women of all ages and kinds. I came a few steps closer. They looked attentively at me, but without being either scared or surprised. Some men, whose manners and faces didn’t augur any good to me, came toward me.’

The vélites’ adjutant-major signs to them to keep their distance, but calls over

‘the one of them I’d recognized as one of their priests. Then, using Latin, I asked him politely to tell me whether this was the population of the villages just now occupied by our troops. “We are”, the pope replied gravely, after looking closely at me, “part of the unfortunate inhabitants of the Holy City whom you’ve reduced to the state of vagabonds, of paupers, of desperates, whom you’ve deprived of asylum and fatherland!” As he said this, tears ran down abundantly from his eyes. At that moment his companions began advancing with threatening gestures. The priest managed to calm them and ordered them back. Whereupon they remained at a certain distance, to hear what we were saying.’

The priest says he cannot conceive what ‘barbarous genius, what inhuman cruelty’ can have animated Napoleon to set fire to their venerable capital. Césare de Laugier says he’s got it all wrong… No, no, says the priest. It’s he who’s deceiving himself. There’s no question but that Napoleon was the author of the fire:

‘While we were talking I was able to examine at my leisure this crowd of unfortunates who were gradually coining closer to us. The men’s masculine, energetic, bearded faces bore the impress of a deep, ferocious, concentrated pain. The women’s air was more resigned, but it was easy to guess what anxieties they were going through. Untroubled by my paying so little heed to what he was saying, the pope went on with his sermon. Swept along in some line of reasoning, he happened to touch my horse and lay his hand on the pommel of its saddle. Seeing how moved I was, he redoubled the violence of his words. For my part I was lamenting the fate of so many unhappy families, women, old men, children, who, because of us, were in such a pitiful state. And this thought made me forget the danger I was so imprudently exposing myself to.’

Suddenly one of the Russians comes up to the ‘pope’ and, ‘with a look of sovereign scorn’ says something in his ear. Suspicious, the Italian officer begins to walk away:

‘But then the pope asked me whether I was a Christian, a question which only half surprised me, as I knew we’d been represented to the Russian people as a band of heretics. The moment everyone knew I’d said I was, I saw all the faces looking at me with greater interest, and the conversations grew more animated. Then the pope took my hand, pressed it affectionately, and said: “Get going as fast as you can. Ilowaiski, reinforced by the district’s militia and some completely fresh cavalry, is advancing to attack you. By staying here you’re exposing yourself to every danger. And do what you can to prevent the acts of impiety your leader and your comrades are making themselves guilty of!”’

Before going back to his men, de Laugier makes Before going back to his men, de Laugier makes a last effort to convince the kindly priest of his error; tells him that he and all his flock can come back to Moscow without the least risk. But his interlocutor accompanies him to the fringe of the forest, ‘and didn’t leave me until he saw the NCOs appear, who’d come to look for me’.

The priest’s warning turns out to be correct. ‘A long column of cavalry had appeared near the Liazma. Other Cossacks and armed peasants were coming up along the Dmitrovo road.’ Some foragers are running back to the Italian lines as fast as their legs can carry them. Many of the them, pursued by Russian scouts, have abandoned their carts or horses, already laden with plunder:

The Dragoons of the Royal Guard advanced. The Marienpol Hussars made ready to receive them but, disturbed by the artillery fire, beat a retreat, carrying away the Cossacks, who’d imprudently advanced and had exposed themselves, not without some rather serious losses.’

By now it’s 4 p.m., too late in the day to come to grips with this enemy. So Colonel Moroni, his foraging operation – apart from the few carts and horses the foragers had abandoned – being completed, gives the order to march off home:

‘But being followed closely by the enemy and forced to escort a numerous convoy, he thought it dangerous to make the whole movement en bloc. First the wagons and other impedimenta filed off as far as a wood to our rear, then the troops followed in the best order.’

This is the signal for the Russians’

‘best horsemen to attack, uttering shrill cries, and firing some shots, but without daring to come too close. Hardly was the convoy lined up properly along the road which passes through the forest and the sharpshooters had been placed on its flanks to protect it if attacked, than our columns abruptly faced about, and marched against the enemy. Seeing this, the many groups of armed peasants soon began to flee, throwing away their weapons as they crossed the fields. The cavalry followed their example. Night was already falling. Then two vélites rejoined the detachment. They’d got lost in the woods while looking for me, and the pope I’d spoken with had saved them from the hands of the Cossacks by hiding them until we’d come back.’

Not all foraging expeditions, the vélites’ adjutant-major adds sombrely, operating under the same conditions, are being so successful.

