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.”

Ivan III, the First Czar II

The Kremlin, the “citadel of Moscow,” as it appeared to an ambassador from the Holy Roman Empire in 1517, with the stone structures conspicuous among the wooden houses.

The expansion of Muscovy under Ivan III.

The conquest of Novgorod shocked Ivan’s most powerful neighbors—Casimir in the west and Khan Ahmed of the Golden Horde in the south. Had they joined in attack, they could have matched Ivan’s power, but Casimir—distracted as ever by rival concerns, and sanguine, as ever, in evaluating the Muscovite threat—relied on Ahmed as a surrogate. When the khan invaded Russia in 1480, Ivan, as we have seen, was free to concentrate his forces and repudiate the Golden Horde’s historic claims to tribute.

Rather as Sonni Ali did in Timbuktu, Ivan dispersed Novgorod’s elite. The first purge came in 1484, when a large force of mailed Muscovites tramped into the city and rounded up suspected foes. In 1487, when Ivan launched the first of a series of border raids against Lithuania, he secured Novgorod by expelling thousands of inhabitants—members of the families of leading citizens—on the alleged grounds that they were plotting against the authorities. Another one thousand expulsions followed in 1489. The expulsees’ property went to some two thousand loyal colonists whom Ivan introduced. Meanwhile, the historic principalities that fringed Muscovy’s ancient patrimony to the West—all of which were already under Ivan’s control—were formally annexed.

Muscovy’s sudden and vertiginous rise took all Europe by surprise. The Saxon traveler and diplomatist Nikolaus Poppel, who arrived in Moscow in 1486, thought Ivan must be Casimir’s vassal. He was astonished to find that the Russian ruler had more power, more wealth, and possibly, by that date, more territory than the master of Poland and Lithuania. Fascinated, he contemplated the vast, open, exploitable lands that stretched to the Arctic, full of sable and copper and gold. But Ivan would not let him, or his successor as imperial ambassador in 1492, go there. In the Latin West, Russia assumed the mysterious renown of a fantasy land, an icy Eldorado full of strange wealth, with monster-haunted frontiers reaching toward the unknown. In the circumstances, Casimir might be forgiven for underestimating his eastern neighbor and neglecting the threat from Russia. He was always juggling conflicting responsibilities on other fronts, squeezing Prussia into submission, insinuating his brothers or sons into power in Hungary and Moldova, dueling with the Habsburgs for control of Bohemia.

Ivan could therefore go on provoking Casimir with impunity. As soon as Novgorod fell to the Muscovites, Ivan forbade Lithuanian enclaves within Novgorod’s territory from paying the taxes they owed to Casimir. In the 1480s, complaints lodged by Casimir’s envoys accumulated in Moscow: “thieves” from Muscovy were raiding across the border, burning and pillaging villages, sewing terror. Ivan professed ignorance and claimed innocence, but clearly the raids had his backing. They were part of a systematic strategy for destabilizing the border. Toward the end of the decade they escalated outrageously. In 1487, one of Ivan’s brothers occupied a slice of borderland on the Lithuanian side, and Ivan appointed a governor in districts traditionally part of Lithuania. A raid in 1488 carried off seven thousand of Casimir’s subjects. Many border towns reported repeated raids between 1485 and 1489.

Border warfare was effective. Casimir’s subjects, when he was unable to protect them, transferred their allegiance to the aggressor as the price of peace. Orthodox Russian lords, who had long lived under Lithuanian rule without resentment, began to defect to Muscovy, declaring their lands to be under Ivan’s “jurisdiction and protection.” When Casimir died, Ivan suspended negotiations and adopted the title “Sovereign of all Russia”—an explicit avowal of his intention of stripping Lithuania of all its Russian and Orthodox subjects. He launched full-scale invasions on two fronts, gobbling up the valley of the upper Oka River and advancing through the uplands of the Vyazma region, as far as the headwaters of the Dnieper. Almost everywhere his forces went, local rulers who submitted were reinvested with their rights as subjects of Muscovy. In two decades, Lithuania lost control of seventy administrative districts, twenty-two forts, nineteen towns, and thirteen villages.

The frontier that emerged was both linguistic and religious. Russian identity was measurable in Russian speech. But religious orthodoxy was the identifier Ivan preferred. Doctrinally, Russia was close to Rome. The difference that meant a lot to theologians concerned the emanation of the Holy Spirit: “from the Father and the Son,” said the Western creed; “from the Father,” said Orthodox Russians. This was too arcane a dispute to mean much to most laymen, but the culture and liturgy of the two churches were mutually offensive. Westerners found married, compulsorily bearded clergy alarming and the Slavonic language indecorous in church. Russians felt the same way about clean-shaven celibates spouting Latin. It is tempting to dismiss as mere posturing Ivan’s self-proclaimed role as a crusader for Orthodoxy. But it really seems to have meant a lot to people at the time and to have influenced many defectors from Lithuanian allegiance. Though Ivan had occasional disputes with the Turks, Russian propagandists almost never denounced the Ottomans as “infidels.” They generally reserved that insult for Catholics, and for Orthodox who were in communion with Rome.

To understand the power of anti-Catholic language in Ivan’s rhetorical armory, awareness of the sense of threat that loomed over the Orthodox world is essential. Even when 1492 came and went without provoking the apocalypse, fear that the end of the world could not be far off persisted. Even after two generations, the events of 1453, when the Turks wrenched Constantinople from Christendom and extinguished an empire sanctified by Christian tradition, still disturbed and challenged Orthodox thinkers. Orthodoxy seemed beleaguered. Theologically informed minds in Russia naturally thought of the trials of faith in ancient Israel and regarded stubborn, uncompromising adherence to every peculiarity of their faith as the only way to restore divine favor.

Catholic gains, meanwhile, exacerbated the centuries-old enmity between the churches. Catholic diplomacy and evangelization had seduced many Orthodox communities on the fringes of the Latin world back into communion with Rome. Theological debate, meanwhile, gradually resolved most of the credal issues between the two churches. The main outstanding disagreement was—on the face of it—too arcane to matter to any but the subtlest and most disputatious minds: toward the end of the eighth century, the Western churches added a phrase to the creed, proclaiming that the Holy Spirit “proceeded” not from the Father alone, as the Easterners continued to say, but also from God the Son. Each church regarded the other’s formula as an offense against the unity of God. Westerners said the Eastern formula degraded the Son. Easterners said the Westerners were relegating the Holy Spirit to a sort of second-rank Godship.

In the 1430s, on Byzantine initiative, the leaders of the churches of Rome and Constantinople agreed to leave the controversy unresolved and to patch up their differences in order to collaborate against the Turks. Russian sees, including that of Moscow, had representatives among the seven-thousand-strong Eastern contingent at the Council of Florence in 1439, where the deal was clinched and the reunion of Christendom proclaimed. But outstanding issues remained. When the archbishop of Moscow returned to his see, the local clergy and citizens were outraged at what they denounced as betrayal. They flung the newcomer into prison and elected a successor who would stand up for the independent traditions of Orthodoxy. Most other churches in the Greek tradition also reneged on the deal, but in Byzantium, the emperors adhered to it. The monarchs who, more than all others, bore the responsibility of defending Orthodoxy seemed to have sold out to heresy.

