Gului-gorod and Lines of Defence

Gului-gorod or Gulyay-gorod

Bereg Line – Pre-Ivan IV

1.    Nizhni Novgorod to Zvenigorod Line (largely riverine line along Moskva river not itself shown)

2     Kolomna to Kaluga Line (along Oka)

Ivan IV (1547–1584)

3.    Novgorod Severski (Desna) Line – Alatir (Sura River) to Putivl’

4.    Zasechnaya Line – Pereslavl-Ryazanski (Oka) to Kozelisk (Zhizdra)

5.    Zasechnaya Line – Alatir to Skopin (Don)

Boris Godunov (1585–1605)

6.    Kromi (Oka) to Elets (near Don)

7.    Kursk (Seum) to Voronezh (Don)

Belgorodskaya Cherta (Seventeenth Century)

8.    Voronezh-Tsna Corridor (1635)

9.    Belgorodskaya Cherta (1635-1646) (Tambov (Tsna) to Akhtyrka (Vorskla))

10.  Simbirskaya Cherta (1648-1684) (Tambov to Simbursk (Volga))

11.  Zakamskaya Cherta (1652-1656) (Simbursk to Meznelunsk (Kama))

12.  Seranskaya Cherta (1683–1684) (Simbirskaya Cherta via Penza to Sizran (Volga))

Izium Cherta

13.  (1680s) Userdsk (Belgorod Line) via Izium to Kolomak River)

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries the Russian army developed linear barriers called Gului-gorod or walking towns. These were intended for operation on the steppe where they could provide cover from nomad attacks and arrows, and moveable palisades through which firearms could shoot down mounted nomads. These were unlike earlier war wagons, where men fought from, on and between the vehicles, as they consisted of upright rectangular wooden shields, which moved on bogies or runners and which had gun ports. Before battle was joined, the units of the Gului-gorod were coupled together like railway carriages to form a continuous linear barrier. The men stood directly on the ground and there were no gaps between the individual units. Thus something that genuinely looked like a wall was presented to the enemy. Their value eventually diminished when nomads brought with them their own field artillery – as did the Crimean Tatars – but in the sixteenth century they played an important part in the shift of the Russian state from the defensive to the offensive. They were widely used in the sixteenth century wars with the Kazan and later by the Ukrainian Cossacks.

The Battle of Molodi in 1572, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547–1584), perhaps marked a turning point in the fight between settled states and nomads. In 1571 Khan Dovlet Girai of the Crimean Khanate had burned Moscow; he reputedly killed 100,000 people and enslaved another 150,000. The following year Russians used the Gului-gorod to shelter their artillery and harquebusiers from Tatar archery. After several days of fighting a detachment of Russians left the protection of the Gului-gorod and attacked the Tatars in the rear while those who had remained behind the Gului-gorod advanced before it, crushing the Tatars. Dovlet Girai’s son, grandson and son-in-law were killed and only 20,000 of an army of 150,000 Tatars returned. The Ottoman Turks had supported their Tatar vassals and the Russian victory at Molodi, although little known in the west, was seen as a key to reversing the northern expansion of the Turks. A crucial role in the victory was accorded to the mobile linear barriers or Gului-gorod.

Zasechnaya Cherta – The Zasechnaya System was built during the reigns of Ivan IV, the Terrible, and his able servant, and then successor, Boris Godunov, who served as Regent from 1585 to 1598, and then Tsar, from 1598 to 1605. (Sometimes the system is called the Bolishnya Zasechnaya Cherta or Great Abatis Line.)

A line ran from Alatir on the Sura River, in the east, via Shatsk to Novgorod Seversky, on the Desna, to the west. Shatsk blocked the Nogai Shlyah.

The main construction effort was the Zasechnaya Cherta which consisted of two continuous lines joined by the Don River. The more westerly line ran from Pereslavl-Ryazanski via Tula (where the Muravsky Shlyah was blocked) to Kozelisk. To the east, and taking up the earlier line from Alatir to Shatsk, the continuous line finished at Skopin on the Don to the west of Shatsk.

Under Boris Godunov further shorter lines appear to have been built across the Muravsky Shlyah between Kromi (River Oka) and Elets (near the Don) and to the southern towns of Kursk (River Seym) and Voronezh (Don).

Belgorodskaya Cherta – This line started as a short barrier blocking the corridor that stretched from Voronezh to Tsna. The line extended over the entire southern frontier.

