An Army and Navy for the Czars


Born to the ruling Moscow branch of the Rurikid dynasty, Ivan nominally became grand prince at the age of three after the death of his father, Grand Prince Vasily III. During the regency of Ivan’s mother, Yelena Glinskaya, from 1533 to 1538, ruling circles strengthened Ivan’s position as nominal ruler by eliminating Prince Andrei Ivanovich of Staritsa and Prince Yury Ivanovich of Dmitrov, representatives of the royal family’s collateral branches. Ivan’s status as dynastic leader was reinforced during his coronation as tsar on January 16, 1547. Drawing extensively on Byzantine and Muscovite coronation rituals and literary texts to reveal the divine sanction for Ivan’s power, the ceremony posited continuity between his rule and the rule of the Byzantine emperors and Kievan princes. Ivan continued the aggressive policy of his ancestors toward the collateral branches of the dynasty by eliminating his cousin, Prince Vladimir An- dreyevich of Staritsa (1569).


The musketeers, or streltsy (literally “shooters”), were organized as part of Ivan IV’s effort to reform Russia’s military during the sixteenth century. In 1550 he recruited six companies of foot soldiers armed with firearms, organized into tactical units of five hundred, commanded and trained by officers from the nobility. These units were based from the beginning in towns, and eventually took on the character of garrison forces. Over time their numbers grew from three thousand in 1550 to fifty thousand in 1680.

Militarily, they were ineffectual, mainly because of their economic character. The musketeers were a hereditary class not subject to taxation, but to state service requirements, including battlefield service, escort, and guard duties. During the seventeenth century, the state provided them with grain and cash, but economic privileges, including permission to act as merchants, artisans, or farmers, became their principal support. One particular plum was permission to produce alcoholic beverages for their own consumption. They also bore civic duties (firefighting and police) in the towns where they lived. Pursuing economic interests reduced their fighting edge.

Throughout the seventeenth century the musketeers proved to be fractious, regularly threatening, even killing, officers who mistreated them or represented modernizing elements within the military. By 1648 it was apparent that they were unreliable, especially when compared with the new-formation regiments appearing prior to the Thirteen Years War (1654–1667) under leadership of European mercenary officers. Rather than disband the musketeers entirely, the state made attempts to westernize them. Many units were placed under the command of foreigners and retrained. Administrative changes were made during and after the war, including placing certain units under the jurisdiction of the tsar’s Privy Chancery, which appointed officers and collected operations reports. The Privy Chancery, and by extension, the tsar, was at the center of the attempt to transform the musketeers into more thoroughly trained western-style infantry.

Further pressure to reform included official neglect, even to the point of refusing to give the musketeers weapons. Later decrees (1681, 1682) replaced cash payments with grants of unsettled lands as compensation for service. This change in support reduced their status, without improving their overall military effectiveness, and the musketeers vehemently opposed it. By 1680, many regiments had been retrained and officered by foreigners, but the conservative musketeers were anxious to be rid of the hated foreigners and regain their eroded prestige. Thus, in 1682, they were willing to believe rumors that Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich had been poisoned, and were anxious to punish those responsible with death.

Peter I’s (the Great) reign was marred by an uprising in 1698 of military units stationed in Moscow called musketeers or streltsy (literally, “shooters”). The musketeers disliked the tsar’s westernizing policies and governing style. Peter rejected traditional behaviors and practices, including standards of dress, grooming, comportment, and faith, but more importantly, he sought to reform Russia’s military institutions, which threatened the musketeers’ historical prerogatives.

Peter crushed the rebellion with great severity, executing nearly twelve hundred musketeers, and flogging and exiling another six hundred. The Moscow regiments were abolished and survivors sent to serve in provincial units, losing privileges, homes, and lands. They carried with them seeds of defiance that eventually bore fruit in Astrakhan in 1705–1706, and among the Cossacks in 1707– 1708. Although the last Moscow regiments of musketeers disappeared before 1713, the musketeers continued to exist in the provinces until after Peter’s death.