What happened in the Byzantine empire mattered in Moscow, because even when the Russians emerged from the Mongols’ thrall, they remained under the spell of Constantinople. Toward the end of the tenth century, the founder of the first documented Russian state applied to Constantinople for his religion and his wife. In politics and aesthetics Russians’ models remained Byzantine for the rest of the Middle Ages. It is not surprising that the Russians, who owed so much to Byzantine culture, revered the Byzantine emperors. The Turks, who owed Byzantium nothing, and reviled Christianity, revered them, too. By the time Ivan III ruled in Muscovy, the Turks had Byzantium surrounded. The empire was reduced to a rump. The city was at the sultan’s mercy. But the victors held back, unwilling to break the traditions of the people who still called themselves Romans. Of course, there were solid reasons for keeping Byzantium independent. The Turks could control the city’s elites with threats and promises. The emperor and patriarch could guarantee the loyalty of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects. But whenever the Turks contemplated the extinction of the empire, there was something numinous about Byzantium that stayed their hands.

When they finally lost patience, the blow came quickly and inevitably. The accession as sultan of Mehmet II in 1451 at the age of nineteen marked the end of counsels of prudence. He resented foreign control of a stronghold that dominated the Dardanelles—a strait vital for the communications of his empire. He fancied himself in the Roman emperors’ place. Every contrivance of the siege engineer’s craft prepared the fall of the city. Huge forts, known respectively as the castles of Europe and Asia, rose on either shore to command access to the Bosporus. The heaviest artillery ever founded arrived to batter the walls. Ships came overland in kit form to outflank the defenders’ boom. The Byzantine church made submission to Rome in order to secure Latin help, which came reluctantly and too late. In the end, sheer weight of numbers proved decisive. The attackers climbed the breaches over the bodies of dead comrades. The corpse of the last Constantine was identified only by the eagle devices on his foot armor.

Formerly, there had been other contenders for the role of the third Rome, but they had all dropped out of the running. In the middle of the thirteenth century, the recently Christianized Serbian kingdom already housed, in monasteries founded by kings at Sopocani and Mileseva, some of the most purely classical paintings—modeled, that is, on those of ancient Greece and Rome—of the Middle Ages. About a century later, the Serbian monarch Stefan Dusan dreamed of beating the Turks to the conquest of Constantinople, and described himself with pride—if a little exaggeration—as “lord of almost the whole of the Roman Empire.” His younger contemporary the Bulgarian czar John Alexander claimed lordship over “all the Bulgarians and Greeks” and had himself painted in boots of imperial scarlet—a fashion exclusive to emperors—with a halo of gold. A translator at his court, working on a version of a Byzantine chronicle, substituted for “Constantinople” the name of John Alexander’s capital at Trnovo, and called it “the new Constantinople.” Serb and Bulgarian bids for empire, however, proved too ambitious. Both states fell to the Turks.

Even at Byzantium’s last gasp, in 1452, when the Russian church reluctantly transgressed its tradition of deference to the see of Constantinople—defying the Byzantine rapprochement with the Latin communion by electing a patriarch of its own—Vasily II felt obliged to apologize to the emperor: “We beseech your sacred majesty not to blame us for not writing to your Sovereignty beforehand. We did this from dire necessity, not from pride or arrogance.” When the imperial city fell, Russia felt bereft. What did God mean by allowing it to happen? How did he want the Orthodox faithful to respond? One obvious answer began to gain acceptance in Muscovy: responsibility for safeguarding Orthodoxy must move from Constantinople to Moscow.

Ivan staked a claim to a Byzantine inheritance when he married a Byzantine princess. Surprisingly, perhaps, the idea was the pope’s. In 1469, when the marriage was first mooted, Ivan was a twenty-nine year-old widower. Zoe—or Sophia, as Russians called her—was a twenty-four year-old spinster, plump but pretty, who was, as her tutor reminded her, “a pauper,” but who embodied the prestige of the Byzantine imperial dynasty and legacy. She was the niece of the last Byzantine emperor. She lived in Rome, as the ward and guest of the pope, a fugitive from the Turkish conquest. Pope Paul II offered Ivan Sophia’s hand. This shows that Rome was relatively well informed about Russia. The pope knew that Ivan would find a Byzantine pedigree hard to resist. He hoped that Sophia would make Ivan an ally in a new crusade against the Ottomans and would provide the Russians with a shining example of conversion from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. But for Sophia the long journey to Russia was a spiritual homecoming that reunited her with the church of her ancestors. As she traveled across country, through Pskov and Novgorod to Moscow, she worshipped with reverence wherever she went. She did not jib at rebaptism in the Orthodox rite, before her marriage in 1472, or at the orders Ivan gave her entourage forbidding them to display their crucifixes in public.

In the 1470s—hesitantly and unsystematically at first—Ivan began to call himself “Czar” of all Russia, in allusion to the title of “Caesar” that Roman emperors had affected. Previously, the monarch of Constantinople and the khan of the Golden Horde were the only rulers Muscovites had flattered with so resounding a title. In the next decade Ivan’s escalating pretensions became obvious during his sporadic negotiations with the Holy Roman Empire. When Frederick III offered to elevate Ivan from the rank of Grand Prince and invest him as a king, Ivan replied disdainfully.

By God’s grace we have been sovereigns in our own land since the beginning, since our earliest ancestors. Our appointment comes from God, as did that of our ancestors, and we beg God to grant to us and our children to abide forever in the same state, namely as sovereigns in our own land; and as before we did not seek to be appointed by anyone, so now do we not desire it.

When Nikolaus Poppel offered to arrange for Ivan’s daughter to marry Frederick’s nephew, the margrave of Baden, Ivan’s response was equally peremptory. “It is not fitting,” read the instructions he gave to his own ambassador. The lineage of the rulers of Muscovy was more ancient than that of the Habsburgs. “How could such a great sovereign hand over his daughter to that margrave?” When, in answer to the prophets who foresaw the imminent end of the world, Patriarch Zosima of Moscow recalculated the calendar in 1493, he took the opportunity to reinvent “the pious and Christian-loving Ivan” as “the new Czar Constantine,” in allusion to the first Christian emperor, who founded Constantinople. Moscow, he continued, was “the new city of Constantinople, that is to say, The New Rome.” Soon after, a false genealogy circulated in Muscovy, tracing the dynasty back to a mythical brother of Augustus, first emperor of Rome. In a work addressed to either Ivan III or his son, a pious monk, Filofei by name, in the frontier-state of Pskov proclaimed Moscow “the Third Rome” after Rome itself and Constantinople. The first had fallen through heresy. The Turks

used their scimitars and axes to cleave the doors of the second Rome,…and here now in the new, third Rome, your mighty empire, is the Holy Synodal Apostolic Church, which to the ends of the universe in the Orthodox Christian faith shines more brightly than the sun in the sky. Pious czar, let your state know that all Orthodox empires of the Christian faith have now merged into one, your empire. You are the only czar in all the Christian universe.

