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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

From Innovation to Threat- The Russian Streltsy

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Hand-held firearms were used in the late 15th or early 16th century in Russia, but it can’t be dated more precisely because the Russian word “pischal” was used for both a light cannon and the hand-held matchlock musket or arquebus. Pischalnics are mentioned in the beginning of the 16th century, mostly connected with Moscow, Pskov and Novgorod . Military departments of Pischalnics participated in Russia’s war for Smolensk in 1512-1522 and in the campaigns against the Kazan Khanate. The first mention of Streltsy is in chronicles in 1530. It is known they participated in the Kazan campaign of 1546-1549, but it is not certain if it referred to the new Streltsy or the old Pischalnics. However, in 1550, Ivan IV established the Streltsy, the first standing Russian infantry corps of three thousand volunteers. The term streltsy (singular strelets) is derived from the Russian word for arrow, and literally means “shooters”.

Organization and Appearance

The Streltsy wore special red uniforms and were equipped with a hand-held pischal, a saber and a berdiche, a battle-axe with a broad crescent-shaped blade. They were settled as a group in their own community in Vorobjova Sloboda, just outside Moscow, where they built their own homes, had their own shops and gardens; in other words, lived like the rest of the normal people. Streltsy served for life, but unlike the noble cavalry who were disbanded at the end of a campaign, streltsy were regular units, performing their duties year round. They were called to perform ceremonial duties, escort ambassadors, fight fires, chase fugitives, stand guard for 24 hours at a time and run errands for their commanders . When someone applied for service in the streltsy corps, they had to bring guarantors who would confirm that they were reliable, God-fearing, physically strong and faithful . The streltsy corps in 1550 consisted of six units, each five hundred warriors, under chief appointed from the nobles: Grigory Zelobov-Pusheshnikov, Matvey Diyak Rzevsky, Ivan Cheremisinov, Vasily Funikov- Pronchischev, Fyodor Durasov and Yakov Bundov. Each unit had 5 officers who commanded 100 men. By 1600, the number of streltsy was from 20,000 to 25,000, set up in other towns than Moscow. The soldiers were payed a salary of 4 rubles per year, 12 quarters (1,152 kg) of rye and oats. The commander of 100 men got 12-20 rubles and an estate, and the commanders of the unit got 30-60 rubles and an estate of 300-500 acres in area. In addition to this, the streltsy received cloth for their uniforms and salt, 32kg for ordinary soldiers and 80kg for the commanders.

For looking after the streltsy, organizing training and the provision of their armament, a special institution was established, the Streletsky Prikaz. The first mention of it dates to 1571. The Prikaz also served as the main court for the streltsy.

Decline and Fall of the Streltsy Corps

The salary given to the streltsy remained the same for almost a century, however the value of the ruble had drastically fallen. The soldiers began to engage in trade, leaving little time for training, preferring to concentrate on their business activities. Furthermore, the streltsy didn’t promote any decisive changes in their tactical and technological military establishment. This went so far, that in the 17th century, soldiers refused promotions, so they would have less responsibility and more time to concentrate on their outside economic activities . The government became aware of the military incapacity and started assigning them in various internal police functions. Around 5% of the streltsy participated in military campaigns in the 17th century.

Following the death of Tsar Alexis, rebellion broke out. Streltsy thought their privileges were threatened by the ruling-class boyars. On 15 May 1682, they massacred dozens of boyars and brought to power Sofia, half-sister of Peter the Great, as a regent to Peter’s half-brother Ivan V, joint heir to the throne with him . In 1689, Peter became the only tsar of Russia. While Peter was away in Europe in 1698, the streltsy rebelled. They were angered because a reigning tsar left the “holy Russian land” and acted as protector of Muscovite traditionalism. However, they were intercepted by the boyar Alexis Shein and the Scottish mercenary Patrick Gordon and forced to surrender. Around 130 of the rebels were killed on the field, and 1,200 were executed later. This marked the end of the Streltsy corps. Peter disbanded all of the remaining 16 regiments, making sure they would never pose a threat to his rule.

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