Peter’s response to the 1698–1699 uprising may have arisen from his memories of the 1682 musketeer revolt. The musketeers suspected the Naryshkins (Peter’s mother, Natalia’s family) of having poisoned Tsar Fyodor and of planning to kill the Tsarevich Ivan, both sons of Tsar Alexei’s first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya. The Miloslavskys encouraged these suspicions in order to use their regiments against the Naryshkins. On May 25, 1682, the musketeers attacked the Kremlin. Natalia Naryshkina showed Ivan and Peter to the rioting musketeers to prove they were still alive. Nonetheless, the rebellion was bloody, and the government was powerless because it had no forces capable of stopping the musketeers. From this rebellion came the joint reign of Ivan and Peter with their sister and half-sister, Sophia, who issued decrees in their names, and who was a favorite of the musketeers.

In 1698 the streltsy were unable to see that Peter I was implacable in his rejection of conservatism and that the musketeers represented for him a dangerous and disloyal element. In the final clash, the musketeers were unable to reshape their world, and eventually disappeared.


Measured by large outcomes, the Imperial Russian military establishment evolved through two distinct stages. From the era of Peter the Great through the reign of Alexander III, the Russian army and navy fought, borrowed, and innovated their way to more successes than failures. With the major exception of the Crimean War, Russian ground and naval forces largely overcame the challenges and contradictions inherent in diverse circumstances and multiple foes to extend and defend the limits of empire. However, by the time of Nicholas II, significant lapses in leadership and adaptation spawned the kinds of repetitive disaster and fundamental disaffection that exceeded the military’s ability to recuperate.


The Imperial Russian Army and Navy owed their origins to Peter I, although less so for the army than the navy. The army’s deeper roots clearly lay with Muscovite precedent, especially with Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich’s European-inspired new regiments of foreign formation. The Great Reformer breathed transforming energy and intensity into these and other precedents to fashion a standing regular army that by 1725 counted 112,000 troops in two guards, two grenadier, forty-two infantry, and thirty-three dragoon regiments, with supporting artillery and auxiliaries. To serve this establishment, he also fashioned administrative, financial, and logistical mechanisms, along with a rational rank structure and systematic officer and soldier recruitment. With an admixture of foreigners, the officer corps came primarily from the Russian nobility, while soldiers came from recruit levies against the peasant population.

Although Peter’s standing force owed much to European precedent, his military diverged from conventional patterns to incorporate irregular cavalry levies, especially Cossacks, and to evolve a military art that emphasized flexibility and practicality for combating both conventional northern European foes and less conventional steppe adversaries. After mixed success against the Tatars and Turks at Azov in 1695-1696, and after a severe reverse at Narva (1700) against the Swedes at the outset of the Great Northern War, Peter’s army notched important victories at Dorpat (1704), Lesnaya (1708), and Poltava (1709). After an abrupt loss in 1711 to the Turks on the Pruth River, Peter dogged his Swedish adversaries until they came to terms at Nystadt in 1721. Subsequently, Peter took to the Caspian basin, where during the early 1720s his Lower (or Southern) Corps campaigned as far south as Persia.

After Peter’s death, the army’s fortunes waned and waxed, with much of its development characterized by which aspect of the Petrine legacy seemed most politic and appropriate for time and circumstance. Under Empress Anna Ioannovna, the army came to reflect a strong European, especially Prussian, bias in organization and tactics, a bias that during the 1730s contributed to defeat and indecision against the Tatars and Turks. Under Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the army reverted partially to Petrine precedent, but retained a sufficiently strong European character to give good account for itself in the Seven Years’ War. Although in 1761 the military- organizational pendulum under Peter III again swung briefly and decisively in favor of Prussianinspired models, a palace coup in favor of his wife, who became Empress Catherine II, ushered in a lengthy period of renewed military development. During Catherine’s reign, the army fought two major wars against Turkey and its steppe allies to emerge as the largest ground force in Europe. Three commanders were especially responsible for bringing Russian military power to bear against elusive southern adversaries. Two, Peter Alexandrovich Rumyantsev and Alexander Vasilievich Suvorov, were veterans of the Seven Years War, while the third, Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin, was a commander and administrator of great intellect, influence, and organizational talent.