Filofei called Orthodoxy “synodal” to distinguish it from Catholicism, which exalted the pope above other bishops.

In endorsing the notion of the third Rome, Ivan appropriated what seems originally to have been a propaganda line spun in Novgorod to exalt that city’s bishop as a rival to Moscow’s. In 1484, the clergy of Novgorod elected a bishop whom Ivan rejected, and claimed that Novgorod had received a white cowl from Rome at the behest of Constantine, the first Roman emperor, as a sign that “in the third Rome, which will be Russia, the Grace of the Holy Spirit will be revealed.”  Toward the end of his reign Ivan adopted a new seal: a double-headed eagle, which, whether he copied it from the Byzantines or from the Holy Roman Empire, was an unmistakably imperial motif.

He rebuilt Moscow to clothe it in grandeur befitting its new imperial status and, perhaps, to array it for the apocalypse expected in 1492. The new palace chapel of the archbishop of Moscow was dedicated to Our Lady’s Robe—a holy relic that had protected Constantinople many times before the failure of 1453. There could be no clearer symbol that Moscow had taken over Constantinople’s former sanctity. Other buildings contributed to the general embellishment of what was still a modest-looking city, built mainly of wood. The Kremlin acquired formidable brick walls. Agostino Fioravanti—one of Ivan’s imported Italian engineers—made the Cathedral of the Assumption rise over the city in gleaming stone in celebration of the conquest of Novgorod. In the 1480s the Cathedral of the Assumption followed to provide a space for the czar to worship in, while the archbishop’s palace acquired a sumptuous new chapel. Other Italian technicians built a new audience chamber for Ivan, the Palace of Facets.

By taking his wife from Rome and architects from Italy, Ivan tugged the Renaissance eastward. He set a trend that reached Hungary in 1476, when King Mathias Corvinus married an Italian princess, abandoned the gothic plans for his new palace, and remodeled it on Italian lines in imitation of one of the most famous architectural texts of antiquity: the younger Pliny’s description of his country villa. One of the Italian humanists the king employed was explicit about the building’s inspiration. “When you read,” he told Mathias, “that the Romans created gigantic works that proved their magnificence, you do not permit, invincible prince, that their buildings should surpass yours,…but you revive once again the architecture of the ancients.”  The king also compiled a much envied classical library. Over the next couple of generations, Renaissance taste would dominate the courts of Poland and Lithuania. Revulsion from Catholicism made Russia a tough environment for Latin culture of any sort, but Ivan showed at least that the cultural frontier was permeable.

Ivan turned Russia into the uncontainable, imperial state that has played a major role in global politics ever since. In his reign, the extent of territory nominally subject to Moscow grew from fifteen thousand to six hundred thousand square kilometers. He annexed Novgorod and wrenched at the frontiers of Kazan and Lithuania. His priorities lay in the West. He defined Russia’s championship of Orthodoxy. He drew a new frontier with Catholic Europe, but, while excluding Catholicism, he opened Russia to cultural influences from the West. He discarded the Mongol yoke and reversed the direction of imperialism in Eurasia. From his time on, the pastoralists of the central Asian steppes would usually be victims of Russian imperialism rather than empire makers at Russian expense. In all these respects the influence of his achievements has endured and helped shape the world in which we live, in which Russia seems to teeter on the edge of the West, never utterly alien but maddeningly inassimilable. But the most striking effect of his reign on the subsequent history of the world has usually gone unremarked: the opening of Russia’s way east, toward what contemporaries called “The Land of Darkness”—Arctic Russia and Siberia, which, of all the colonial territories European imperialists conquered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is the only land where empire endures today.

Here, to the northeast, Ivan’s armies ventured into little-known territory, along a route explored by missionaries in the previous century, following the river Vym toward the Pechora. The object of this thrust into the Land of Darkness was the effort to control the supply of boreal furs—squirrel and sable—for which there was enormous demand in China, central Asia, and Europe. Sable was black gold, and fur was to the Russian empire what silver was to Spain’s and spices to Portugal’s. In 1465, 1472, and 1483, Ivan sent expeditions beyond the reach of Novgorod’s empire, to Perm and the Ob, with the aim of imposing tribute in furs on the tribespeople who lived there. The biggest invasion was that of 1499, when the city of Pustozersk was founded at the mouth of the Pechora. Four thousand men crossed the Pechora on sleds in winter and made for the Ob, returning with a thousand prisoners and many pelts. Ivan’s ambassador in Milan claimed that his master received a thousand ducats’ worth of fur in annual tribute. The region remained occluded by myth. When Sigmund von Herberstein served as the Holy Roman Emperor’s envoy to Moscow in 1517, he picked up some of the stories of monstrously distended giants, men without tongues, “living dead,” fish with men’s faces, and “the Golden Old Woman of the Ob.” Nonetheless, by comparison with the previous state of knowledge, Russian acquaintance with the boreal north and with Siberia was transformed by the new contacts.

Something of the feel of this new adventure is detectable in the testament Ivan left at his death. The laws of succession of Muscovy were vague. That is why Ivan’s father had fought long wars against his cousins. Ivan imprisoned two of his own brothers. In an attempt to preempt rebellions, every ruler of Muscovy left a testament, bequeathing his lands and revenues to his heirs. Ivan’s conquests made his testament especially long, brimming with the names of exotic communities and distant frontiers. After pages devoted to the many communities gained from Lithuania, and among lists of the appurtenances and possessions of the independent Russian principalities Muscovy had absorbed, with the territories Ivan confiscated from his brothers, the document turns to the eastern borderlands and the strange, vast empire acquired with the conquest of Novgorod. The Mordvins appear—pagan forest dwellers, speakers of a Finnic tongue, who occupied the slopes of the Urals and the strategic frontier along the northern border of Kazan. The lands of their neighbors the Udmurts are listed, which Ivan seized in 1489. The “Vyatka land” is mentioned—but not its once indomitable people. These herdsmen of the northern plains had tried to remain independent by shifting allegiance between the Russians and the Mongols. When Ivan lost patience with them, he invaded with overwhelming force, put their leaders to death, carried off thousands of Vyatkans into captivity, and resettled their territory with reliable Russians. Novgorod’s territories are painstakingly enumerated, with eighteen places dignified as cities, and the five provinces into which the territory was divided, stretching north to the White Sea and, beyond Novgorod’s colonial lands, the valley of the northern Dvina, and the savage tributaries known as the Forest Lop and the Wild Lop. Pskov is bestowed, even though it remained a sovereign city-state, allied with Ivan but outside his empire.

And from the pages of Ivan’s testament, the sources and rewards of his success gleam. After bestowing sealed coffers of treasure to various heirs, and the residue of his treasury to his successor, Ivan listed the small change of empire:

rubies, and sapphire, and other precious stones, and pearls, and any articles of dress decorated with precious stones, and belts, and golden chains, and golden vessels, and silver ones, and stone ones, and gold, and silver, and sables, and silk goods, and divers other belongings, whatever there is, as well as whatever is in the treasury of my bedchamber—icons and golden crosses, and gold, and silver, and other belongings—and whatever is in the custody of my major-domo…and my palace secretaries—silver vessels and money, and other belongings and similar hordes in the care of other officials and in provincial palaces, “my treasure and my treasures, wherever they shall be.”