Young Lieutenant Paul de Bourgoing, he of the fancy fur, has to interrupt his struttings to and fro in front of the two actresses General Delaborde has taken under his wing, and sally out with some wagons and 50 men of his own regiment, the 5th Tirailleurs-Fusiliers of the Young Guard, to see what he can find in a village on the left bank of the Moskova – its right bank has already been occupied by the various Guard cavalry regiments. He’s just entering a village dangerously close to the Russian outposts when the tocsin sounds and a fusillade breaks out between his men and some peasants who ‘aided by some Russian soldiers lodging with them, defend their cows and sheep’. Seeing one of his officers and five men beat a hasty retreat, dragging a cow with them and followed by a compact mass of peasants, he orders his men to fire. The Russians reply with well-nourished musketry. A corporal falls wounded in his arms, spattering him with his blood. From all sides armed peasants and Cossacks come running or galloping across the plain. Now the whole detachment, carrying its badly wounded corporal on a cart, has to beat a hasty retreat. Already night is falling, and it’s necessary to find the bridge across the river. Which they do – receiving timely support from a company of voltigeurs. The corporal dies on the forage cart.

Altogether, such sorties are producing less and less. By the second week in October no escort under brigade strength, or stronger, has much chance of bringing in a convoy of foodstuffs. Baron Lejeune, struggling with all the paperwork needed to reorganize I Corps and set it to rights, is finding ‘

‘these last days very hard. Our foragers no longer brought us anything back, either for the men or the horses. Their accounts of the perils they’d run were scaring, and to listen to them it seemed we were surrounded by a network of Cossacks and armed peasants who were killing all isolated men and from whom we ourselves would only escape with difficulty. These perplexities made the task of restoring order as soon as possible in the army’s organisation extremely laborious, both for the corps commanders and their chiefs-of-staff. The days and nights were all too short to cope with so many difficulties and I hardly had time to see anything more of Moscow than the very long street leading from my suburb to the Kremlin.’

War Commissary Kergorre puts the matter in a nutshell:

‘Even if we had had enough provisions to spend the winter here, we should still have had to retreat, for absolute lack of forage. What would we have done without cavalry, without artillery, in winter quarters in the land we’d conquered, without communication with France?’

Russian Civil War (1425-1453)

The Muscovite boyars pledge their support to the dethroned Vasily II.

Muscovy succession dispute that led to a protracted power struggle. Throughout the Kievan and early Muscovite periods, the princes of Russia followed the custom of lateral succession. The throne passed from brother to brother, and when that generation died out, it passed to the eldest son of the eldest brother who had held the throne before. Sons whose father had died before holding the throne were excluded (izgoi) from the line of succession. This changed in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, when the grand princes of Moscow, after consolidating their power, at- tempted to adopt a policy of linear succession to keep power in Moscow, rather than allowing princes outside Moscow to gain the grand princely throne.

Dmitry Donskoi (r. 1359-1389) stipulated in his last testament that his second son, Yury, was to succeed Vasily I should Vasily die without male issue, but Vasily’s son, Vasily II, was born in 1415. In 1425, Vasily II succeeded his father. A regency council was set up consisting of Vasily’s mother, the Metropolitan Foty of the Orthodox Church, and Boyar I. D. Vsevolozhsky. Vasily’s maternal grandfather, Grand Prince Vytautas (Witold) of Lithuania, served as Vasily’s guardian.

Faced with this situation, Vasily’s uncle, Yury Dmitrevich, argued that in his testament, Dmitry had stated that Yury was to succeed Vasily I (ignoring the fact that this provision was to have no effect if Vasily had a son). Further, by the custom of lateral succession, he, Yury, was the rightful heir to the grand princely throne and refused to recognize Vasily II as grand prince. He was joined in this dispute by his sons, Vasily Kosoi and Dmitry Shemiaka.

The dynastic war of succession that ensued lasted for much of Vasily II’s reign. Yury refused to come to Moscow and swear allegiance to Vasily, but an outbreak of the plague, as well as Vytautas’s protection of Vasily, led to a truce. The deaths of Vytautas in 1430 and Foty in 1431 allowed Yury to renew his claim to the throne. Both Vasily and Yury appealed to the Tartar khan of the Golden Horde for resolution of the dispute, and the khan ruled in favor of Vasily. Yury, granted the principalities of Dmitrov by the khan, would not accept the decision and marched against Vasily, defeating the grand prince’s forces on the Klyazma River in April 1433. Yury marched into Moscow and made peace with Vasily but was unable stay in power and soon ceded the grand princely throne and his own principality of Dmitrov to Vasily. At this point, Vasily launched a campaign against his cousins, who had not been party to the agreement between Vasily II and Yury. The grand prince’s army was again defeated (September 1433). Soon afterward, Yury again attacked Vasily and defeated him yet again, in March 1434. Vasily fled, and Yury again occupied Moscow, where he died on 5 June 1434.