During Catherine’s First Turkish War (1768-1774), Rumyantsev successfully employed flexible tactics and simplified Russian military organization to win significant victories at Larga and Kagul (both 1770). Suvorov, meanwhile, defeated the Polish Confederation of Bar, then after 1774 campaigned in the Crimea and the Nogai steppe. At the same time, regular army formations played an important role in suppressing the Pugachev rebellion (1773-1775). During Catherine’s Second Turkish War (1787-1792), Potemkin emerged as the impresario of final victory over the Porte for hegemony over the northern Black Sea littoral, while Suvorov emerged as perhaps the most talented Russian field commander of all time. Potemkin inherently understood the value of irregular cavalry forces in the south, and he took measures to regularize Cossack service and bring them more fully under Russian military authority, or failing that, to abolish recalcitrant Cossack hosts. Following Rumyantsev’s precedent, he also lightened and multiplied the number of light infantry and light cavalry formations, while emphasizing utility and practicality in drill and items of equipment. In the field, Suvorov further refined Rumyantsev’s tactical innovations to emphasize “speed, assessment, attack.” Suvorov’s battlefield successes, together with the conquest of Ochakov (1788) and Izmail (1790) and important sallies across the Danube, brought Russia favorable terms at Jassy (1792). Even as war raged in the south, the army in the north once again defeated Sweden (1788-1790), then in 1793-1794 overran a rebellious Poland, setting the stage for its third partition.

Under Paul I, the army chaffed under the imposition of direct monarchical authority, the more so because it brought another brief dalliance with Prussian military models. Suvorov was temporarily banished, but was later recalled to lead Russian forces in northern Italy as part of the Second Coalition against revolutionary France. In 1799, despite Austrian interference, Suvorov drove the French from the field, then brilliantly extricated his forces from Italy across the Alps. The eighteenth century closed with the army a strongly entrenched feature of Russian imperial might, a force to be reckoned with on both the plains of Europe and the steppes of Eurasia.


In contrast with the army, Muscovite precedent afforded scant inspiration for the Imperial Russian Navy, the origins of which clearly lay with Peter the Great. Enamored with the sea and sailing ships, Peter borrowed from foreign technology and expertise initially to create naval forces on both the Azov and Baltic Seas. Although the Russian navy would always remain “the second arm” for an essentially continental power, sea-going forces figured prominently in Peter’s military successes. In both the south and north, his galley fleets supported the army in riverine and coastal operations, then went on to win important Baltic victories over the Swedes, most notably at Gangut/Hanko (1714). Peter also developed an open-water sailing capability, so that by 1724 his Baltic Fleet numbered 34 ships-of-the-line, in addition to numerous galleys and auxiliaries. Smaller flotillas sailed the White and Caspian Seas.

More dependent than the army on rigorous and regular sustenance and maintenance, the Imperial Russian Navy after Peter languished until the era of Catherine II. She appointed her son general admiral, revitalized the Baltic Fleet, and later established Sevastopol as a base for the emerging Black Sea Fleet. In 1770, during the Empress’ First Turkish War, a squadron under Admiral Alexei Grigorievich Orlov defeated the Turks decisively at Chesme. During the Second Turkish War, a rudimentary Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Fyedor Fyedorovich Ushakov frequently operated both independently and in direct support of ground forces. The same ground-sea cooperation held true in the Baltic, where Vasily Yakovlevich Chichagov’s fleet also ended Swedish naval pretensions. Meanwhile, in 1799 Admiral Ushakov scored a series of Mediterranean victories over the French, before the Russians withdrew from the Second Coalition.


At the outset of the century, Alexander I inherited a sizeable and unaffordable army, many of whose commanders were seasoned veterans. After instituting a series of modest administrative reforms for efficiency and economy, including the creation of a true War Ministry, the Tsar in 1805 plunged into the wars of the Third Coalition. For all their experience and flexibility, the Russians with or without the benefit of allies against Napoleon suffered a series of reverses or stalemates, including Austerlitz (1805), Eylau (1807), and Friedland (1807). After the ensuing Tilsit Peace granted five years’ respite, Napoleon’s Grand Armée invaded Russia in 1812. Following a fighting Russian withdrawal into the interior, Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov in September gave indecisive battle at Borodino, followed by another withdrawal to the southeast that uncovered Moscow. When the French quit Moscow in October, Kutuzov pursued, reinforced by swarms of partisans and Cossacks, who, together with starvation and severe cold, harassed the Grand Armée to destruction. In 1813, the Russian army fought in Germany, and in 1814 participated in the coalition victory at Leipzig, followed by a fighting entry into France and the occupation of Paris.

The successful termination of the Napoleonic wars still left Alexander I with an outsized and unaffordable military establishment, but now with the addition of disaffected elements within the officer corps. While some gentry officers formed secret societies to espouse revolutionary causes, the tsar experimented with the establishment of settled troops, or military colonies, to reduce maintenance costs. Although these colonies were in many ways only an extension of the previous century’s experience with military settlers on the frontier, their widespread application spawned much discontent. After Alexander I’s death, unrest and conspiracy led to an attempted military coup in December 1825.