The year 1492 was the decisive one for the reign, not only because the world failed to end but also because a new world began for Russia when Casimir IV died. His sons divided his inheritance. The only power capable of challenging Muscovy in the vast imperial arena between Europe and Asia dissolved. The frontier between Orthodoxy and Catholicism wavered a great deal in future centuries, but it never strayed far from the lines laid down in the treaties Ivan and his son made with Casimir’s heir. Muscovy became Russia—recognizably the state that occupies the region today. Russia was able to turn east toward the Land of Darkness and begin to convert the great forests and tundra into an empire that has remained Russia’s ever since.

Why the Bolsheviks’ Enemies Lost

Soldiers of the Don Army in 1919; a White infantry division in March 1920; soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Army; Leon Trotsky in 1918; hanging of workers in Yekaterinoslav (Dnipro) by the Austro-Hungarian Army, April 1918.

The Bolsheviks’ victory in the Russian Civil War, was also made possible by the weakness of their enemies. The parties of the Right had never commanded many followers, and the centre-right Kadet party was hardly in a better state. The educated minority who opposed the revolution became more and more aware of their isolation as time went by. Gorn, an official active in the Baltic, was probably typical:

It would be a mistake to think that Bolshevism was an alien element in Russia. Multi-million illiterate Russia nurtured it, she bore it and belched it forth from inside herself. The Russian intelligentsia was the thinnest film on the surface of the Russian muzhik [peasant] ocean.

G. K. Gins wrote something similar after the disaster of the Siberian Whites:

Our culture was a frail boat in the midst of a raging sea but we, the representatives of the intelligentsia, argued among ourselves on the boat and did not notice the elemental force coming at us. The ocean swallowed the boat, and us with it.

Paradoxically, the moderate agrarian socialists who tried to swim in the ‘muzhik ocean’ also drowned. This was partly a failure of will and organization, but it also came from a kind of peasant passivity, a passivity that was a key to the outcome of the Civil War. The secret Soviet Tambov report is useful here too. Even the kulaks, it noted,

the most cultured, the most politically developed stratum . . . do not, in general, show any capacity for raising their sights to thinking in terms of the state as a whole; their economic [mental outlook] has not carried them . . . very far beyond the outskirts of their villages or rural districts . . . without the guidance of the parties of the industrial bourgeoisie this movement can lead only to anarchical rioting and to bandit destruction.

The SRs were never able to mobilize peasant support, to defend the Constituent Assembly, to oppose the ‘commissarocracy,’ or to counter the pressure of the White generals.

Given the weakness of the anti-Bolshevik civilians, it is not surprising that the soldiers took over. They alone had effective force. ‘Kto palku vzial, tot i kapral,’ ‘He who has the stick is the corporal,’ summed up the power relationships in anti-Bolshevik Russia.

The Whites are sometimes said to have lost because petty rivalries blocked a common military strategy. It is true that their attacks were not coordinated, but this could not have been avoided. The difficulties of communication were immense. The four White fronts – south Russia, western Siberia, north Russia, the Baltic – were all far distant from one another; the two main fronts, Denikin’s and Kolchak’s, were separated by a 10,500-mile voyage around the Middle East and Asia, and then a 4000-mile rail trip across Siberia. The fate of General Grishin-Almazov, captured and executed while trying to take the ‘short’ route to Omsk across the Caspian Sea, showed the danger. Denikin and Kolchak never met one another and could not have done so during the Civil War. The various White armies simply launched their attacks as soon as they were ready. There were sound reasons for this. With each month the Red army became larger. The Allies would only give support if there were successful White advances. Civil War armies did better on the offensive. The one serious mistake of grand strategy was the failure of the Siberian and South Russian armies to link up – either in the summer of 1918 or the summer of 1919, and at the time there seemed good reasons for advancing in other directions. The failure of the Poles to march in 1919 was also critical, although this was outside White control.

The anti-Bolshevik democrats had a popular programme but few military resources. The White generals and colonels had better armies but made few promises to the population of their base territories and of the large captured regions. This was partly because the Whites’ social foundation was the property-owning minority (the tsenzovoe society). But it also came from their very dislike of politics. The White leaders were narrow conservative nationalists. Sakharov, one of Kolchak’s generals, summed up the White outlook in his 1919 appeal to the Urals population: ‘Our party is Holy Russia, our class is the whole Russian people.’ The Whites ignored parties and classes; they thought, moreover, in terms not of revolution or even of civil war, but of the likholet’e or smuta (time of troubles); the great smuta dated from the early 1600s. Denikin entitled his massive memoirs Sketches of the Russian Time of Troubles. One anti-Bolshevik Cossack politican, defending demands for autonomy against the disapproval of the White generals, had to insist, ‘This is not a smuta but a popular movement.’ But the Whites were even afraid of a popular movement.

The Whites feared the people; paradoxically, they counted on some vague popular upsurge to bring them victory. Sakharov again, talking about the late autumn of 1919, was typical. If the rear would give his poorly equipped army some support he would pursue the Reds back beyond the Urals.

And then the road to Moscow would be clear, then the whole people would come over to us and stand openly under the Admiral’s banner. The Bolsheviks and the other socialist filth would be destroyed – from the roots up – by the burning rage of the popular masses.

But the Whites, unlike the Reds, made little effort to mobilize the population in a political way, and their social and political programme was not one that bred spontaneous popular support. Sakharov proudly wrote that ‘the White movement was in essence the first manifestation of fascism’ (he was writing in Munich, nine months after Mussolini’s March on Rome). But this was distorted hindsight; the Whites lacked the mobilization skills and relatively wide social base of the Italian or German radical Right.

Linked to narrow political horizons was another vital drawback of White rule: arbitrary conduct by White authorities and a general lack of order. The source of this was the crude nature of White ‘politics’ and the lack of vital resources; civilian administrators, an enthusiastic population, and time. The Whites also failed properly to organize their armies. This may seem odd, given that the movement was dominated by military officers. But they actually lacked properly trained military specialists, especially in Siberia. The Cossacks gave them a major advantage in south Russia, but the Cossacks were jealous of their own autonomy and fought best within their ‘host territories.’ The Whites had only a small base of manpower and material compared to Sovdepia. And, as was the case with general administration, they had less time than the Reds to organize their forces.

The Whites, as Great Russian nationalists, were also opposed to any concessions to the minorities. They had no tolerance for ‘the sweet poisonous dreams of complete independence’ (Denikin’s words) of people such as the Ukrainians, the Belorussians, the Baltic and Transcaucasian minorities. Denikin was right when he said that his officers, Russian nationalists, would not have fought for the ‘Federated Republic.’ Although the Whites were prepared to accept some form of independence for Poland and possibility for Finland, they could not agree to all the territorial claims of the Warsaw and Helsinki governments. Polish action on the western border in 1919 might have made possible the capture of Moscow, while Finnish support would certainly have made Red Petrograd indefensible.

