THE STRELZI (1550 - 1705)
by: Richard L. Sanders
The creation of Russia's first permanent standing infantry -- the
Strelzi -- was among the military reforms of Tsar Ivan IV, the Terrible (1530 -
1584). The exact date of this event is historically controversial, but it
appears to have happened around 1550. The name Strelzi derives from the Russian
strela meaning "arrow" or "shooter" because these
troops carried fire arms, which distinguished them from other native Russian
forces at that time.
Strelzi units were raised in Moscow and other cities and towns. The day-to-day
duty of the Moscow Strelzi was to guard the Tsar's court and the cities and
towns, to suppress internal revolts, and to protect the frontier until the
entire army could be assembled. In peacetime they were on permanent garrison
duty guarding the walls, towers, and gates of the cities as well as government
buildings. They also guarded the state saltpeter works, convoys of money,
prisoners, and ambassadors. The foot Strelzi were on guard duty by weekly turns
in Moscow, and were sent to strengthen the garrisons in other towns.
All large cities, such as Archangel, Astrakhan, Kazan, Novgorod, Pskov and
Smolensk, had their own city Strelzi. In the border towns, there were garrisons
of 20 to 100 Strelzi. These garrisons were mostly on the northwest border in
cities like Pskov and Novgorod. There were fewer Strelzi on the southern
borders because the government had other troops, such as the Cossacks and the
frontier service, in those regions. In 1682 Peter the Great sent some of the
Moscow units to the southern frontiers in order to reduce their political
influence in the capital.
The Strelzi were recruited from among freemen who promised to serve
permanently. They were a caste of their own, often married, and their
occupation became inheritable from the father to the son. To become a Strelzi,
a newcomer needed a large number of sponsors from among the ranks. Peasants,
serfs, and vagrants were not admitted. The Strelzi came from the local people
as a rule, but in Kazan, for example, 13% were arrivals from elsewhere. They
had to be volunteers in good health who could shoot.
The commanders were from the dvoriane (court nobility) and from the
deti boyar (literally, sons of the boyars, but really hangers-on)
classes, which were both types of hereditary service nobility. They received an
annual salary of 30 to 60 rubles and a pomestie (estate given for
service during the live of the person who served) of 300 to 500
chertverts. The simple Strelzi's pay was 4 to 7 rubles a year and 12
chertverts each of rye and oats. The sotniki (centurions)
received 12 to 60 rubles and the desyatniki (decurians) 10 rubles. The
annual state expenditure on the Strelzi is estimated to have been 100,000
The Strelzi lived in their own part of each town. Each man had his own house,
yard, and garden. They also had land allocated to the unit for the use of the
members for farming. The size of the area varied according to the rank and from
town to town. The Strelzi also enjoyed the privilege of trading without having
to pay any tax or contributions. They engaged in small industry as well. Their
commercial interests frequently brought them into conflict with the boyars.
Organization The Strelzi were initially organized into units
of 500 men, called prikazi (also meaning "district"). The
prikaz was further divided into units of 100 men called sotnia,
or "hundreds." The sotnia were divided into units of 50 men
which were in turn subdivided into units of ten men. In war the city Strelzi
were designated to the various polki (regiments). The polk was
commanded by a gologa (pl. golovoi -- colonel or head), the
sotnia by sotniki (centurions), the 50's men by fifties men, and
the ten-men units by (decurians).(2)
During the time of troubles (1584 - 1613) which lasted from the death of Ivan
IV until Tsar Mikhail Fyodorvich took the throne, Russia was in a state of
civil war. Tsar Mikhail (1613-45) and his son Tsar Alexei (1645-76)
reestablished order and modernized the army. They were aware of the value of a
standing army, and without destroying the old army institutions, they
established their own standing army composed of Russians and foreigners. They
attracted Baltic German nobility to the officer corps and the state
administration and remodeled the army on the western European pattern. Many of
the old external trappings remained, but the content was new--a basis upon
which Peter the Great would build.
The modernized army numbered about 370,000 men, divided into four branches, The
first branch, the Strelzi and other old traditional troops, numbered about
130,000, of which 49,000 were cavalry (mainly Cossacks) and 64,000 infantry.
