Archive for November, 2011

Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: Military History on the Endless Steppe Frontier

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011

Two PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS main characters, Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, sing about the glories of autocracy. Detail from "Home Security At Any Crazy Price"

This is the second in a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  (The first, Introductory Study Guide is here).  

In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  


“Big Questions” to think about as you study:

A. Was Russia forced to expand to take over the southern steppes all the way to the Black Sea in order to protect its people from constant Tatar invasion and slave raiding?

"Home Security At Any Crazy Price," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board . 36" x 40" . 2009

B. Or was Russia greedily expansionist, grabbing up territory it wanted rather than needed to protect its people? Could Russia have built a single strong defensive “Great Wall of Russia” effectively enough to block all Tatar incursions, rather than multiple “Great Walls” ever farther south?

Food-for-thought questions:

C.  Might the Tatars have had other choices than slave-trading and raiding to support themselves?  Why were slaves so widely used at that time, including by the Ottoman Empire?

D.  Are the Tatars and Ottomans the bad guys in this saga, and the Russians the good?  Is reality more complex than that, or is this a clear cut case of good vs. evil?

You won’t be able to answer these questions now.  But think of them as mysteries and yourselves as detectives.  As you learn more, look for clues that may help you form your own opinions.

Russia’s Military History on the Endless Steppe

If you want to understand Russia, you need to be able to picture its massive expenditure of resources and human lives – for nearly its first five centuries – to protect against invasions and slave raids across its southern steppe frontier.   Russia contains the largest expanse of flat land on earth.  There was very little natural protection on the vast plains between Russia and the Black Sea.  In the southern grasslands, there weren’t even forests to hinder invaders.  Russia therefore had to create a man-made defensive system to protect its immense open frontier.  (Continued below image)

Detail of left panel, "Home Security At Any Crazy Price," by Anne Bobroff-Hajal . Acrylic paint and digital images on canvas and board . 36" x 40" . 2009

When we envision Russia’s military history, we often think of its wars with European and Baltic nations to its west or of Russia’s rapid expansion across Siberia.

But at least as important in shaping Russia’s government and society was its southern frontier.  This frontier was perhaps unique in all the world in its vast size, combined with its nomadic Tatar inhabitants who lived largely by raiding and slaving, partly to supply the powerful Ottoman Empire next door to them.

Why Have Many Westerners Paid Little Attention to Russia’s Southern Frontier?

Americans and other Westerners may tend to focus on Russia’s eastern and western wars because we identify with them.  European neighbors were Western, like ourselves.  And Russia’s expansion across Siberia mirrors US pioneering expansion across our own western frontier.  In short, we have points of reference in our own experience for Russia’s battles with populations to its east and west. (Continued below image)

Detail of left panel of "Home Security At Any Crazy Price"

But for the US, there is no parallel to Russia’s southern border.  Over half our southern limit is formed by water: the Gulfs of Mexico and California. The single country bordering our south, Mexico, was far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire and its client Tatar khanates.

So we have no point of reference for Russia’s south.  It’s not easy for us to wrap our heads around the implications of the largest expanse of land on earth without natural barriers to prevent constant incursion and annual “harvesting of the steppe,” the abducting of hundreds of thousands of Slavs sold into slavery in the powerful neighboring empire (Ottoman).

Let’s try to give ourselves some points of reference to help us picture Russia’s centuries-long struggle to make its southern population safe along this vast open frontier.

Southern Russia’s Garrison Towns


Brian L. Davies book cover

Most towns in southern Russia were originally founded by Moscow as garrisons designed to protect against invasions and raids.  Towns couldn’t rise on the steppe organically, based on trade or agriculture, because a settled conglomeration of people would be an immediate target for Tatar raiders.  Towns could exist only if the central government built a garrison, with troops to protect it and patrol the surrounding wide open plains.  For example, in 1677-8, “the southern regions mustered the largest number of town servicemen ever, nearly 47,000 in seventy-three cities.”  (Stevens, p. 127).

The “Great Walls of Russia”

Map of Russia's southern defensive lines in the 17th century, from Stevens, SOLDIERS OF THE STEPPE

As early as the 15th century , the Russian government began constructing a series of what have been called “the Great Walls of Russia,” each several hundred miles farther south in the steppe.   These lines were a combination of fortified towns, stockades, earthen ramparts, trenches, guard posts, and mobile patrols.

Brian L. Davies  describes a section of the Belgorod Line, a 25 km earthen wall built by 950 laborers in 5 months:

This wall stood nearly 4 meters high and had seventy bartizans [overhanging turrets], four earthen forts, breastworks, and ditch and anti-cavalry fences.

Who Lived on the Steppes and Patrolled the “Great Walls?”

