10 Battles That Shaped Russia
Mother Russia. The largest country in world, by area, is filled with allure, amazing biodiversity, rich history, and beautiful vodka-drinking women. It is also home to about 145 million people that comprise over 150 different ethnic groups, and at least 50 newspapers publish their voice in a language other than Russian. From 1283 to the present-day, Russia has slowly, steadily expanded its initial territory centered at Moscow east, west, north, and south. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville saw in Russia an alternative to the American democratic model that he observed firsthand in the conclusion of Volume 1 of his magnificent, two-volume book Democracy in America. Tocqueville observed of the Russians and the Americans:
“The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.”
Indeed. All throughout the Cold War, de Tocqueville’s short paragraph comparing Russia with America was used as an introduction to essays comparing the two countries. The fact that it is again being used as an introduction to another essay on Russia serves as a harbinger of just how far these two countries have grown apart over the last decade and a half.
And yet, who among us would deny this insight, even in the first month of the year 2018? Who would describe Russia as a bastion of liberty today, save for those nationalists in the motherland who claim Moscow is only protecting ethnic Russians from oppressive regimes abroad?
Because Russia has been around for so long (the Grand Duchy of Moscow was founded in 1283), and because its territory stretches from the Baltic to the Pacific to the Arctic to the subtropical climates along the shore of the Black Sea, Russian battles have been numerous and far-flung. The following 10 battles fought by the Russian military can help to explain not only Russia’s long, illustrious, and bloody history, but also its relationships with current world players.
1. Battle of Aslanduz (October 1812). Russia and Persia (now Iran) have fought wars against each other since the mid 17th century, but the last important war was fought in the mid 19th century. Russo-Persian wars were bitter affairs fought mostly over the Caucasus, though religion was often used as the ideological justification for such wars. These wars outlasted plenty of dynasties on both sides of the mountainous border. The Battle of Aslanduz was a surprise attack led by Pyotr Kotlyarevsky, where 2,300 Russian soldiers ambushed 30,000 Persian troops at night and slaughtered them. The battle made Kotlyarevsky a celebrity back in Moscow, and forced the Persians to sue for peace. Today Russia and Persia still vie for influence in the Caucasus, though the Russians have the upper hand.
2. Siege of Izmail (December 22, 1789). Russia’s other main enemy in the Near East, the Ottoman Empire, also fought a number of wars with Moscow - over the course of four hundred years. Like the Persians, the Ottoman state was explicitly Muslim, so the Russians made good use of this fact in order to justify their wars in Eastern Europe against Istanbul. Izmail was a major Ottoman commercial city along the Danube River in what is now Ukraine, and it was heavily fortified with 40,000 Ottoman troops when the Russians attacked it from land and water. The siege was so successful that an unofficial national anthem (“Let the Thunder of Victory Rumble!”) was composed in its honor.
3. Battle of Klushino (July 4, 1610). While the steady conquest of Persian and Ottoman lands went on slowly but surely through the late 18th to mid 19th centuries, the outcome was predictable given Russia’s technological and institutional superiority over the Sultans and Shahs. Moscow’s confidence was much shakier during its Baltic conquests nearly 200 years earlier. Russia, which found itself nestled up to the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Swedish Empire, and for a time played a distant third fiddle to both powers in the Baltic Sea. The Battle of Klushino is illustrative of this, as less than 7,000 Polish cavalry crushed 35,000 Russian (and mercenary) troops. This battle cleared the way for a Polish aristocrat to enter Moscow unopposed as conqueror and liberator. Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorates this battle, a testament to the peoples’ long history of violent interaction and mistrust.
4. Battle of Moscow (September 1 and 3, 1612). This battle saw Russians, organized into volunteer armies, liberate their capital city from foreign rule. When the Russian army lost to the Poles at Klushino, many Russian aristocrats actually decided to side with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and invited the Poles into Moscow to protect them from “anarchy.” Politics drove this battle more than anything else, but the narrative espoused by Russians plays to a distinct nationalist thread in Russian historiography. Volunteer armies, funded by Moscow’s merchants, fought Polish troops in the alleyways of Moscow and on her narrow streets, as the Poles tried to get provisions to their garrison stationed at the Kremlin. The volunteers held them off, thus forcing the Poles to choose between starvation or surrender (which they did on Nov. 7, 1612). This battle unofficially ended the Polish-Muscovy War, though officially hostilities didn’t end until 1618.
5. Battle of Poltava (July 8, 1709). Russia eventually succeeded in sedating Polish power in the Baltics, but Sweden was a continental Great Power and thus did not go easily into the night. For centuries Moscow and Stockholm clashed for supremacy in the Baltics, but it wasn’t until the Battle of Poltava that Russia finally landed a knockout blow. Fought during the Great Northern War (1700-1721), where everyone from Poland to Denmark-Norway to Great Britain to Prussia to the Netherlands to the Ottoman Empire participated, Peter the Great’s Russian army overpowered Sweden’s much smaller invading army at Poltava, using 40,000 troops to attack the 16,000 troops Sweden had marshaled for an offensive aimed at Russia’s beating heart: Moscow. Instead, Russia smashed Sweden, forcing the remnants of its army into the woods to be pursued and hounded until finally surrendering on July 11, 1709, a mere 10 days after the initial Swedish assault. Russia emerged as the clear victor of the 20-year war for the north, and the rest, as they say, is history.
