Russian Army 1650-1715



Like other early modern states, in the 1630s Russia’s leaders set out to reform and modernize the Army. They did so to a significant degree based on Dutch and Swedish “new model army” examples set decades earlier by Maurits of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus. In Russia during this period, the more modern units were known as “new-formation” regiments (re-formed units trained and equipped in Western European fashion). They first fought alongside older strel’sty units in the Smolensk War (1632-1634) waged between Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy. These early experimental units were disbanded at the end of that conflict, under social and economic pressure from traditional military interests. New-formation infantry, cavalry, and dragoon regiments were raised again in 1637 to fight the Tatars. Within a year, a core of 5,000 dragoons and 8,700 new infantry were recruited, then disbanded again. More experiments with new-formation troops took place in the 1640s, such as drafting peasants along the southern frontier with the Cossacks and Tatars to serve as part-time dragoons. Servitor or “dvorianstvo” (landed gentry) cavalry were also encouraged to resume their traditional role along the frontier, in exchange for avoiding further social debasement.

By the early 1650s the Russian Army had over 133,000 men recorded on its rolls, of whom just 7 percent were new-formation troops. The outbreak of three interrelated conflicts that drew Russia into protracted fighting from 1654 proved to be the spur needed to reform almost the whole Army-the closing events and weakening of Poland caused by the Khmelnitsky Uprising (1648-1654), the Second Northern War (1654-1660), and the Thirteen Years’ War (1654-1667). By 1663, fully 79 percent of Russian troops were in new-formation units. They were supplied with modern flintlock firearms, though some still used matchlocks longer than in western Europe. Both types of infantry weapon were eventually made in Russia at a factory built by Dutch experts at Tula in 1632, and expanded thereafter. Tens of thousands of additional muskets were imported from the United Provinces, Germany, and Sweden, as were many thousands of mercenaries. Through the last half of the 17th century, two famous Guards regiments, the Preobrazhenski Guards and Semenovskii Guards, formed the modern core of the Russian Army. They served alongside two bodyguard regiments, the strel’sty, and servitor cavalry. The fact that large Russian armies continued to be routinely dispatched and even routed by smaller Polish and Swedish forces surprised no one before 1709. But it should have, because military transformation in Russia was already under way before Peter I became tsar.

The “military revolution” in Russia was well under way by the end of the Thirteen Years’ War in 1667, by which time new-formation infantry constituted nearly 80% of all Russian Army formations outside the strel’sty. Moreover, many new-formation regiments were officered by well-trained and experienced Russians, rather than by foreigners. Nevertheless, the final transformation of the Russian Army into a modern force did not begin until just before the start of the Great Northern War (1700-1721). In 1699, Peter began an earnest expansion of the Army, in addition to having earlier commenced construction of an entirely new Navy. By 1700, Peter had herded 32,000 recruits into two regiments of dragoons and 27 of infantry, along with some squadrons of cavalry. These men, mostly peasants, were supported by remnants of older strel’sty regiments and servitor and Cossack cavalry. They were still in training when routed by the Swedes at Narva (1700).

Peter made much propaganda out of that defeat because it helped him discredit the old ways in favor of urgent reforms, which in turn swelled his reputation as a great modernizer, westernizer, and visionary. This should be borne in mind, even as it is noted that he was indeed the principal driving force behind radical change in Russian military culture and institutions, and that Narva was the pivot point of his reforms. In the years immediately following Narva, the Army was expanded to 47 infantry regiments. The servitor cavalry was sharply reshaped, with all eligible males age 15 and older registered for service in nine new-formation dragoon regiments founded in 1702. Peter also established five new grenadier regiments from existing companies. The changes were locked in place by a new recruitment system, established by decree in 1705, under which every 20 peasant households provided one recruit for the Army or Navy and supplied him with his food, uniform, and boots. The quota was filled by 1710, by which year the system was supplying up to 50,000 fresh recruits per annum. They were organized into two regiments of Guards, five of grenadiers, 35 of fusiliers, and 42 of ordinary infantry. Also by 1710, the cavalry arm reached 35,000 effectives, in addition to 45,000 Cossack and other auxiliaries. Army artillery had nearly 150 field guns and pulled a substantial siege train. These levels were more-or-less maintained to the end of the Great Northern War, despite heavy desertion rates among new conscripts.

More than increased numbers, what fundamentally changed within the Russian Army in this period was an emphasis on professionalism among officers and a correspondingly greater battlefield discipline. As with all early modern armies, this was achieved through intensive drill. Swedish soldiers and commanders began to notice as early as 1704 that whereas Russian armies previously had tended to break and flee once the battle started to go against them, “new-formation” regiments exhibited a growing ability to suffer reverses and then to rally and stand, or even counterattack. Furthermore, the Russians did not just ape western tactics and styles of fighting. They learned their own methods and developed their own style, which was well adapted to conditions in the east. For instance, Russians showed an unusual willingness to emerge from entrenchments and fight before them in open combat, taking advantage of always-superior numbers. Similarly, Russian garrisons increasingly refused to sit inside fortresses, waiting for some Polish or Saxon army and siege train to arrive and blast them out. Instead, Russian defensive tactics emphasized mobility and harassment of enemy foraging parties and supply columns, relying on a natural advantage in cavalry numbers to carry out raids. Flexibility, using the terrain to advantage, and concealment in forest and swamp prior to seeking battle, rather than hunkering down inside fixed fortifications, became the hallmark of the Petrine military. This was nowhere in greater evidence than during the brilliant Russian defensive campaign of 1708-1709 that culminated in triumph at Poltava. By the time Peter died in 1725, he had modernized the Russian Army and raised its standing cohorts to 130,000 men. More importantly, he had also persuaded the noble service elite that, as had been the case for the Swedish service and military elite in the 17th century, the dawning 18th century presented Russia with opportunities to grow great and rich through aggressive war.

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