Kozlov Steppe Wall – Voronezh-Tsna Corridor – As Russian estates and peoples expanded south of the Zasechnaya Cherta they remained vulnerable to the Nogai Tatars who were moving up the Nogai Shlyah. So a decision was made in the mid-1630s to build a twenty-five kilometre earthwork to block the open gap in the Voronezh-Tsna corridor across the Nogai Shlyah between the Polnoi Voroneszh, a tributary of the Voronezh, and the Chelnovaia River, a tributary of the Tsna. Initially a palisade was envisaged, but the risk of its being burnt was considered too great and a linear earthwork was constructed. This was designed by a Dutch engineer, Jan Cornelius von Rodenburg to incorporate both cannon and handgun positions. ‘The earth steppe wall began at Belyi Kolodez’ on the right bank of the Pol’noi Voronezh River, sixteen kilometres west of Kozlov, and ran eastward for twenty-five kilometres until it reached the left bank of the Chelnovaia River.’ To the east of the Chelnovaia was an abatis barrier which filled the gap to Tambov on the Tsna River. The barrier was built on time and budget and it worked immediately. In 1636 a force of 10,000 Tatars was driven off. The success of the Kozlov defences convinced the Russians that it was possible to move the main frontier down from the Zasechnaya Cherta (Abatis Line) to a new line running west from a wall on the Kozlov steppe, so as to cross all the shlyahs.

Belgorodskaya Cherta – This ran along the southern edge of forest steppe from, at the west end, Akhtyrka on the Vorskla, and east to Tambov on the Tsna, for 800 kilometres, of which 140 kilometres consisted of earthworks.

Simbirskaya Cherta – The Belgorodskaya Cherta was continued by the Simbirskaya Cherta from Tambov on the Tsna, to Saransk, west of the Sura, on towards Tagay, between the Sura and the Sviyaga Rivers, and then to Simbirsk on the Volga totalling 500 kilometres. It was completed in 1658.

Seranskaya Cherta – Roughly half way between Tambov and Simbursk, the Seranskaya Cherta split off from the Simbirskaya Cherta and ran about 300 kilometres past Penza to Sizran on the Volga.

Zakamskaya Cherta – The move by Russians eastwards disrupted the Turkic Bashkirs and so further linear barriers were constructed that ran east of the Volga. The Zakamskaya Cherta went east of Simbursk on the Volga, to the Meznelunsk on the Kama, for about 400 kilometres.

Izium Line – In 1679–1680 most of the steppe along the Donets and Oskol rivers was enclosed behind yet another new more southerly barrier, the Izium Line. The enclosed area formed a triangle whose base was the Belgorod Line. The Line ran along the lengths of the Oskol and the Donets Rivers, and at their confluence stood Izium as the point of the triangle. Whereas the eastern end diverged from the Belgorod Line near Userdsk, the western end did not quite return to the Belgorod Line but stopped on the Kolomak River. (Kolomak is about sixty kilometres south-west of the west end of the Belgorod Line at Akhtyrka.) The Izium Line brought the Russian lines another 160 kilometres south-east of the Belgorod Line and about 150 kilometres from the Black Sea. The line itself was over 500 kilometres long. The area inside the line corresponds approximately to Kharkiv Oblast and contains the modern city of Kharkiv which began as a small fort in about 1630, and today is the second largest city in the independent Republic of Ukraine.

Pskov-Smolensk-Briansk line – A rare example of a linear barrier which was built by one state against another was seen when Peter the Great ordered the construction of an abatis against Charles XII of Sweden. From 1706 to 1708 a fortified western border was established along the Pskov-Smolensk-Briansk line as a desperate measure. In 1724, Peter I introduced the fortress system of defending borders (primarily in the west), but Russia continued to use frontier lines in the south and east.

The lines built by Muscovy and then Russia worked on a similar basis to the Kievan Rus’ Zmievi Vali: ‘The object of all these linear defensive systems was impede the advance of the Tatars, restrict the mobility of cavalry, and gain time to allow the civilian population to be evacuated and large forces to be summoned from nearby fortresses. The Tatars had no siege machinery or great knowledge of siege warfare, so unsophisticated earth and earth-and-timber fortifications served the purpose well, and were cheap to build.’

By the admission of the Tatars they were successful: ‘Even the Tatars themselves acknowledged this (fortification had blocked the Nogai Shlyah), some Tatar princes … admitting to Russian interpreters in 1637 that the new defences at Kozlov and Tambov had ‘shut down’ the Nogai Road.’ Also: ‘A 1681 report of the Military Chancellery to the Boyer Duma assessed the impact of the Belgorod Line in the most enthusiastic terms, claiming not only that ‘enemy warriors can no longer attack the Borderland towns by surprise because of that defence line,’ but that military colonisation along the Line had even transformed the national economy by making the southern frontier safe for private colonisation.’ Previously peasants had preferred to risk their chances in Siberia rather than be taken slave by the Tatars. Now they stayed put and opened up the extremely fertile black earth belt. The population of the Moscovite state doubled in the quarter century after the construction of the Belgorod Line.

With the fall of Kiev the heartland of Russia moved to the less hospitable but more defendable north – with Muscovy emerging as the dominant state. It then developed technology involving firearms, linear barriers both moveable (like the Gului-gorod) and static, in addition to infantry and cavalry. Using these means Muscovy managed to stabilise the southern frontier and then to move it further south, displacing the nomads in the process. In the eighteenth century, it was the nomads whose own linear defences were stormed by the Russians when the Perekop Wall across the Crimean isthmus was breached. In Russia, as this chapter has hopefully shown, linear barriers played a crucial and aggressive part in the grand exercise of political and military expansion.



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