Secondly there were forces of about 90,000 men (including 50,000 cavalry and
38,000 infantry) modeled exclusively on the Western pattern. The third branch
consisted of irregulars--mainly cavalry (160,000), and the fourth branch of
artillery (3,600 men). even among the Strelzi, western European influences were
evident. The polk, for example, was now organized like a regiment, and
its leader, the golova, was renamed the polkovnik, like a
colonel. The leaders of the sotnia (hundreds), formerly sotniki,
became kapitanii (captains).
Information on the Russian army of this period is very limited, and what little
there is comes mostly from foreign observers. Giles Fletcher said there were
5,000 Moscow Strelzi, of whom 2,000 were mounted, while another observer said
there were 10,000 Strelzi in Moscow. By the end of the 16th century they had
increased to 20-25,000 men.(3)
At their peak in the mid-17th century numbered 50,000 cavalry and 45,000
By 1682, when rivalries between the Strelzi and the boyars culminated in the
Strelzi revolt, Moscow alone contained 30 Strelzi regiments totaling 30,135
Equipment and Uniforms. The clothing and basic equipment of
the Strelzi were supplied by the state. They were normally armed with long
arquebuses or matchlock muskets, with straight stocks, curved swords, and
berdische poleaxes. Along with these, the state furnished them with one
to two pounds of gunpowder, lead, and gunpowder flasks.
The berdische had a handle which reached to about shoulder height and
the Strelzi would rest his musket in the crook of the axe's curved blade when
firing or at the ready. The pole butt sometimes was spiked to steady the axe
when planted in the ground and it could serve as a supplementary weapon in
close combat. The berdische had a sling attached to the haft so it could
be slung over the shoulder, with the blade toward the bottom when not in use.
Strelzi also carried finely-made daggers decorated with jewels and diamonds, In
the 16th century some Strelzi were said to have carried "pikes," but
it appears they were more like halberds or spontoons. A contemporary lithograph
from the 17th century shows a Strelzi with a halberd with a natural wood shaft,
metal blades and a large red tassel below the blade.
Over the left shoulder the Strelzi wore a bandolier with powder flasks attached
to the front and a small leather pouch for flints at the right hip. A powder
horn was hung below the pouch or from a separate cord worn over the shoulder.
The metal or leather scabbard with metal bindings was suspended on the left hip
by means of two straps.
Officers normally were armed with a sword and some type of battleaxe, mace, or
war hammer, and carried a walking stick or cane as a sign of rank-- a custom
which lasted for centuries in Russia. Drummers and standard bearers are usually
depicted as being armed with just a sword, but they probably carried daggers as
well. The drums were rather small compared to those of western Europe, and they
sometimes had rounded bottoms like kettledrums. Strelzi cavalry were certainly
armed with sabers, and probably pistols as well, which would have been carried
in saddle holsters. Much of the Russian cavalry of the 16th and 17th centuries
was armed with lances and bows and arrows, however the Strelzi were probably
distinguishable because they would have been equipped with firearms.
Most other equipment, such as food, extra clothing, gunpowder kegs, tents,
etc., was carried in the baggage trains. According to contemporary sources,
these trains were much larger than those one would find with comparably-sized
west European armies.
Strelzi, being devout Russian Orthodox "old believers," wore their
beards and hair rather long--a custom which led to conflict with Peter the
Great when he began westernizing Russia.
The Strelzi's issued clothing seems to have been semi-official from an early
stage, with the prikazi and polki and boots. The long heavy coat,
called a kaftan, was ornamented on the front with buttonhole lacing
which was silver or gold for the officers and in the distinctive color for the
soldiers. The colored coat lining could be seen at the cuffs, which were
sometimes sewn back and appeared like rounded cuff flaps.
The officers' kaftanii sometimes had a very long left sleeve, which
could reach from below the fingertips, as far as to the knee! If it reached to
the knee, a slit was provided on the inside of the elbow so the arm could be
extended and the left hand used. Such sleeves were traditional among the
nobility and were quite common in their civilian attire. Some officers also had
fur capes and lining to their kaftanii. One contemporary source shows an
officer with his coat tails turned up with the corners tucked below his sash.