6. The many battles for Albazin (17th century). Albazin was a fort along the Amur River, which is today part of the long border between Russia and China, that was built in the 17th century in order to bolster attempts by the Russians to colonize the area. Throughout the 17th century, Chinese armies repeatedly attacked and razed the fort, only to have to return again and again to do the same thing. This process, reminiscent of frontier tactics elsewhere in the world, played out for decades. In 1689, Russia signed its first treaty with China (“Treaty of Nerchinsk”) in large part because of its failed attempts at colonization through Albazin. It wasn’t until the humiliating Convention of Peking that Russia fully, officially acquired its Far Eastern territory stretching to the Pacific Rim city of Vladivostok. The battles for Albazin help to clarify the ambivalent nature of Sino-Russian relations. Sure, they’re suspicious neighbors, but they’ve got plenty of frontier between their metropoles.
7. Siege and Capture of Khiva (June 10, 1873). Khanate of Khiva was still a hotbed of slavery in 1873, and it was known particularly as place where slaves of Russian Orthodox stock were brought, bought, and sold. This gave Russia the perfect excuse to expand its empire into Central Asia. Slavery was also a big moral issue in London (the U.K. was fighting a war purportedly against slavery in West Africa and the Ashanti Empire in 1873), and the British Empire thus declared war on the khanate around the same time as Moscow. This war against slavery by two Christian states against a Muslim khanate was a major part of the Great Game, even more important than the Afghanistan campaign waged by both empires. The Russian Imperial Army took about two months to fully conquer Khiva, but because of its rivalry with Britain, the khanate survived as a sovereignty by becoming a protectorate (this was done so that the British could not use anti-Russian propaganda to foster unrest). Central Asia today looks much like it did when the Russians marched into the region to establish an empire and enact imperial reforms: loosely governed from Moscow, but still well within its orbit.
8. Battle of Tsushima (May 27 and 28, 1905). Fought between Russia and Japan on the high seas of East Asia, this massive battle saw the Russian Imperial Navy get destroyed by the up-and-coming Japanese Imperial Navy. The battle is known by military historians as being the only battle with steel battleships involved leading to a decisive victory (for Japan), but what is less known is that Russia had to send an entire squadron from the Baltic to the Pacific - around Africa due to Russia being banned from using the Suez Canal - to meet the Japanese head on. The Russians suffered heavy casualties as the Japanese Navy was larger, better equipped, more familiar with the terrain, and closer to home. Russia lost all of its battleships and most of its other fighting warships, too. It essentially ended the Russo-Japanese War and showed observers everywhere that there was a new sick man of Europe to keep a weary, hungry eye on.
9. Battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812). This was the only major battle fought between Napoleonic France and Russia on Russian soil. The Russians lost, and Moscow was captured because of it, but this was a pyrrhic victory for Napoleon’s revolutionary army. The Russians knew they couldn’t defeat a better trained, better equipped army, so they just kept retreating, burning as they went. The scorched earth tactics demoralized French generals and starved French troops. If the Russian people starved, too, you would never hear about it. They were just taking one for the team, after all. The battle itself saw maybe 40,000 Russian soldiers lose their lives, but it also led to the deaths of roughly 30,000 invading French troops. And that was before the infamous Russian winter made its appearance. To illustrate just how massive Russia had become, this battle was being fought at the same time that Moscow’s tsardom was waging an offensive war against Persia in the Caucasus. Incredible.
10. Battle of Stalingrad (1942-43). You didn’t think I would forget about this one, did you? If ever there were an invasion to illustrate Russian resolve, it would be this one. Ian Johnson, writing at War on the Rocks, has a better summary of the battle than I could ever hope to write, so I’ll just outsource to him on that front. Russia’s relationship with what is now Germany began in the early 18th century with Moscow’s defeat of Sweden in the Great Northern War. This introduced a formal Russian state to its new German-speaking neighbors and the many polities they governed. For the next 300 years these two peoples were enemies, allies, frenemies, and, above all else, peoples speaking different languages, worshipping Jesus Christ in a different manner from one another, and looking at the world from different geographic lenses. The differences between the two peoples today have hardly changed.
Thankfully the United States and Russia have never come to blows the same way that Moscow and her neighbors have. I am optimistic that we can keep it this way, though I am also pessimistic about the future of liberty in Russia. Socialism has rightly become a loathed relic of Russia’s past, but its ugly cousin - fascism - is now, I fear, en vogue.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Russia will become more aggressive in foreign affairs, but given its long, storied, beautifully tragic past, it also means we really have no idea what to expect, except that the Russians we happen across will be dour, smirk-inducing funny, and full of confident answers to the probing questions that Westerners have for the Russians of today. With a history like theirs, who can blame them?