Tsar Nicholas I energetically suppressed the so-called Decembrist rebellion, then imposed parade ground order. His standing army grew to number one million troops, but its outdated recruitment system and traditional support infrastructure eventually proved incapable of meeting the challenges of military modernization. Superficially, the army was a model of predictable routine and harsh discipline, but its inherent shortcomings, including outmoded weaponry, incapacity for rapid expansion, and lack of strategic mobility, led inexorably to Crimean defeat. The army was able to subdue Polish military insurrectionists (1830-1831) and Hungarian revolutionaries (1848), and successfully fight Persians and Turks (1826-1828, 1828-1829), but in the field it lagged behind its more modern European counterparts. Fighting from 1854 to 1856 against an allied coalition in the Crimea, the Russians suffered defeat at Alma, heavy losses at Balaklava and Inkerman, and the humiliation of surrender at Sevastopol. Only the experience of extended warfare in the Caucasus (1801-1864) afforded unconventional antidote to the conventional “paradomania” of St. Petersburg that had so thoroughly inspired Crimean defeat. Thus, the mountains replaced the steppe as the southern pole in an updated version of the previous century’s north-south dialectic.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the navy, too, experienced its own version of the same dialectic. For a brief period, the Russian navy under Admiral Dmity Nikolayevich Senyavin harassed Turkish forces in the Aegean, but following Tilsit, the British Royal Navy ruled in both the Baltic and the Mediterranean. In 1827, the Russians joined with the British and French to pound the Turks at Navarino, but in the north, the Baltic Fleet, like the St. Petersburg military establishment, soon degenerated into an imperial parading force. Only on the Black Sea, where units regularly supported Russian ground forces in the Caucasus, did the Navy reveal any sustained tactical and operational acumen. However, this attainment soon proved counterproductive, for Russian naval victory in 1853 over the Turks at Sinope drew the British and French to the Turkish cause, thus setting the stage for allied intervention in the Crimea. During the Crimean War, steam and screw-driven allied vessels attacked at will in both the north and south, thereby revealing the essentially backwardness of Russia’s sailing navy.


Alexander II’s era of the Great Reforms marked an important watershed for both services. In a series of reforms between 1861 and 1874, War Minister Dmitry Alexeyevich Milyutin created the foundations for a genuine cadre- and reserve-based ground force. He facilitated introduction of a universal service obligation, and he rearmed, reequipped, and redeployed the army to contend with the gradually emerging German and Austro-Hungarian threat along the Empire’s western frontier. In 1863-1864 the army once again suppressed a Polish rebellion, while in the 1860s and 1870s small mobile forces figured in extensive military conquests in Central Asia. War also flared with Turkey in 1877-1878, during which the army, despite a ragged beginning, inconsistent field leadership, and inadequacies in logistics and medical support, acquitted itself well, especially in a decisive campaign in the European theater south of the Balkan ridge. Similar circumstances governed in the Transcausus theater, where the army overcame initial setbacks to seize Kars and carry the campaign into Asia Minor.

Following the war of 1877-1878, planning and deployment priorities wedded the army more closely to the western military frontier and especially to peacetime deployments in Russian Poland. With considerable difficulty, Alexander III presided over a limited force modernization that witnessed the adoption of smokeless powder weaponry and changes in size and force structure that kept the army on nearly equal terms with its two more significant potential adversaries, Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary. At the same time, the end of the century brought extensive new military commitments to the Far East, both to protect expanding imperial interests and to participate in suppression of the Boxer Rebellion (1900).

The same challenges of force modernization and diverse responsibilities bedeviled the navy, perhaps more so than the army. During the 1860s and 1870s, the navy made the difficult transition from sail to steam, but thereafter had to deal with increasingly diverse geostrategic requirements that mandated retention of naval forces in at least four theaters (Baltic, Northern, Black Sea, and Pacific), none of which were mutually supporting. Simultaneously, the Russian Admiralty grappled with issues of role and identity, pondering whether the navy’s primary mission in war lay either with coastal defense and commerce raiding or with attainment of true “blue water” supremacy in the tradition of Alfred Thayer Mahan and his Russian navalist disciples. Rationale notwithstanding, by 1898 Russia possessed Europe’s third largest navy (nineteen capital ships and more than fifty cruisers), thanks primarily to the ship-building programs of Alexander III.