Inside the kaftan he wears a pink smock and baggy dark green pants which
would not be easily seen with the coat front closed. Whenever the baggy pants
are shown in contemporary sources, they are worn tucked into the boots. The
pants were probably in a distinctive color such as that of the hat or coat
trim, if isolated contemporary sources are indicative. The boots were probably
made of felt and were colored red, yellow, or green. At least one contemporary
source shows brown boots.
Caps, also colored according to the prikaz or polk, had natural
fur trim, and for officers they had a small flat metal crown-shaped device in
the front, just protruding from the fur trim. Some Strelzi wore rather
modern-looking helmets, similar in shape to ones worn today in west European
armies. They were smaller than the modern ones, fit closer to the head, and
were made of curved plates bolted together.
Wide sashes were often worn over or inside the kaftan and knotted in the
front. They were of bright-colored cloth, such as shy blue or yellow, but do
not appear to have ben uniform among the polki. Brown or black leather
belts with metal buckles were also worn. Leather gloves with cuffs were also
worn by some Strelzi, especially by color bearers. In the winter all Strelzi
probably wore gloves or mittens.
Table 1 gives uniform details for the 14 Moscow Strelzi polki of 1674
according to A. V. Viskovatov.(6) Here is an
Little information is available about the dress of the Strelzi cavalry. They
supposedly wore red kaftanii, however it is possible that they were
dressed just like the foot units. A painting by W. G. Schwarz in Moscow
Tretyakov Gallery shows what may be mounted Strelzi on escort duty wearing dark
green kaftanii, black boots, some with red and some with yellow caps.(7)
Flags of the Strelzi.(8)
The 14 Moscow Strelzi regiments had flags with a common pattern
during the late 1600s. It consisted of a central rectangular field, quartered
by a straight cross, and surrounded by a border. Some flags had additional
ornaments such as stars, crosses, and crescents. The flags of the Moscow
regiments are shown in Table 2.
Staffs were probably of natural wood, with a metal spike fixed at the top, and
a colored cloth tassel at the base of the staff sheath. It was probably of a
color like the field. Some flags, such as those of the 1st and 10th regiments
from Moscow, were further adorned with cords and tassels attached below the
The flags shown in Figure 2 and described below were recorded by Zwieguintsov
based upon records in the Military Museum in Stockholm. They are thought to be
Strelzi flags as well.
Flag A: Border in alternating chevrons of green, light yellow, and blue; in the
corners, black squares. The central field is red with yellow crescents and
stars. White cross with red ornaments. Violet staff sheath.
Flag B: White border with red flowers. Red central field with a gold cross. In
the corners were red squares with gold stars. The flag was attached to the
staff by blue cords.
Flag C: Green border; white central field with raspberry stars and black cross.
The staff sheath was raspberry.
Flag D: White and red border with small light yellow cross. In the corners were
light blue squares with red ornaments. The central field was light blue with a
light yellow cross that had a small red cross in its center. The staff sheath
was dark rose.
Flag E: The border was of alternating white and yellow chevrons. In the corners
were dark blue squares with red flowers. The central field was dark blue with a
red cross, and the staff sheath was dark rose.
Flag F: The border was light yellow. The red central field had a white cross,
and in the upper right quadrant were a white cross and stars. The staff sheath
Tactics. Little is known about the tactics employed by the
STRELZI. During the 16th century, the typical Russian order of battle consisted
of the center of peasant troops dominated by the Gulay Gorod (a type of
"wagon castle"), and covered by the Strelzi and part of the
artillery. About one thousand horseman were deployed in front of the center.
Artillery was placed or entrenched on the left and right wings, flanked on each
side by a polk. A rearguard which also served as the reserve was
intended to be used as a surprise weapon in a battle formation which was
On campaigns and during sieges the Strelzi were deployed in lines, usually
behind the Gulay Gorod, or "walking city." The Gulay
Gorod, consisted of wood planks in a wood frame, assembled like a section
of wall about 3m high and 3.5m long, and pierced with a number of firing ports.