There were very few peasants living and farming on the southern plains because they would have been too vulnerable to raiders.   (Continued below image)

Detail of right panel of "Home Security At Any Crazy Price"

So to create a population to guard Russia’s defensive lines, Moscow sent recruits to the frontier, providing them with plots of land near garrisons to farm for their own livelihood and for taxes.  Carol Belkin Stevens (Kira Stevens) has done brilliant research into the lives of these people for her Soldiers on the Steppe: Army Reform and Social Change in Early Modern Russia.  If you’re writing a term paper on this subject, her book is a must.

Daily Lives of the Frontier Garrison Army

Garrison servicemen were responsible both for guarding their forts and for patrolling the long defensive lines snaking out from their towns.  Constant vigilance was needed to spot fast-moving, skilled Tatar raiders moving across the steppe.  For example, writes Stevens, in the town of Valuiki,

Seventy mounted steppe patrolmen left the fortress at six-day intervals from late spring through early fall.  Their tour of the steppe was extensive…watching for signs of Tatar approach….  Mounted servicemen patrolled between outlying towers or small fortresses and into the distant districts.  Cavalrymen in shifts of six relayed any messages or goods locally; sometimes they provided escort and protection to officially sanctioned groups traveling toward the lower Don.  Beyond the frontier they also stood guard over work on distant and exposed fields or carried news of imminent attack to outlying villages….  Closer to Valuiki, fifty mounted [troops] patrolled the towers of the fortress….

Warnings of imminent Tatar attack led to general alerts, and town walls were manned more densely – often by garrison servitors from other towns.  Musketeers and hereditary servicemen escorted criers with news, orders, and calls to arms around the province.  (Stevens, p. 131-2)    (Continued below image)

Detail, right panel of "Home Security At Any Crazy Price"

In addition, these servicemen repaired old and built new fortification lines.  For example, the southern-most Izium line was constructed by 30,000 men over several years.  “Anticipated Tatar attacks during the construction of the Izium wall placed nearby garrisons on alert, even while town servicemen from further north were actively engaged in building.”   (Stevens, p. 133-4).

Provisioning Garrisons and Campaign Armies over Vast Distances

Stevens Soldiers on the Steppe

Carol Belkin Stevens book cover

In addition to supporting themselves on their own farm plots, southern servicemen were required to contribute grain for the support of campaign forces and people constructing new defenses farther south.  They were responsible for carting this grain themselves to central storage depots, which could be a hundred miles or more away.   Servicemen had to build granaries, warehouses, and river boats to move grain southward; they also worked on the docks.  “Because  old boats could not easily be returned upriver, the gathering of labor, materials, iron parts, and the selection of loaders, escorts, and rowers were annual events (Stevens, p. 134-5).

In the context of continual danger from the south, only a powerful central government could mobilize such massive efforts, and squeeze such great resources and labor from its people.

Stevens gives an amazing description of the first attempt to move campaign troops across the entire steppe to try to do battle with the Crimean Khanate on its own stronghold:

…the army and its supplies were a nearly unmanageable mass….  The massive army led by Prince Golitsyn proceeded slowly across the steppe.  It was organized with an advance guard of ten regiments, followed by a long rectangle made up of an estimated one hundred regiments and the supply train.  In that long rectangle, the main infantry forces surrounded a moving barricade of 14,000 horse-drawn carts that were arranged in ten rows and flanked on the sides by 6,000 more carts in seventeen parallel rows.  The front and flanks of this oblong – 2.3 miles across and 1.2 miles long – were protected by cavalry, with the artillery bringing up the rear.

[At best] the army would have needed more than two and one-half months of any summer campaign to reach…the Crimea and return.  In addition, any such venture required the availability of at least some food, water, and wood along the route….

By 1687 Muscovy could, by exerting extraordinary organizational effort, successfully gather more than enough food for that part of the 112,000 man army it chose to supply.  Russian campaigns against the Crimea, however, posed unusual problems in the disbursement of supply to a large army.  Elsewhere in Europe, similar disbursement problems would be resolved partly by reliance on local agriculture and partly by a series of provision magazines, at regular and quite short intervals….  Neither option was available for the Muscovites proceeding across scantly populated and hostile steppes against Crimea. (Stevens, p. 119-20; my emphasis)

Catherine the Great character from PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In fact, Golitsyn’s army was never able to reach the Crimea.  “The Tatars had burned the grass of the open steppe; to cross that territory, the army would have had to invest enormous effort searching for fodder for its more than 100,000 horses.”  They had to turn back homeward without ever seriously engaging the enemy.

It would take almost another century before the Crimea was conquered, by Catherine the Great.