Top: L.K. Akentiev. “St. Phoca” at Cape Flora. 2015 Bottom: M.P. Goncharov. Squadron battleship “Tsesarevich”. 2001


Under Russia’s last tsar, the army went from defeat to disaster and despair. Initially overcommitted and split by a new dichotomy between the Far East and the European military frontier, the army fared poorly in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Poor strategic vision and even worse battlefield execution in a Far Eastern littoral war brought defeat because Russia failed to bring its overwhelming resources to bear. While the navy early ceded the initiative and command of the sea to the Japanese, Russian ground force buildups across vast distances were slow. General Adjutant Alexei Nikolayevich Kuropatkin and his subordinates lacked the capacity either to fight expert delaying actions or to master the complexities of meeting engagements that evolved into main battles and operations. Tethered to an 8-thousand-kilometer-long line of communications, the army marched through a series of reverses from the banks of the Yalu (May 1904) to the environs of Mukden (February-March 1905). Although the garrison at Port Arthur retained the capacity to resist, premature surrender of the fortress in early 1905 merely added to Russian humiliation.

The Imperial Russian Navy fared even worse. Except for Stepan Osipovich Makarov, who was killed early, Russian admirals in the Far East presented a picture of indolence and incompetence. The Russian Pacific Squadron at Port Arthur made several half-hearted sorties, then was bottled up at its base by Admiral Togo, until late in 1904 when Japanese siege artillery pounded the Squadron to pieces. When the tsar sent his Baltic Fleet (rechristened the Second Pacific Squadron) to the Far East, it fell prey to the Japanese at Tsushima (May 1905) in a naval battle of annihilation. In all, the tsar lost fifteen capital ships in the Far East, the backbone of two battle fleets.

The years between 1905 and 1914 witnessed renewal and reconstruction, neither of which sufficed to prepare the tsar’s army and navy for World War I. Far Eastern defeat fueled the fires of the Revolution of 1905, and both services witnessed mutinies within their ranks. Once the dissidents were weeded out, standing army troops were employed liberally until 1907 to suppress popular disorder. By 1910, stability and improved economic conditions permitted General Adjutant Vladimir Alexandrovich Sukhomlinov’s War Ministry to undertake limited reforms in the army’s recruitment, organization, deployment, armament, and supply structure. More could have been done, but the navy siphoned off precious funds for ambitious shipbuilding programs to restore the second arm’s power and prestige. The overall objective was to prepare Russia for war with the Triple Alliance. Obsession with the threat opposite the western military frontier gradually eliminated earlier dichotomies and subsumed all other strategic priorities.

The outbreak of hostilities in 1914 came too soon for various reform and reconstruction projects to bear full fruit. Again, the Russians suffered from strategic overreach and stretched their military and naval resources too thin. Moreover, military leaders failed to build sound linkages between design and application, between means and objectives, and between troops and their command instances. These and other shortcomings, including an inadequate logistics system and the regime’s inability fully to mobilize the home front to support the fighting front, proved disastrous. Thus, the Russians successfully mobilized 3.9 million troops for a short war of military annihilation, but early disasters in East Prussia at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, along with a stalled offensive in Galicia, inexorably led to a protracted war of attrition and exhaustion. In 1915, when German offensive pressure caused the Russian Supreme Command to shorten its front in Russian Poland, withdrawal turned into a costly rout. One of the few positive notes came in 1916, when the Russian Southwest Front under General Alexei Alexeyevich Brusilov launched perhaps the most successful offensive of the entire war on all its fronts. Meanwhile, a navy still not fully recovered from 1904-1905 generally discharged its required supporting functions. In the Baltic, it laid mine fields and protected approaches to Petrograd. In the Black Sea, after initial difficulties with German units serving under Turkish colors, the fleet performed well in a series of support and amphibious operations.

Ultimately, a combination of seemingly endless bloodletting, war-weariness, governmental inefficiency, and the regime’s political ineptness facilitated the spread of pacifist and revolutionary sentiment in both the army and navy. By the beginning of 1917, sufficient malaise had set in to render both services incapable either of consistent loyalty or of sustained and effective combat operations. In the end, neither the army nor the navy offered proof against the tsar’s internal and external enemies.

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