Contrary to the custom of lateral succession and the decision of the khan, Yury’s son, Vasily Kosoi, assumed the throne of the grand prince. (By the rules of lateral succession, Vasily II, as eldest member of his generation, was the rightful heir.) Despite his succession, Kosoi lost even the support of his brothers and was defeated, captured, and blinded by Vasily II in 1436. (Kosoi means “squint-eyed” in Russian, referring to this blinding.) Removed from the political scene, Kosoi died in 1447 or 1448. Following Vasily II’s return to power, tensions continued over the next decade between Dmitry Shemiaka and Vasily II. Also at this time, Vasily’s son Ivan (the future Ivan III) was born in 1440. Disputes over the distribution of inheritance, Shemiaka’s contribution to Vasily’s military ventures, and tribute to the Golden Horde never resulted in open warfare. An unrelated incident was the catalyst for renewed conflict. Khan Ulu-Muhammed, migrating with his horde from Crimea, clashed with Muscovite troops near Murom and remained in the area to pillage. Leading a small force, Vasily unexpectedly came upon Ulu-Muhammed outside Suzdal, on 7 July 1445 and was wounded and captured.

Dmitry Shemiaka, the next senior member of this generation, assumed the grand princely throne, but Vasily negotiated with the khan and was released in November 1445, on the condition that he pay a large ransom and a higher tribute than before. Rather than yield, Dmitry used the incident to renew the dynastic struggle. He seized Vasily’s mother and wife while Vasily was on pilgrimage to the Trinity Monastery north of Moscow and sent a force to arrest Vasily. Vasily was accused of showing favoritism to the Tartars as well as blinding Dmitry’s brother, Vasily Kosoi. In retaliation, Vasily II was likewise blinded. Shemiaka then released Vasily in September 1466, on the condition that Vasily renounce his claim to the throne and swear allegiance to Shemiaka. Vasily immediately made a pilgrimage to the St. Cyril-Beloozero Monastery, where the abbot absolved him of this oath. He then began gathering his supporters against Shemiaka. In the face of growing opposition, Shemiaka abandoned Moscow. Vasily returned in triumph in 1447 and continued the war, finally defeating Shemiaka. Fleeing to Novgorod, Shemiaka was poisoned there in 1453.

Moscow and Novgorod

During and immediately after the war Vasily II was also able to assert dominance over princes and lands beyond the territories attached to Vladimir and Moscow. In 1449, he concluded a treaty with the prince of Suzdal’, in which the latter agreed not to seek or receive patents for their office from the Tatar khan. His position became dependent upon the prince of Moscow, not the khan. When the prince of Riazan’ died in 1456, Vasily II brought his son into his own household and sent his governors to administer that principality. By that time Vasily had also entered into new agreements with the prince of Tver’, who while not acknowledging Vasily’s seniority, nevertheless pledged his co-operation in all ventures against the Tatars as well as their Western neighbours; Boris also recognised Vasily as the rightful grand prince and as prince of Novgorod.

Vasily also asserted his authority over Novgorod. In 1431, Novgorod had concluded a treaty with the prince of Lithuania, Svidrigailo, and accepted his nephew as its prince. But even though Svidrigailo was the brother-in-law of Iurii of Galich, Novgorod had been neutral during Iurii’s conflict with Vasily II. When Vasily II was engaged against Vasily Kosoi (the Cross-Eyed), he negotiated with Novgorod to enlist its support; he indicated a willingness to settle outstanding disputes over Novgorod’s eastern frontier. But after he had defeated Kosoi, he reneged on his agreement. He sent his officers to collect tribute and in 1440-1, after the Lithuanian prince had left the city, he launched a military campaign against Novgorod and forced it to make an additional payment and promise to continue to pay taxes and fees regularly. During the 1440s, however, Novgorod was at war with both of its major Western trading partners, the Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Order. The Hansa blockaded Novgorod and closed its own commercial operations in the city for six years. Novgorod lost commercial revenue. It suffered from high prices and also from a famine. In the midst of these crises Novgorod accepted another prince from Lithuania (1444). When Vasily II and Dmitrii Shemiaka took their conflict to the north and disrupted Novgorod’s northern trade routes, Novgorod gave support and sanctuary to Shemiaka.