More on the Tatar Enemies

Brian L. Davies and Kira Stevens have done all-important research on Russia’s extraordinary southern struggles, each from a different perspective of the Russian side.  The terrific work of Michael Khodarkovsky, published in Russia’s Steppe Frontier, The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800 (in an Indiana-Michigan series, one of whose two general editors was my UM advisor, William G. Rosenberg), in addition gives more of a sense of the Tatars the Russians battled against.

This trio of books is essential reading for anyone studying Russia’s south.  In fact, given the importance of the south to all of Russian history and the shaping of its society even today, these books are important for anyone studying Russia period.

My icon-like Playground of the Autocrats artwork

My PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS artwork plays whimsically with the serious saga of the impact of Russia’s peculiar defensive dilemma on its government and society.  I believe that Russia’s autocratic government arose in response to the military struggles described in the work of Davies, Stevens, and Khodarkovsky.  Russian society was organized as a military chain of command, with no independently-organized power bases.  For five centuries, the entire country was ever-prepared to fight against the raids and invasion which came multiple times virtually every year.  And Russia’s rulers took full advantage of its people’s desperation, building what Ronald Wright called a protection racket.

For more on PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS, please see the article recently published by, A Journal of the Built and Natural Environment, as well as other posts here.  A PLAYGROUND triptych, “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” was described by the New York Times as “an homage to Joseph Cornell…full of wonderful goodies.”


Russian History “Big Questions” Study Guide: The First & Ultimate Questions

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

This is the first in a series of lively, fun, and challenging study guides illustrated by my artwork about Russian history.  In addition to being an artist, I have a Ph. D. in Russian History from the University of Michigan.  My new paintings and mixed media works about Russia are collectively titled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS.  

My Playground of the Autocrats art animates a framework for studying Russian history.  This framework explores how Russia’s present-day society and government are embedded its past, from the 13th century through the rise of Muscovy, Tsarism, Communism and post-Communism.  In the image below, the Tsarist godparents of a mustached infant Stalin bestow the blessings of their autocratic past on him, to his delight.

Stalin’s tsarist “godparents” bestow the “blessing” of Russia’s past on Soviet Communism.  Detail of central panel from “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

In these Study Guides, I’ll suggest “big questions” for discussion.  I’ll take a long perspective, not focusing on fine details: less on trees and more on forest.  Actually, I’ll take another giant step back from the forest to see it in wider perspective, to ask what forest conditions cause certain trees to grow there but not others, one forest ecosystem to develop instead of another:

What caused an autocratic state to grow on the vast territory that became Russia, rather than another form of government?  Was it pure chance, or were there particular conditions that engendered it?

Three Quotations

Detail of center panel of “Home Security At Any Crazy Price,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

From Chester Dunning and Norman S. Smith, “Moving Beyond Absolutism: Was Early Modern Russia a ‘Fiscal-Military’ State?”  Russian History, 33, No. 1 (Spring 2006) pp. 38-40 (my bold):

“The origins of Russian autocracy are complex and controversial… [They] resulted in the rapid development of a service state…in which he performance of duties that directly or indirectly bolstered the country’s security were required from virtually everyone.  As a result, Russia’s tsarist system became ‘one of the most compulsory in Europe….’

“Coming into the sixteenth century, Russia was, more than any other contemporary society, ‘organized for warfare.’  During the sixteenth century Russian military forces fought almost constantly, and Russia actually emerged as a major military power before the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84), the founder of the Russian empire.  The sixteenth century also witnessed the rapid development of a powerful Russian central state administration….  As in other fiscal-military states, that led to extremely coercive efforts to harness Russian society to the task of paying for the prohibitively expensive costs of early modern warfare.  The extraction of domestic resources was greatly facilitated by the fact that nowhere else in Europe was the principle of service to the state pressed as far as in Russia….

“Generously rewarded for life-long service, the tsar’s bureaucrats were incredibly loyal and hardworking, and they succeeded admirably at imposing the central state’s authority.

“From the very beginning, Russia’s bureaucrats were primarly oriented to the task of raising, financing, and supplying the tsar’s military forces.  They were not hampered by the concerns of bankers or merchants and were therefore basically free to extract resources from the economy with no concern for or understanding of the impact of their actions.  Taxes were imposed with zeal to pay for the cost of war….  Over the course of the [16th] century taxes for many Russians rose 600 percent….”

Detail of center panel of “The Most Exposed Terrain on Earth,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Why was the 15th and 16th century Russian state so continually focused on war, devoting more of its resources to military mobilization than did any other society?  Research over the last decade or so indicates that Russia’s vast open southern steppe frontier forced the country to mobilize militarily from top to bottom. Virtually every year, semi-nomadic Tatar raiders, in small groups and large, galloped across the wide open plain to plunder and “harvest the steppe” of humans to sell into slavery in Crimean slave markets. Over several centuries, hundreds of thousands of Russians were abducted and marched in chains across the steppes to be sold into bondage.  No population except Africans has been enslaved more than the Slavs.