The Whites had little chance of winning. Certainly by 1920 Vrangel could only have won if there had been a catastrophic internal collapse on the Soviet side. But even Kolchak and Denikin faced, from the winter of 1918–1919, a struggle against great odds. The Bolsheviks had had a year to consolidate their position, they controlled most of the military resources of old Russia, they had more popular support, and their forces outnumbered those of the Whites by ten to one.

The ‘Russian’ Civil War was a three-cornered struggle. Russian revolutionaries fought Russian counterrevolutionaries, but the national minorities resisted both. The Civil War was about what would become of all the peoples of the Empire. (And it was an internal affair; the only fighting outside the old Empire was the 1920 Lvov campaign – in what had been Austrian Galicia – and the 1921 Mongolian expedition.) Those regions that broke away were among the ‘winners’ of the Civil War. They succeeded for various reasons. Finland and Poland won their own independence. Bessarabia, five Belorussian–Ukrainian provinces, and Kars Province had the pull of neighbouring states (Rumania, Poland, and Turkey). Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were helped by German and Allied forces. All benefited from the Red Army’s preoccupation with other fronts. But more than 80 per cent of the former subjects of the Tsar became citizens of the Soviet federation. Half of these people were not Great Russians. The multinational Russian Empire, the famous ‘prison of peoples,’ did not break up, a remarkable development in an age of nationalism.

Demographic, geographical, and cultural factors were involved. The Great Russians outnumbered each individual minority by fifteen to one or more (except in the case of the Ukrainians). Alliances that might have countered this – the Transcaucasian Federation, the cossacks and their southeastern allies, the Poles with the Ukrainians and Belorussians, Pan-Turkism – remained only theoretical projects. The central provinces, the Sovdepia heartland, were Russian-dominated. Even in the minority areas Russians often controlled the towns and transport. The trained military leaders were Russian, and the nature of Tsarism predetermined the minorities’ weakness, just as it predetermined the weakness of Russian political parties. The Petersburg-centreed Romanov autocracy had allowed little political or national activity. Even in areas where the minorities came to see themselves as distinct nations – and 1917 was a great awakener – they lacked the experience and the time to create an effective administration.

Bolshevik Moscow’s social revolution attracted the intelligentsia, workers, and peasants of the outlying regions. Bolshevik national policy, too, seemed better than the ‘Russia, One and Indivisible’ of the Whites, for whom cooperation with the ‘separatists’ was ruled out from the start. It is hard to understand Richard Pipes’s view that the Bolsheviks were ‘the least qualified of all the Russian parties (save for those of the extreme right) to solve the national problem.’ The Cossack politician who spoke of ‘Trotsky’s dreams of a Sovdepia, one, great, and indivisible’ was making a crude oversimplification. Bolshevik policy rejected Russian chauvinism, and the most enthusiastic ‘internationalists’ were reined in; the Bolsheviks granted self-government, however imperfect, to a number of peoples, and to the Ukraine, Belorussia, and other regions they even granted a form of independence. Moscow allowed wide cultural autonomy and encouraged a national awakening that would cause problems for itself in the 1920s. And it combined this with the maintenance of centralized institutions such as the party and the army and with the unifying idea of social revolution. This was just the right – possibly the only – formula for holding multinational ‘Russia’ together.

It was important that the Russian Bolsheviks had strong motives for holding the Empire together. Their leaders saw the nationalists as just a form of bourgeois rule. Their spetsy military commanders had simpler nationalist motives. For both, the defeat of ‘Russian’ counterrevolutionaries and Allied intervention demanded an advance into the borderlands. And there were broad continuities. Denikin put it as follows:

The state link of Russia with her borderlands was preordained by history, economics, markets, the railway system, the need for defendable frontiers, the psychology of Russian society, and the whole totality of the cultural-economic development of both sides and of mutual interests. The link would be restored, sooner or later, voluntarily – by treaty – or through compulsion – economic (tariff) war or an army offensive. And that would have been done by any Russia – ‘Red,’ ‘Pink,’ ‘White,’ or ‘Black’ – which did not want to suffocate inside the limits of those artificial boundaries which the World War and internal chaos had confined her to.

The link was something that the newly conscious, newly organized minorities could not tear apart.

Defeated with the Whites was foreign intervention. Bolshevik Civil War propaganda stressed Allied intervention, and later Soviet historians, following Stalin, reduced the Civil War to three ‘Entente Campaigns.’ An imperialist conspiracy fitted in with the Bolshevik world outlook; a foreign threat mobilized nationalist feeling; and the ‘Entente cannibals’ (Stalin’s phrase) gave a reason why the Civil War lasted so long. But Lenin had predicted on the eve of October 1917 that the Allies would not be a serious problem: ‘a combination of English, Japanese, and American imperialism against us is extremely difficult to realize, and is not at all dangerous to us, if only because of Russia’s geographical position’; there is much to be said for this analysis.

Contrary to what is often thought, the most important ‘intervention’ was not by the Allies but by the Central Powers. Up until November 1918 they held much of western and southern Russia. The ‘fourteen-power’ anti-Bolshevik Allied alliance that was featured in Soviet propaganda was a myth. The Americans were cool about intervention; the Japanese stayed on the Pacific coast. The French gave up an active role after the spring of 1919 Odessa shambles and concentrated on a cordon sanitaire of the border states. (Even then, neither the French nor the British did much to help the border state of Poland in 1920.) Few Allied troops were sent; none fought in the main battles. The western Allies neither created the Czechoslovak Corps nor planned its uprising. The Czechoslovaks did clear a rallying area, but they were few in number and fought only for six months. Their success was a symptom not of Allied manipulation but of Soviet impotence and unpopularity. It is true that Allied munitions and supplies made possible the furthest White advance, but this material only arrived in quantity in the summer of 1919; Kolchak’s spring offensive and Denikin’s conquest of a south Russian base area came earlier. Even the Allied blockade had little effect. Bolshevik Russia’s foreign trade possibilities were limited anyway (especially after the renunciation of foreign debts), and for most of 1919 Whites or nationalists held the major ports (Petrograd was the exception, but it had already become an economic wasteland).

Intervention was not a disaster for the Allies, if only because they committed so few resources to it. True, it did not defeat the Central Powers, save the anti-Bolsheviks, or deflect a Soviet onslaught on Central Europe (something the Red Army was hardly up to). The Reds were distracted from some of the border regions. Some White leaders resented the intrusions of the ‘dress-circle internatsional’, but Allied support was a major part of White propaganda. There is little evidence that intervention helped the Bolsheviks by making their cause a nationalist one. And if intervention lengthened the Russian crisis it did not create dictatorship and terror; they had deep enough roots in the soil of Imperial Russia.

The outcome of the Civil War has much to do with Russian history. Tsarist Russia contained elements of both backwardness and modernity. Russia’s peculiar state-sponsored modernization meant that there was a considerable working class (although small in per capita terms) and only a small middle class. The victory of extreme radicals during the Civil War had much to do with the very strength of the autocracy before 1917. Until less than ten years before the start of the World War there had been no legal political parties. The Tsarist state had never tolerated rival forces in the form of political parties or the national minorities, or even in the form of the army or the church. As a result there were no strong forces on hand to take over the country when the autocracy disappeared in February 1917.