In 1456, as Vasily II was asserting his authority over other Russian principalities, he also launched a major military campaign against Novgorod and once again defeated it. Novgorod was obliged to accept the Treaty of Iazhelbitsii. According to its terms, it had to cut off its connections with Shemiaka’s family as well as with any other enemies of the grand prince. It was to pay taxes and the Tatar tribute to the grand prince; it was to accept the grand prince’s judicial officials in the city; and it was to conclude agreements with foreign powers only with the approval of the grand prince. It was obliged, furthermore, to cede key sectors of its northern territorial possessions to the grand prince.

The dynastic war ended in victory for Vasily II. It resolved in his favour the issues of succession and of the prerogatives of the grand prince. The outcome of the war left Vasily II with undisputed control over the grand principality and its possessions as well as the territories attached to the principality of Moscow. His relatives, who had shared the familial domain when he took office, had all died or gone into exile or been subordinated. Only one cousin, Mikhail of Vereia, retained an apanage principality. The remainder of the apanage principalities, which had been the territories of Vasily’s Iurevich cousins, of Ivan Andreevich of Mozhaisk, and of Vasily Iaroslavich of Serpukhov, along with their economic resources and revenues had reverted to the grand prince.

Vasily’s post-war policies towards his relatives and neighbouring princes also provided the grand prince with more secure military power. Although he still relied on them to supply military forces, they had become subordinate to him or had committed themselves by treaty to support him. Vasily, furthermore, established his Tatar ally, Kasim, on the Oka River. The Tatars of the khanate of Kasimov became available to participate in the military ventures of the Muscovite grand princes. Vasily II thus ensured that the grand prince would not be as militarily vulnerable as he had been when the wars began. His policies gave him access to larger forces than potential competitors within north-eastern Russia without being dependent on support from independent princes and the khans of the Great Horde and emerging khanates of Kazan’ and Crimea.  

Vasily II emerged from the war as the strongest prince in north-eastern Russia. Shortly after he recovered Moscow, Vasily asserted his sovereignty by using the title `sovereign of all Rus” on newly minted coins. In late 1447 or early 1448, he also named his young son, Ivan, his co-ruler; coins then appeared with the inscription `sovereigns of all Rus”. While thereby making it more difficult for co-lateral relatives to challenge his son’s succession, Vasily II also confirmed a vertical pattern of succession for the princes of Moscow. When Ivan III assumed his father’s throne in 1462, no other prince within the house of Moscow had the resources or the status to mount a military challenge for the throne, as Iurii Dmitr’evich and his sons had done. The Tatar khans also lost their decisive influence over succession. Vasily II had appealed to Khan Ulu-Muhammed for a patent to hold the throne of Vladimir. But it was his own military victory over his uncle and cousins that confirmed the replacement of the traditional lateral pattern of succession with a vertical one. Vasily II was able to leave the grand principality as well as his Muscovite possessions to his son without acquiring prior approval of a Tatar khan. Ivan III, followed by his son and grandson, would expand those core territories to build the state of Muscovy.

Battle of Callantsoog

Landing at Callantsoog by Dirk Langendijk

A Waste of Blood and Treasure: The 1799 Anglo-Russian Invasion of the Netherlands

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 field again.

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.

The Secret Expedition: The Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland 1799 (From Reason to Revolution)

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.

27th August 1799 – Battle of Callantsoog

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 their attack.

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”.

S-500 Prometey [55R6M Triumfator M]

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 2019-20.

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 seconds. 

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 10×10 truck
  • command posts 55K6MA and 85Zh6-2 on BAZ-69092-12 6×6
  • acquisition and battle management radar 91N6A(M), a modification of the 91N6 (Big Bird) towed by the BAZ-6403.01 8×8 tractor
  • 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 8×8
  • 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 years.”

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.”

At Sea.

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 announced.

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.

The Russian Navy WWI

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 army.

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 debate.

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 were defensive.


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 Stavka.

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 individually.

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.

Guliai-gorod (gulyaygorod, gulay-gorod, or gulai-gorod)

Gulyay-gorod, also guliai-gorod, (Russian: Гуля́й-го́род, literally: “wandering town”), was a mobile fortification used by the Russian army between the 15th and the 17th centuries. Russian armies would construct a gulyay-gorod from large wall-sized prefabricated shields (with holes for guns) installed on wheels or sleds, a development of the wagon-fort concept. The usage of installable shields instead of permanently armoured wagons cost less and allowed the assembly of more possible configurations. The gulyay-gorod developed as a popular fortification in the Eastern European steppe nations, where flat, void landscape provided no natural shelter. Giles Fletcher, the Elder, English ambassador to Russia, left an early Western description of the gulyay-gorod in his Of the Russe Common Wealth.