The structure was mounted on top of a four-wheel or four-ski assembly so that
it could be dragged by men. Along each vertical end of the Gulay Gorod
were locking devices to allow them to be secured to adjacent sections.(10)
Since the Strelzi did not generally carry pikes--the standard infantry
defensive on of the 16th and 17th centuries--the Gulay Gorod served as
protection from cavalry charges, as well as giving cover from arrows and musket
balls. a drawing from J. A. Razin's The History of the Military Art
shows Strelzi and artillery in the field defending from behind a different kind
of barricade against a cavalry charge. The barricades appear to have been made
up of mounded dirt topped with straw. Three Strelzi stand firing from behind
each mound. between the mounds are one or two wooden posts about four meters
tall, held upright by guide ropes, and probably driven into the earth. These
appear to have been used to anchor wheeled artillery pieces which appear
between each set of mounds. This could have been used to reduce the recoil
effect and hinder movement of the guns by enemies. A second line of Strelzi
stands about three meters behind those at the barricades, and would replace
them to alternate in firing volleys.(11)
During the campaigns against the Tartars and in the Livonian wars, fortresses
had to be attacked frequently or besieged. In the siege of Kazan by Ivan IV, it
was a systematic and protracted assault, even though the Tsar had 150 artillery
pieces. During such sieges all earthwork, mining, and sapping was done by the
soldiers and peasants, a job which west European landsknecht and
soldiers would seldom do themselves. The Russian forces simply dug their way
through to the fortress walls, which in most cases in Russia forces simply dug
their way through to the fortress walls, which in most cases in Russia were
only wooden palisades anyway.
At the battle of Molodi, which took place near the village by that name about
30 miles from Moscow from July 28 to August 2, 1572, the Strelzi and the
Gulay Gorod were instrumental in the defeat of the Crimean Tartars. The
Russian army, outnumbered three-to-one, retreated, using the Gulay Gorod
as a mobile fortress, surrounding it with hastily dug trenches. The main body
concealed itself behind the walls of the Gulay Gorod, while outside the
remaining units covered the rear and flanks. At the foot of the hill on which
the Gulay Gorod was deployed, 3,000 Strelzi stood on the further side of
a brook. The Tartar cavalry attacked and wiped out the Strelzi at the brook,
but the soldiers in the Gulay Gorod repulsed the attack with heavy fire
from their cannon and muskets.
The Tartars regrouped and rested for two days and resumed the assault on August
2 with infantry and cavalry under the Khan's own sons. Ignoring heavy losses,
the Tartars kept trying to overturn the unstable walls of the Gulay
Gorod. "They reached their hands out to the fortress wall; many
Tartars were killed, and countless numbers had their hands cut off." Late
in the day, the Russians, who were running low on ammunition and food, executed
a daring maneuver which decided the outcome of the battle. The commander and
his forces secretly left the Gulay Gorod, leaving a small body behind,
and made their way around behind the Tartars through a defile. At an agreed
signal, the forces remaining in the Gulay Gorod and those at the
Tartars' rear attacked and routed the surprised Tartars.(12)
The Decline of the Strelzi. For decades the Strelzi mixed in
politics and, because of their commercial interests, they often sided with the
people against the boyars and the Tsar in the uprisings which marked the 17th
When Peter I (the Great) was a boy he escaped death at the hands of the Strelzi
more than once. On May 15, 1682, with the connivance of the young Tsarevich's
stepsister Sophia, the Strelzi stormed into the Kremlin to exterminate the
family of Peter's mother, who was regent. The slaughter lasted four days and
Peter, aged ten, witnessed it. The fright from that incident left him with a
permanent facial tic. A second such incident occurred in 1689 but Peter was
able to flee with the aid of some of his soldiers.(13)
The Strelzi were xenophobic, Orthodox "old believers" and opposed
Peter's westernizing efforts, which even included cutting off beards, which
Peter saw as a sing of Russia' backwardness. Old Believers, including many
Strelzi, considered Peter to be the Anti-Christ. In the summer of 1698, while
Peter was touring western Europe, the Strelzi started a revolt which increased
in violence when a rumor started that the Tsar was dead. Four Strelzi regiments
which were stationed along the southern frontier conferred with Sophia and
marched on Moscow, determined not to let the Tsar return. It was decided to put
the Tsarevich Alexis on the throne, under the regency of Sophia, and to
massacre the boyars as well as the foreigners living in Moscow. In June, forces
loyal to Peter under General Boyar Shein and the Scottish general Patrick
Gordon put down the rebellion, executing many Strelzi and holding many more in
Peter returned to Moscow in August and dealt with the Strelzi in his own way.