The Bolsheviks were able to take over, in the October 1917 Revolution and the ‘Triumphal March of Soviet Power,’ because they followed the popular movement. The workers and Tsarist soldiers, with their particular discontents, helped carry the Bolsheviks to power – and then economic collapse and demobilization largely ended their political role. The Right was still shattered by the impact of the World War, the fall of the autocracy, and the impact of social revolution. After that there was no one to challenge the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ The reason the country did not just slide into anarchy with the October Revolution was, ironically, because of the state tradition that had been created under the autocracy. Modernization had progressed far enough to give a railway network that enabled the centre to regain control of the periphery, and meanwhile the Bolsheviks were able and willing to make use of much of the apolitical debris of the Tsarist state, including the army officer-corps and the civil service.


Sergey Prisekin, The Battle of Kulikovo, 1980, oil on canvas

Several milestones mark the decline of nomad predominance: the battle of Kulikovo Pole in 1380 when the Moscovites first defeated the Mongols of the Golden Horde, although it was not until the fall of Kazan to the troops of Ivan IV in 1552 that the triumph of the settled people was finally consolidated.

Russian cavalry first appeared in 971, in a war against Byzantium, but it could not compare with the Byzantine armoured riders. In the eleventh century, it was organized according to the decimal system, and armed with short lance, sword, bow and large shield. Three centuries later, under Mongol influence, it became one of the main elements of the army, and at the Battle of Kulikovo (1380) against the Mongols, an attack by the Russian cavalry decided the outcome. From the end of the fourteenth century, it was more effective and its equipment improved. Armament consisted of a long lance with pennant, strong sword, battle-axe, bow and dagger; protection was provided by helmet, mail coif or hauberk and large kite shield. The Russian battle formation was akin to that of the Tartars: five groups of scouts (polk), centre, left wing, right wing, and rearguard (reserve).

The Muscovite appanage was further enlarged in the 14th century, and Daniel’s great-grandson Dmitry Donskoi (1359-1389) defeated the Tatars in the battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380. This victory marked the beginning of the end of Tatar domination of Russia. The power of the Golden Horde never fully recovered after Tamerlane’s attack on the khanate in the 1390s, and in the 15th century the Tatar state fell apart.

Dmitry’s disposition of his forces, with his flanks anchored to rivers or marshland and regiments placed in reserve and ambush, reflected how much the Russians had learned about turning their Tatar enemies’ tactics against them.

Before the break of dawn on September 8, 1380, Grand Prince Dmitry-Ivanovich of Moscow, accompanied by his general, Bobrok, made a personal reconnaissance of Kulikovo Field near the Don River, approximately 300 kilometers south of Moscow. The wide field, which got its name from the multitude of small swamp birds, or kulik, that inhabited it, was crisscrossed by many gulches, with small hillocks topped by copses of trees and swampy lowlands nestled between the hills. It was here that he would arrange the 12,000 warriors from various Russian principalities who had agreed to fight for him and a cause that amounted to suicide. Approaching to engage him were some 18,000 Tatars of the Golden Horde, a branch of the Mongol empire that had dominated Russia for almost a century and a half. Russian princes and dukes had challenged the Tatars before. All had gone down in defeat followed by a terrible retribution from their Asiatic overlords.

Russia’s ordeal under the eastern invaders began in 1237, when a 130,000-strong army under the command of Batu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, thundered across its steppes and claimed them for the Mongol empire. One after another the small and disunited Russian principalities, engaged in constant war against each other, fell under Mongol rule. The fall of Kiev in 1240 left almost all Russian territory, save for some of the northern lands around Novgorod, under Mongol domination. As tragic as those events were for the Russians, the Mongols regarded Russia as an area of little importance, merely a stopover on their way to conquer richer lands in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Unlike the conquered regions inhabited by nomadic Turkic tribes, the Russian lands were not incorporated into the Mongol empire, or khanate, but remained semi-independent vassals, paying an annual tribute and providing troops for Mongol campaigns.

After his campaigns in Russia and Eastern Europe, Batu Khan established the Kipchak Tatar khanate that became known as the Golden Horde, after the color of its warriors’ tents. After Batu’s death in 1255, the Golden Horde went into a gradual decline. By the mid-14th century, the empire Genghis Khan built had lost its Mongol identity. Its power base shifted to the Tatars, nomadic Turkic peoples inhabiting the vast steppes bordering southern Russia. When the ruling khan was assassinated in 1357, the Golden Horde entered a long period of internecine warfare. During a span of 20 years the Horde had almost as many rulers. By 1378, a Mongol general named Mamai, who was a longtime powerbroker behind the throne, finally emerged at the forefront and declared himself the khan of the Golden Horde.

Mamai’s political position remained tenuous. Since he was not of a Genghizid line, he was challenged for the supreme position by Tokhtamysh, khan of the Blue Horde, the eastern offshoot of the Mongol empire, who was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Sensing that Mamai’s grasp on Russian lands was weakening. Grand Prince Dmitry increased the pace of unifying the many duchies and principalities around Moscow under his own control through astute politics, religion and marriage. Dmitry, who hailed from a line of decisive and capable princes, was one of those rare people in history who was the right man at the right place at the right time. He subjugated the principality of Tver by force of arms, then secured an alliance with Suzdal by marrying the daughter of Suzdal’s prince. Novgorod and its adjacent lands came under his control when Patriarch Sergei Radonezhsky, an ardent supporter of Dmitry, excommunicated the city’s residents and closed its churches until they acknowledged the Muscovite prince’s authority over them.

Golden Horde 1. Khan Mamai 2. Standard Bearer 3. Warrior 4. Drummer 5. Trumpeter 6. Noble 7. Noble Horse Archer

In order to curb Prince Dmitry’s growing influence and reassert his own authority, Khan Mamai demanded a large tribute from Moscow in 1380. The prince sent gold and silver, but in what Mamai regarded as no more than a token quantity. The Tatar khan mobilized his army for a campaign to bring Dmitry in line.

The forces that Mamai assembled to oppose the Moscovite prince were varied in character. In addition to the khan’s own Tatars there were contingents from vassal steppe nomads, such as Polovtsi, and Circassian and Arrmenian tribes living in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. Prince Oleg of Ryazan, chief among Dmitry’s Russian rivals, also promised Mamai his support. Lithuanian King Jogaila may have also pledged to send his troops to support Mamai. (Jogaila, the son of King Olgerd and Russian Princess Ulyana of Tver, considered himself a rightful heir to some of the Russian lands). Aid also came from an unexpected quarter. The Genoese merchants from colonies in the Crimean Peninsula wanted to minimize the disruption of trade along the Great Silk Road, a portion of which ran through Mamai’s territory. With that in mind, they hired more than 2,000 mercenary pikemen from all over the Eastern Mediterranean to support the Golden Horde.

ARMY OF PRINCE DMITRY Prince with retinue: 1. Prince 2. Squire-page 3. Standard Bearer 4. Trumpeter 5. Drummer

In the early spring of 1380, Prince Dmitry received news of the impending invasion from his ally Prince Gleb of Bryansk. At once Dmitry dispatched messengers to all the territories loyal to him, with requests for soldiers to come to his aid. At the same time he ordered the strengthening of fortifications in Kolomna and Tula, two border towns that would bear the first brunt of the Tatar onslaught.

