Part 23 - the Muscovites (continued from last month)

AFTER THE DISASTROUS 'Time of Troubles' in the early 17th Century, Russia began to recover under her first Romanoff Tsars, and in the 1630s a new paid force began to be raised, consisting of four 'German' infantry regiments (in fact also containing English, Dutch and Scots mercenaries), and six 'Soldiers' regiments of Russian infantry trained and equipped on the same lines, and with foreign officers. The basic regimental organisation was intended to be of 960 musketeers and 640 pikemen, in eight companies.
    The 'German' regiments were dressed and equipped in Western fashion as shown, their dress being colourful and non-uniform; the Russian ones were armed the same but dressed similarly to the Streltsi. Later on the foreign troops tended to be replaced by new Russian units like the two 'Vibornie' (= chosen or elite) Moscow infantry regiments (1642).
    Also under Michael Romanoff (1613-45) foreign or foreign-style cavalry units were introduced. These consisted of 'Reiters' wearing helmet and corselet and armed with a sword, two pistols and a carbine; dragoons with long musket, sword and short lance; 'Hussars' or Lancers in imitation of the Poles, with lance and sabre; and 'Cossacks' armed like the Reiters. The traditional cavalry still predominated, in fact in the 1632 campaign against Poland there were only 7,000 of all the new troops as against 33,000 of the traditional types.
    By this period the 'Sons of the Boyars' had adopted firearms to a limited extent. Tartars, as in the 16th Century, were widely employed, and they, like Bashkir and Kalmuk auxiliaries, still relied exclusively on the bow (the latter in fact up to Napoleonic times).


    Apart from the 2,000 'Streltsi of the Stirrup' mentioned last month (who wore red), and the permanently-paid cavalry, the Tsars at various times had special guard units. The 'Rindi' (men at arms) founded by Ivan III, were an immediate foot bodyguard of axe-men; on campaign they would have been equipped as noble cavalry. This might also be true of the 'Jiltsi' founded by Ivan the Terrible, who provided a guard of honour of 50 to 100 halberdiers, in coloured caftans and gold brocade hats, but also included later a mounted guard as shown. Ivan also raised the dreaded 'Oprichniks' clad in black robes and pointed hoods, with a dog's head and a broom at their saddlebow, but this short-lived force were political police rather than soldiers. Even shorter lived (1605-6) were the guards of the 'False Dimitri', 100, with partisans, in red with gold embroidery, 100 halberdiers in violet with red sleeves and red cord trim, and 100 with green sleeves and trim; their weapons were decorated with velvet, bound with silver wire, and had gold and silver fringes.


    Cossacks were not a race but an anarchic society of free frontiersmen developing in the Dneiper-Don area at the beginning of our period. They did not really recognise the Tsar's - or anyone's - authority, but played a considerable role as mercenaries in Russian as in other service -they fought regularly for the Poles (see part 13) who by 1625 had six Cossack regiments of 1,000 men each, as well as on their own behalf against Turks and Tartars. They even fought for France in the Low Countries in the late 17th Century, and those who seized Azov from the Turks in 1637 were on their way to serve the Shah of Persia!
    Poland employed them as early as 1524, and another of Ivan the Terrible's military reforms was to set up a system of 'Registered' cossacks like those of the Poles. At Pskov, 1581, there were 500 Cossacks in the Russian army fighting the Poles, and from Ivan's time Cossacks were conquering Siberia, more or less on behalf of the Tsar. Though superb fighters, they were not entirely to be relied on, and were to be found supporting the rebellions of the 'False Dimitri' and of Bogdan Khmeinitsky (1648).
    Primarily, the Cossacks were cavalry, riding hardy ponies, and armed with light lance, bow and sabre, later adding firearms (by the 1650s the Tsars demanded a carbine and two pistols as standard). However, they could also operate dismounted and also provided good infantry, using berdische poleaxe, musket and pike. Foot expeditions often travelled by river, in 'chaika' or sea gulls, open craft 60 by 12 feet, with up to 30 oars and 60 rowers, and steering paddles at bow and stern.
    Cossacks did not wear armour, and were dressed in a style similar to that of later times, with blouses or coats of Russian style, often red, baggy trousers like those of the Turks, and sheepskin or fur-trimmed caps. Zaporozians, chiefly infantry, shaved their heads except for a top-knot but wore long moustaches, while Terek and Yaik Cossacks wore large beards.
    They seem to have employed a simple decimal organisation in 100s and 1,000s and in battle formed in up to three crescent lines of 'lava', threatening to outflank the enemy, and against the Tartars or similar enemies made good use of their wagon train for defence. Guns and wagons advanced in two parallel columns, wheeling in to form a triangular wagon-laager or 'Tabor' when attacked, the wagons chained together, or even overturned and banked up with earth.

Artillery and train

    Ivan the Terrible was said to be 'well furnished with great ordnance' and another aspect of his reforms was his creation of the artillery arm, involving the hiring of foreign gunners and gun-founders. His guns included mortars and a wide range of 'brass' cannon which put on quite an effective display outside Moscow. Guns produced in Russia included the 'Tsar Puchka' (King of cannon), which at 36 inch calibre and 17 foot length is supposed to be the largest cannon built. According to an English witness Ivan had no less than seven such pieces among his artillery!
    In the 1580s the Tsar had at least 170 pieces, and a large number were taken into the field against the Poles, but the artillery was rather immobile and its effects limited by lack of understanding of its use, even in the 17th Century.
    The Russians had their own version of the wagon laager, the 'gulay gorod' or 'walking castle'. Not only had they protected wagons similar to those of the Poles, but also a pre-fabricated wooden wall with loopholes, carried in the wagons and set up as a long double wall with a nine foot space between and closed ends, from which the infantry could fire.