Some of the historians who have researched Russia’s southern steppe frontier are Carol Belkin Stevens, Michael Khodarkovsky, and Brian L. Davies, who wrote in his Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe, 1500-1700 (pp.1, 17, 23):

“For nearly four centuries – from the reign of Moscow Grand Prince Vasilii III through the reign of Russian Empress Catherine the Great – the Russian government, army, and people confronted the threats of Crimean Tatar invasion and raiding on their southern frontier….

Brian Davies, book cover

“There were forty-three major Crimean and Nogai attacks on Muscovite territory just in the first half of the sixteenth century….  Large Tatar forces were able to penetrate into the heartland of Muscovy even in years when…the Russians [were able] to increase regimental strengths along their southern frontier.  In 1571 Khan Devlet Girei invaded with an army of 40,000 Crimeans, Nogais, and Circassians and burned much of Moscow, allegedly killing 80,ooo and carrying off 150,000 captives.  The Tatars burned the suburbs of Moscow again in 1592 while the bulk of Russian forces were busy fighting the Swedes on the northwester frontier.  In 1633, while the tsar’s army was preoccupied in a western campaign…the Crimeans and Nogais launched devastating attacks upon the interior districts of Kashir and Serpukhov….

“[S]laveraiding was essential to the economy of the Crimean Khanate.  And if Tatar slaveraiding was a lower-intensity threat than invasion, it was also a nearly constant threat and inflicted heavy costs….  Tatar slavers raided the southernmost Muscovite colonies almost every summer, capturing servicemen and peasants working in their fields, driving off herds of livestock, burning villages and town suburbs, and ambushing patrols and merchant caravans.  Most of these raids were undertaken by chambuly of a few hundred men yet were able to do a great deal of damage.”

Hellie, Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy

Richard Hellie book cover

Every member of the Russian gentry was obligated to mobilize for half of every summer along the frontier to defend against raids.  This put huge a burden on gentry members who also had to maintain agriculture on what were often small estates.  Wrote Richard Hellie in Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy (p. 29),

…it was not a standing army.  Usually one half was called up in the spring, to await an expected Tatar invasion on the frontier, and served to mid-summer.  Then it was replaced by the other half, which served until late autumn.  During either offensive or defensive emergencies, which were frequent throughout this period, both ‘halves’ were summoned simultaneously….  The success of any mobilization call was highly dependent on the condition of agriculture at the moment of the summons.  If a serviceman’s lands could not provide the wherewithal for his service, he would not report for duty.

Russian Peasants in Detail of “Still With You,” by Anne Bobroff-Hajal

To the extent possible given the immense drain on resources, all of Russian society was organized like an army ready for war.  The Tsar was commander in chief.  Independent organizations and institutions were not allowed, just as in armies the chain of command from must always to be obeyed.  While Tsar and elites benefited most from this system, the general populace acquiesced in order to be protected against constant threat from across Russia’s great flatland.

Discussion Question 1:

A.  Are there factors beyond human decisions that shape the development of societies in general and in particular Russia?

B.  Or are human beings and their free choices the primary drivers of history, including in Russia?

C.  Can you think of a different position altogether, or some combination of A and B?

Discussion Question 2:

A.  Once an autocratic “garrison state” was formed in Russia, could it have been eradicated in later periods when the country was less vulnerable to outside attack?

B.  Or were elites able to maintain themselves in power even after the “garrison state” was no longer as necessary?

    1. Was the psychology of the majority of people so molded by autocracy that most couldn’t envision an alternative?
    2. Did the lack of development of institutions and power bases independent of the government block the possibility of transformation to a less autocratic state?

In other words, is my triptych godparent image accurate or not?  Is the past the godparent to the future, no matter how revolutionary that future seems superficially?

These are very big questions that you won’t be able to fully answer at the beginning of your Russian history study.  As you read and hear more about Russia, you’ll gather more evidence to form your own opinions about them.

Additional Links:

On the similarities between the trade in Slav and African slaves:

Robert O. Crummey, The Formation of Muscovy, 1304-1613

Chester Dunning, Russia’s First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and the Founding of the Romanov Dynasty.

Dunning, Russia's First Civil War

The beautiful cover of Chester Dunning’s book RUSSIA’S FIRST CIVIL WAR, THE TIME OF TROUBLES AND THE FOUNDING OF THE ROMANOV DYNASTY, published by Penn State University Press, 2001, shows “The Rebel Siege of Moscow, 1606”