Soon thereafter, Dmitry received word that Prince Oleg of Ryazan and King Jogaila had thrown in their lot with Khasn of the Golden Horde Mamai. Dmitry immediately called a council of nobles, or boyare, to decide on a course of action. Dmitry backed up by the veteran general Bobrok and Dmitry’s cousin, Prince Vladimir of Serpukhov, decided to immediately advance against Mamai before Oleg and Jogaila joined him.

Not wasting any time, Dmitry sent out a strong cavalry detachment under the command of experienced warriors Rodion Rzhevsky, Andrey Volosaty and Vasily Tupik. They were ordered to get as close as possible to the main encampments of the Golden Horde and take a prisoner for interrogation. This reconnaissance detachment took all the precautions to make its approach unobserved. The men wrapped their horses’ hooves and all the metal horse equipment, as well as their personal weapons, with rags in order not to make noise. Each trooper, emulating the Tatar custom, brought along a reserve horse for faster movement.

Five days later, the scouts reached the outer edges of the Tatar camp, to be confronted with the intimidating sight of innumerable campfires stretching to the far horizon. After setting up an ambush, they succeeded in capturing a minor Tatar noble. In questioning him, the Russian scouts found out that Mamai was waiting for the w heat to mature a little more so that his warriors could live off the land while campaigning. The Tatars were also waiting for the arrival of King Jogaila, who was not expected earlier than September.

That intelligence spurred Dmitry to hasten his mobilization effort. The troops who would not have time to gather in Moscow by the start of the campaign were redirected to the border town of Kolomna. As his forces began to gather, Dmitry took stock of the situation. Only a small portion of his force was made up of seasoned soldiers from the household war bands of Russian nobles. Those troops were armed with swords, war axes and heavy spears, and wore chain or scale armor with high-peaked helmets. A heavy metal teardrop-shaped shield, traditionally painted deep red, rounded off their armor Only a fraction of them were mounted. The bulk of the Muscovite army was made up of peasants and city residents with limited military’ experience at best. Barely one in three of them had any armor, and even that was simply fashioned from sewing metal plates onto heavy clothing. This militia was mainly armed with wooden shields, bows and spears.

The basic unit making up a Russian regiment was called a “banner,” comprising “lances” of 10 warriors each. The strength of each banner generally varied from 20 to 100 men, based on recruiting efforts in each area and the wealth that each particular prince had to raise and equip his retinues.

In his preparations for the upcoming campaign Dmitry proved himself an experienced administrator He attended to myriad details, from gathering materials for wound dressing and finding people knowledgeable in treating wounds to planning routes of march for individual units.

After leaving strong garrisons in Moscow and Serpukhov, Dmitry’s army left Moscow for Kolomna on August 20, 1380. In order to alleviate crowding on poor roads, the Russian forces moved along three different routes. Ten merchants who knew the route through the steppes as well as the location of watering holes and other water sources guided the columns. Reaching Kolomna on the 24th, Dmitry called a halt to rest his troops and give his late arriving detachments time to catch up. In order to facilitate the crossing of Oka River, he ordered his soldiers to improve the available fords by dumping large amounts of sand, gravel and dirt in the river. Some of these artificial sandbanks survive to the present day, and navigators on the Oka take careful measures to avoid them.

Learning that Jogaila’s forces were on the move as well, Dmitry led his army south along the left bank of the Oka. In choosing that route, Dmitry placed his forces between Mamai and his Lithuanian allies. Ever\’ day mounted scouts brought news of Mamai’s progress. They reported that the forward detachments of Tatar cavalry’ were already approaching the Nepryadva River delta at the Don River. The main Russian force was rapidly advancing toward the Don as well, gaining several days’ march ahead of Jogaila.

Dmitry’s route took his forces through the edge of Ryazan’s territory. In spite of Prince Oleg’s alliance with the Golden Horde, Dmitry ordered his troops to leave the Ryazan lands unmolested. In so doing, the Muscovite prince displayed a canny understanding of the fact that Ryazan was one of the most geographically vulnerable Russian principalities, lying directly between Moscow and the Golden Horde. Oleg had the unenviable job of trying to safeguard even a modicum of independence in the face of two voracious neighbors. And Dmitry’s nonthreatening behavior paid off-although he was within easy reach of the Tatar army, Oleg did not hurry to join Mamai, but cautiously hung back, to see how the upcoming confrontation would play out.

The Russian forces approaching the Don were divided into four components. The main body, called the Grand Regiment, was under Dmitry’s immediate command. This unit also included the war bands of the Belozersk princes. The Right Regiment, as its name implied, was moving to the right of the Grand Regiment, under the command of Prince Vladimir. This unit also included troops from the city of Yaroslavl. The Left Regiment was commanded by Prince Gleb. Marching in the van, in front of the Grand Regiment, the Forward Regiment’s task was to scout out the route of march and receive the brunt of a Tatar offensive if necessary.

In the beginning of September; the forward Russian detachments reached the Don. Prince Dmitry ordered a halt to give all the troops who had fallen behind a chance to catch up, assemble and rest.

Meanwhile the Russian scouts took another prisoner who told them that Mamai was advancing slowly, waiting for Jogaila’s and Oleg’s armies to arrive. The Tatar forces, mostly composed of light cavalry, did not have the siege train necessary for taking Russian cities and were relying on the Lithuanians to provide them with the needed equipment. Not yet aware that Dmitry had already reached the Don, Mamai was still under the impression that the Russian forces would not dare to make a major move against him, and he was preparing to cross the river in three days’ time.

Russian scouts also reported that King Jogaila’s forces were making good time and were only two days away from joining Mamai. Prince Dmitry called for another war council, in which several courses of action were discussed. Some princes favored not crossing the Don, but remaining on their side and attempting to prevent Mamai from crossing the river. Dmitry, supported by his hotheaded cousin Prince Vladimir and General Bobrok, were for crossing the river and taking the war to Mamai. After much deliberation, Dmitiy decided to cross the river and meet the invader head-on. This decision did not come lightly. The Russian commander was well aware that should he fail and his army be annihilated, and as had happened so often in the past century, the majority of the Russian lands would be wide open to the ravages of Tatar retribution.

On September 7, the entire Russian army, numbering about 12,000 men, gathered on the banks of the Don, getting ready to cross this formidable obstacle. Numerous militia detachments were put to work felling trees to build temporary bridges. Cavalry detachments were sent out to search for fords, Dmitry wanted to be across before Mamai had time to join up with Oleg and Jogaila. Work on the bridges proceeded at a good pace, and several fords were discovered as well. By nightfall, the whole of Dmitry’s army had crossed over and halted in the swampy terrain near the confluence of the Don and Nepryadva rivers.