Flags etc

    Cossack Atamans or leaders used horse-tails like the Tartars, but Cossacks also used large triangular flags, like the crimson one carried by Mazeppa's followers later; also square or other flags with religious subjects like the red banner of Bogdan Khmeinitsky, which had an archangel on it. Types of Russian flags are illustrated. Under Ivan III the two-headed black eagle derived from Byzantium was adopted in place of St George and the Dragon, but the latter remained a very usual emblem on Russian banners, and also appeared on a medal awarded for bravery as early as the 1580s.
    I would like to thank Alex Marcoff for his assistance in the preparation of this article.


Grand Banner of Ivan the Terrible's reign (about 1560). Rectangle on left sky blue, triangle to right écru. Outer border bilberry, inner poppy red, decorations and edges gold. Circle on left darker blue, cherubim and edge gold, Christ white on white horse, gold stars. In rectangle, heavenly hosts also white, white horses, gold halos. Circle to right white, stars etc gold. Archangel Michael on white horse with gold wings. All other decoration gold.

a and b pikeman and musketeer of a 'German' regiment, 1630s. There is nothing very striking about their dress and equipment, which is fairly typical of the period. c 'Rindi' in ceremonial costume, guarding the Tsar. He wears white fur hat, white coat with ermine trim and gold chains crossed over his chest and back, and carries a highly decorated axe. d Zaporozian with Berdische poleaxe - they often fought stripped to the waist. e late 16th Century Cossack arquebusier fighting in Siberia. His 'striped' garment may be padded for protection. The flag is from the same period and place: it seems to be stiff and is supported by a strut or cord from the pole. f mounted Jiltsi of 1670s. Note wings similar to those of Polish hussars, and gilt metal 'dragon' attached to ceremonial lance. g Cossack, early 17th Century, armed with bow and light lance. Costume much as later Cossacks. Large, square, saddle cloth. h high Cossack of mid-17th Century. Plumed, fur-trimmed cap, fur-collared cloak fastened by loops and jewelled clasp, ankle-length robe as for Russian nobles. Note mace, a sign of rank.

a - g Moscow Streltsi flags. a 1st Regt: border yellow, cross white, ground raspberry; 2nd Regt: border yellow, cross white, ground grey; 3rd Regt: border white, cross raspberry, ground green; 8th Regt: green, white and orange respectively; 14th Regt: white, yellow and green. b 4th Regt: border white, cross yellow, ground cranberry, corners yellow; 5th Regt: white, yellow, red, clear blue respectively; 6th Regt: clear green, dark raspberry, yellow and white; 7th Regt: black, yellow, clear green and yellow. c 13th Regt: border and ornaments white, cross blue, ground bilberry. d 11th Regt: corners yellow, borders white and blue, cross black, ground raspberry. e 9th Regt: stripes white, yellow and red, ground and corners cerise, cross white. f 12th Regt: cross white, ornaments cerise, ground black, stripes yellow and cerise.

g 10th Regt: cross black, ornaments raspberry, ground orange, corners white, stripes green and white. h - m earlier Streltsi flags. h pole blue, corners red, border white, centre red, 'flowers' red, stars, cross etc gold. i pole raspberry, border green, cross black, ground white, stars raspberry. j pole violet, corners black, cross white with small red crosses on it, ground red, moons and stars yellow, border emerald green, medium blue and light yellow. k pole dark rose, corners dark blue with red ornaments, borders red and white, small cross at top yellow, main cross yellow, cross at centre red, ground light blue. l pole dark rose, corners dark blue, flowers red, border white and yellow, cross red, ground dark blue. m pole raspberry, border light yellow, main cross white, ground red, small cross and stars white.

n 17th Century cavalry flag. Pole red; rectangle ground emerald green, eagle red, stars yellow; tails red, wavy knives green with orange handles, left stars orange, centre green, moons orange. o 17th Century infantry flag. Border grey, ornaments at sides red, at corners red circles with black motifs. Centre sky blue with white 'toothed' border, lion and unicorn white. p 17th Century cavalry flag. Pole black; rectangle ground blue, corners and central diamond white; border blue at top and bottom, black on sides, corners red. Tail red with white border. q late 15th Century cavalry flag. Panels gold, white, red reading away from pole. r 17th Century cavalry flag. Pole grey; rectangle ground white with red 'star' and border, central cross white. Tails white, red, white from top to bottom. s 17th Century cavalry flag. Light brown, gold border. Circle, dragon, lion, stars and eagle gold; cross on eagle and wings of dragon silver. t two sides of 17th Century cornet, made of patterned or embroidered taffeta. All borders gold, square écru, tails sky blue. Stars etc gold and silver.

16th Century Muscovite horse archers.
Previous: Part 22 - Muscovites

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See also The Battle of Orsha (Orsza) between Poland and Muscovy, 1514. Painted c.1524-1530.
Russian Illustrations & Articles