More than 900 of the Strelzi lost their lives by beheading, handing, or
breaking on the wheel during the investigations of the cause of the rebellion.
Evidence implicating Sophia, who had been locked up in a nunnery during the
revolt, and her faction was inconclusive, and Peter had the interrogations
carried on for months in the hope of implicating her. Finally, in June 1699
Peter disbanded Moscow's remaining Strelzi regiments and dispersed the men and
their families to distant parts of the country. In 1705 the remainder of the
Strelzi units were abolished as a special corps, and the men were incorporated
into the army which was reorganizing along western lines.
There are some pictures of typical streltzi in the section on medieval arms and
Barbour, Philip L. Dimitry: Called Pretender: Tsar and Great
Prince of All Russia, 1605-1606. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966.
Buehr, Wendy, ed. The Horizon History of Russia. New York:
American Hertiage, 1970.
Dmytryshynm Basil.A History of Russia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Graham, Stephen. Peter the Great. New York: Simon and
Johnson, Curt and John Sloan. "Gulay Gorod: Building the
Russian Mobile Field Fortress." Gorget & Sash. Vol I, No. 1
(1981(, pp. 21-25.
Koch, H. W. The Rise of Modern Warfare, 1618-1815. Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.
Melegari, Vezio. The World 's Great Regiments. Milan:
Rizzoli Editore, 1969. Peter der Grosse und Seine Zeit. Wiesbaden: Emil
Vollmer Verlag, 1967.
Mollo, Boris and John. Uniforms of the Imperial Russian
Army. Poole, Dorset: Blandford Press, 1979.
Razin, General Major J. A., Istoriya Voennogo Iskusstva (The
History of the Military Art). Vol II & III, Moscow: State Publishing
House, Ministry of Defense, 1955.
Skrynnikov, Ruslan G. Ivan the Terrible. Gulf Breeze,
Florida: Academic International Press, 1981.
The State Armoury in the Moscow Kremlin. Moscow:
Izobrazitelnoye Iskusstvo Publishing House, 1967.
Sloan, John. "Evolution of the Russian Army." Gorget
& Sash. Vol.I, No. 1 (1981), pp. 26-33; Vol. I, No. 2 (1981), pp.
Zweguintsov, Vladimir V. L'Armee Russe, 1 partie 1700-1762.
------------. Drapeaux et etendars de l'Armee Russe. Paris.
| Regiment number
|1 Igor Lutokhin
|2 Ivan Poltev
|3 Vasilii Bukhvostov
|4 Feodor Golovlinski
|5. Fedor Aleksandrov
|6. Nikofor Kolobov
|7. Stepan Ianov
|8. Timofei Poltev
|9. Petr Lopukhin
|10. Feodor Lopukhin
|11 David Vorontzov
|12 Ivan Naramanski
|14 Afanassi Levchin
* Zwieguintsov suggests that the lining for the first regiment may
have been yellow since that color is found in the regimental flag.
1. Koch, p.110.
2. Razin, vol. II, p. 338.
3. Sloan, "Evolution of the Russian
4. Koch, p. 110.
5. Koch, p. 109.
6. As given in W. W. Zwieguintsov, L'Armee
Russe, 1st Partie: 1700-1762, Paris, 1967, p. 3.
7. Peter der Grosse und seiner Zeit,
Wiesbaden: Emil Vollmer Verlag, 1967, p. 54.
8. After W. W. Zwieguintsov, Drapeaux et
etendards de l'armee russe, Paris, pp. 2-3.
9. Koch, p. 111.
10. See "Gulay Gorod: Building the Russian
Mobile Field Fortification," by Curt Johnson and John Sloan in Gorget
& Sash, vol #1, no. 1, pp. 21-25 for a detailed description and history
of the Gulay Gorod.
11. As quoted in Razin, vol. III, p. 73.
12. Skrynnikov, pp. 152-155.
13. Buehr, pp. 137-138, 155, 156-157; Peter
der Grosse und Seine Zeit, pp. 32-33.
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