Tension ran high in the Russian camp that night. A strong wind picked up, and the river became shrouded with fog. Around midnight the wind finally died down and an uneasy calm fell over the encampment. Not many slept that night. Scouts reported that Mamai. with his whole force of roughly 18,000 troops, was already approaching the expected battlefield. The forward-most Russian detachments had fought several running skirmishes with the advancing Tatars. Now only a tiny river, the Smolka, divided the converging armies.

So it was that Dmitry and Bobrok surveyed Kulikovo Field and made their preparations for the battle to come on the morning of September 8, Knowing that the favorite Tatar tactic was to move around the flanks of an opposing force and take it from the rear, Dmitry and Bobrok deployed their forces in such a way as to anchor them on defensible terrain features. Their goal was to deny the Tatars mobility and channel them into a narrow field in order to negate their numerical superiority.

The Russian forces were deployed in their traditional three-deep battle formation. The detached scout element formed the first line. Directly behind it, in the second line, was the Forward Regiment. The third Russian line consisted of the Right, Left and Grand regiments. The Right Regiment was deployed with its flank resting on the Lower Dubyak River. The shallow Smolka anchored the Left Regiment, under the command of two brothers, the princes of Belozersk. The Grand Regiment under Dmitry’s personal command took up the center position, with a small reserve held behind it. An even smaller detachment guarded the several temporary bridges located behind the Left Regiment. Dmitry combined almost all of his available cavalry, consisting of the experienced war bands of various princes’ household troops, into a new unit. This so-called Ambush Regiment, placed under the joint command of Prince Vladimir and Bobrok, was hidden in the Dubrava Wood, on the extreme left of the Russian deployment.

According to Russian Orthodox Christian beliefs, September 8 coincided with the birthday of the Virgin Mother, and a priest walked up and down the Russian ranks imploring the troops to be worthy of the occasion. Shortly after 10 a. m., a solid wall of Tatar cavalry appeared on the field. Denied the opportunity to encircle the Russian deployment, the Golden Horde also deployed in linear-formation. The center of the Tatar line was occupied by Genoese mercenary pikemen and dismounted tribesmen, Tatar cavalry coveied their flanks, and a strong detachment of cavalry was kept in reserve.

Around 11 a. m. following a ritualistic duel between two horsemen, the Tatars opened the battle by shooting a volley of arrows that darkened the sky, then surged forward. The Russian scout force and Forward Regiment were severely pressed by the Genoese and their long pikes, supplemented by dismounted Tatars. After a short period of pushing and shoving, the Russians began to give way. Some Russian archers, however, managed to bring down several of the front-rank Genoese pikemen, and the Russian infantry got in among them. In the melee that ensued, the swords and war axes of the Russians began to exact a heavy toll on the Genoese, whose pikes became a liability’ in close combat. The Russian success did not last long, however, as fresh waves of Tatars swung the advantage back in Mamai’s favor.

After almost an hour of fighting, the survivors of the Forward and scout units were pushed back onto the Grand Regiment. The Tatar warriors charged headlong to close with the Russian main body, while their archers showered the tight Russian formations with arrows. The fight became a vicious brawl. Fallen wounded were crushed underfoot, men slipped on grass slick with blood, and horses stumbled over piles of bodies.

At that critical moment, Prince Dmitry himself went down under a fresh rush of Tartars. Instead of discouraging the Russian forces, however, this only strengthened their resolve. On the right flank. Prince Andrey of Ryazan, a noblemen who had renounced Prince Oleg’s alliance to the Golden Horde, slowly began to gain ground. He personally led a small band of his mounted retainers in a mad charge that drove the enemy back.

From his observation post on top of Krasny Hill, Mamai became enraged to see some of his troops retreat. Around 2 p. m., he sent in his last reserves in an attempt to overwhelm the Russian left wing and break into the Russian tear. As the fresh Tatar forces crashed into the exhausted Russians, the Left Regiment slowly began to give way. For the first time in the course of the battle, the Grand Regiment was in real danger of being surrounded. At that time, both of the Belozersk princes fell in battle. The small Russian reserve detachment was brought forward but could not restore the situation. The fight continued, with the Russian left wing being slowly pushed back onto the Grand Regiment.

As it often happens, the side that hoards the last reserves wins the day. At that crucial time, the Russian Ambush Regiment attacked from its position in the Dubrava Wood, taking the Tatars in their right flank and rear. The fresh Russian horsemen, bent on revenge for the carnage that had unfolded before their eyes, gave no quarter. The remnants of the Grand Regiment under Prince Gleb, who assumed command after Dmitry fell, rushed forward, trapping fleeing Tatars between them and the cavalry.

After another hour of savage fighting, the Tatars finally gave way and began to retreat in earnest. Some of them tried to rally and make a stand at Mamai’s camp but were quickly overrun by jubilant Russian troops. Mamai, screaming with rage, abandoned his camp and followed the survivor’s in retreat.

Back on the corpse-strewn battlefield. Prince Vladimir launched a desperate effort to find Dmitry. Twice, fallen noblemen resembling the grand prince were discovered and word spread of his death. That feeling of despair ultimately turned to widespread joy, however, when Prince Dmitry was finally found alive. He was covered in blood from a head wound, but his helmet bad absorbed the blow-he had been knocked unconscious rather than seriously wounded. Dmitry s personal standard with the image of Christ the Savior was hoisted high amid the exhausted but jubilant Russian troops.

After a short pursuit, the Russian cavalry’ returned to the battlefield. It was a Pyrrhic victory, with more than 3,000 Russians lying dead and roughly the same number wounded. Because of the large number of casualties, seven days had to be spent at the battlefield resting, tending the wounded and burying the dead. Disproportionate to the overall Russian casualties was the butcher’s bill of their leaders, who had fought at the forefront throughout the battle, with 15 princes killed. Tatar dead numbered roughly the same as the Russians, but the wounded they left on the field received no mercy from the victors.

King Jogaila was still a day’s march away when he received news of Mamai’s defeat, at which point he turned around and retired to Lithuania, laying waste to Russian lands as he passed. As Dmitry’s detachments began returning to their homes, several small units were set upon and destroyed by retreating Lithuanians and Prince Oleg’s forces, who until then had showed no activity. The brutal nature of the civil war was clearly demonstrated when at least two wagon trains of Dmitry’s Russian wounded were massacred by Oleg’s Ryazanians and Jogaila’s Kievan and Belorussian troops.

Upon returning to his base of operations, Mamai began to gather another army to take revenge on the upstart Russians. Significant numbers of his troops who were dispersed after the Battle of Kulikovo rejoined him and provided the backbone of his new force. Before he had time to assemble his new horde, however, Mamai was attacked and defeated in 1381 by his Tatar rival, Khan Tokhtamysh. Accompanied by just a few followers, Mamai escaped to Crimea to seek shelter with his recent backers, the Genoese. Now carried in the liability portion of their ledger, Mamai was quietly murdered by his former allies in Kaffa, present-day Feodosiya.

Dmitry died on May 19, 1389, nine years after the victory on the Don River, for which he forever became known as Dmitry Donskoi. While the immediate military-political gains of victory on Kulikovo Field were minimal, it gave a huge boost to Russian national pride and identity. Even though the Tatar yoke would not be thrown off for another century, the Russian people now recognized that their liberation was only a matter of time.