Defensive construction used by Russian forces from the 15th to the 18th century.

The term guliai-gorod translates roughly as “wandering city.” Though the phrase is often used to denote any mobile fortification, a proper guliai-gorod generally consisted of a series of walls constructed with logs 1 to 2 meters in height and mounted on wheels, carts, or sleds. The walls, each about 2 meters wide, were linked with ropes or chains, leaving enough space between the walls for archers or (later) musketeers to fire through them. Often firing slits would be cut in the walls themselves.

Smaller versions were created later that resembled a turtle and provided cover for a company or squad. While most often deployed as a defensive structure, the flexibility and mobility of the smaller versions of the guliai-gorod also allowed soldiers to use it to approach fortresses during a siege, or as a wedge to break through enemy formations during battle. The guliai-gorod thus shared some characteristics of the “Wagenburg,” or “wagon fort” formation (roughly equivalent to “circling the wagons” for defense) and the Cossack “tabor” (a formation of sleds used as a temporary shield) but was cheaper, more flexible, and more mobile than either. A guliai-gorod could consist of two simple walls or, as at the Serpukhov Gate during the siege of Moscow in 1607- 1608, form an entire defensive line. The advent of field artillery rendered the guliai-gorod obsolete.

Defeating nomads on open ground – mobile linear barriers

The armies of sedentary states found it almost impossible to defeat a nomad horde that was well-led on open ground. The combination of mobility and bow-and-arrow power meant that such armies could destabilise and decimate the more static armies of sedentary states. Even if the body armour of elite troops could stop the nomads’ arrows, a terrible toll would still be taken of less well armed soldiery and horses. Nomad armies were, however, occasionally beaten. Crusaders defeated a Turkish force of mounted archers at the Battle of Dorylaeum (1097) where a line of heavily armed dismounted knights defended less well armed compatriots, until reinforcements attacked the Turks in the rear. At Ain Jalut (1260) the Mamluks induced the hitherto invincible Mongols into an ambush by feigning retreat. The Mamluk forces used midfa, or portable hand cannons loaded with explosive gunpowder, to incite fear and disorder among the Mongol cavalry.

These battles anticipated the means to defeat nomad forces – the protected line that blocked arrows, and the explosive energy from gunpowder. If the line could be composed of a solid yet moveable inanimate material, one that obstructed nomad arrows, and incorporated crossbows and firearms that could outrange nomad projectiles on a flat trajectory, then the terms of battle could be more than equalised.

Linear barriers did not need to be static. They could be put on wheels or sledges and taken to the enemy. That way protection could be provided against nomad arrow storms and cavalry attacks. Meanwhile, the mobile barrier could provide a fortified screen through which the defenders’ bows, crossbows, firearms and cannon raked the enemy.

At the Battle of Mobei in 119 BC the Han general, Wei Qing, used rings of heavily armed chariots, or wu gang, first to break Xiongnu charges, and then to launch a successful counterattack. These vehicles protected infantry and crossbowmen from Xiongnu arrows and gave them the security to be able to shoot back accurately. Han cavalry dealt with any Xiongnu who broke through.

Mobile linear barriers could be improvised of the most obvious available vehicle used by most armies, that is, the wagon or cart, which had always been used to protect camps during halts and to defend camps behind the main battlefield. Mobile defences in Europe were developed first against non-nomad forces. For example, in 1428 at Rouvray, Sir John Fastoff, anticipating attack by larger forces, formed their convoy of carts into an enclosure. By the fifteenth century war wagons were being specially designed so that mobile barriers could be formed. The most famous war wagons were perhaps those of the Hussites, led by Jan Žižka in the early fifteenth century, and known as vozová hradba or wagon walls.

The Russian guliai-gorod, used in the sixteenth and early seventh centuries, have already been discussed. The Battle of Molodi in 1572 – where the protection afforded by the guliai-gorod was critical – perhaps marked a turning point in the fight between settled states and nomads. It has been seen how static linear barriers built by the Russians played a crucial part in closing down the Pontic Steppe. At the same time the Russians also used mobile linear barriers to defeat the nomads in the field.

These developments in military technology ultimately meant that the fight could be taken to the open ground preferred by nomad hordes of mounted archers, and for them to be defeated there. The importance of Molodi is not perhaps sufficiently recognised in the West – for never again did a major nomad army invade a great empire.

Further Reading Davies, Brian. Warfare, State, and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500- 1700. New York: Routledge, 2007. Dunning, Chester S. L. Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia, 980- 1584. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Ivan III, the First Czar I

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 a plague.

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 change.

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 inherited.5

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, and salt.

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.”