Streltsy ( _ru. Стрельцы) were the units of Russian guardsmen (sl. "strelets", стрелец. literally "shooter"; often translated as "musketeer," but more properly "harquebusier") in the 16th - early 18th centuries, armed with firearms (riflemen). They are also collectively known as "Strelets Troops" (Стрелецкое Войско).

Creation and structure

The first strel'tsy units were created by Ivan the Terrible sometime between 1545 and 1550 and armed with the arquebus. They first saw combat at the Siege of Kazan' in 1552. Initially, the strel'tsy were recruited from among the free tradespeople and rural population. Subsequently, military service in this unit became lifelong and hereditary. Thus, while initially an elite force in the sixteenth century, their effectiveness was reduced by poor training and lack of volunteerism in recruiting. [ Michael C. Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia 1550-1682," "The Journal of Military History" 68 No. 1 (January 2004): 9-45, esp. pp. 20-22.]

Strel'tsy were subdivided into "viborniye" (выборные), or electives (later – of Moscow) and "gorodskiye" (городские), or municipal (in different Russian cities). The Strel'tsy of Moscow guarded the Kremlin, performed general guard duty, and participated in military operations. They also carried out general police and fire-brigade functions in Moscow. Grigory Kotoshikhin, a Russian diplomat who had spied for and then defected to Sweden in the 1660s, reported that they used axes and buckets and copper pumps as well as hooks to pull down adjacent buildings so the fire would not spread, but Adam Olerius, a Westerner who traveled to Russia in the seventeenth century, noted that they never used water. [Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 21.] The Municipal Strel'tsy performed garrison and border duty and carried out orders of the local administration. Strel'tsy subordinated to the Streltsy Department (Стрелецкий приказ, or "Streletsky prikaz"), however, in times of war they subordinated to their superiors. The Municipal Strel'tsy were also under the jurisdiction of the local "voevodes". Strel'tsy had identical uniforms (usually red, blue or green coats with yellow boots), training and weapons (arquebuses, muskets, poleaxes, bardiches (used to steady their gun while firing), sabers, and sometimes pikes).

The strel'tsy were used in static formations, often against set formations or fortifications. They often fired from a platform and employed a mobile wooden "fortification" known in Russian at a "gulyai gorod" (literally a "walking fort"). They reportedly fired in volley or caracole fashion; the first line firing and then stepping back to reload while the second line stepped forward to fire. [Richard Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), 164-165; Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 22.]

The biggest military administrative unit of the strel'tsy forces was "pribor" (прибор), that would later be renamed into "prikaz" and in 1681 – into regiment (полк, or "polk"). Commanders of the Strel'tsy unit (стрелецкие головы, or "streletskiye golovy") and colonels in charge of regiments were chiefs of "prikazi". They had to be nobles and appointed by the government.

The regiments ("polki") were subdivided into "sotni" (сотни, or hundreds) and "desyatki" (десятки, or tens). They could be mounted (стремянные, or "stremyanniye"; стремя ("stremya") in Russian means “stirrup”) and unmounted (пешие, or "peshiye"; пеший ("peshiy") means "foot soldier").

The Muscovite government was chronically short of cash so that the strel'tsy were often not paid well. While "entitled" to something like four rubles a year in the 1550s, they were often allowed to farm or trade in order to supplement their incomes. This reduced their combat effectiveness and often their desire to go on campaigns (since a season on campaign meant loss of income).Fact|date=May 2008 Streltsy lived in their own neighborhoods or districts settlements and received money and bread from the State Treasury. In certain locations, Strel'tsy were granted strips of land instead of money. The Strel'tsy settlement in Moscow was located near where the main campus of Moscow State University now stands. [Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 20, 41; Chernov,"Obrazovanie stel'tsogo voiska," Istoricheskie zapiski 38 (1951): 282-284; Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy, 161; John Keep, Soldiers of the Tsar: Army and Society in Russia 1462-1874 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 60.]

The Strel'tsy in Politics

At the end of the 16th century, there were 20,000-25,000 strel'tsy; in 1681, 55,000, including 22,500 in Moscow alone. Strel'tsy’s engagement in handicrafts and trade led to a significant proprietary inequality among them and their blending with tradepeople. Even though Streltsy demonstrated their fighting efficiency on several occasions, such as the siege of Kazan in 1552, the war with Livonia, the Polish-Swedish invasion in the early 17th century and military operations in Poland and Crimea, in the second half of the 17th century Streltsy started to display their backwardness compared to the regular soldier or reiter regiments (see Regiments of the new type). Military service hardships, frequent salary delays, abuse on the part of local administration and commanders made for regular Strel'tsy's (especially the poorest ones) participation in anti-serfdom uprisings in the 17th and early 18th centuries, such as the peasant wars in the beginning of the 17th century and in 1670-1671 (leader – Stepan Razin), urban uprisings (Moscow Uprising of 1682, Streltsy Uprising of 1698, Astrakhan Uprising of 1705-1706).

At the same time, those strel'tsy, who had been on top of the hierarchy, enjoyed their social status and, therefore, tried to hold back the regular Streltsy forces and keep them on the government’s side. In the late 17th century, Streltsy of Moscow began to actively participate in a struggle for power between different government groups, supporting the dissidents and showing hostility towards any foreign innovations.

The strel'tsy became something of a "pretorian element" in Muscovite politics in the late seventeenth century. [Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 21.] In 1682 they attempted to prevent Peter the Great from coming to the throne in favor of his half-brother, Ivan. [ Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 21]


After the fall of Sophia Alekseyevna in 1689, the government of Peter the Great engaged in a process of gradual limitation of Streltsy’s military and political influence. Eight Moscow regiments were removed from the city and transferred to Belgorod, Sevsk, and Kiev.

In spite of these measures, the strel'tsy revolted yet again while Peter was on his Great Embassy in Europe. While the revolt was put down by the Scottish general Patrick Gordon (he had entered Russian service under Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich in 1661) even before the Tsar's return to Russia, Peter nonetheless cut short his embassy and returned to finally crush the strel'tsy with savage reprisals, including public executions and torture. [Paul, "The Military Revolution in Russia," 21.]

The corps was technically abolished in 1689; however, after having suffered a defeat at Narva in 1700, the government stopped their disbandment. The most efficient strel'tsy regiments took part in the most important military operations of the Great Northern War and in Peter’s Prut Campaign of 1711. Gradually, Streltsy were incorporated into the regular army. At the same time, they started to disband the Municipal Streltsy.

Liquidation of the streltsy units was finally finished only in the 1720s, however, the Municipal Strel'tsy were kept in some cities until the late 18th century.

The Preobrazhensky and Izmailovsky regiments of Imperial Guards replaced the strel'tsy as the tsar's bodyguards.



*cite book |last= Moutchnik|first= Alexander |authorlink= |coauthors= |title= Der Strelitzen-Aufstand von 1698, in: Volksaufstände in Russland, ed. by Heinz-Dietrich Löwe|year=2006 |publisher= Harrassowitz Verlag|location= Wiesbaden| language = German| pages = 163-196 |id= ISBN 3-447-05292-9

ee also

*History of Russian military ranks

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