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The struggle of the Russian people for sea access between the XIIIth and XVIIth centuries: Introduction

Author: Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, M. N. TIHOMIROV

After the Tatar invasion, Russia was left with access to only three seas: the Baltic, the Barents and the White. In the Baltic Sea, the Russians controlled only a short section of the coastline in the Gulf of Finland. This coastal tract, however, had great significance, since on the Gulf of Finland is the mouth of the River Neva, which flows from Lake Ladoga, into which, in turn, flow a multitude of other rivers. The eastern part of the Gulf of Finland, which connects the Baltic Sea with the river systems of northeastern regions of Europe, had long been attracting the attention of Russia’s westerly neighbors, above all Sweden. Swedish invaders sought to occupy the shores of the Neva and the Gulf of Finland, in order to cut off Novgorod from the coastline and deprive the Russians of their only sea route to the nations of Western Europe.

The struggle for the eastern coast of the Gulf of Finland turned especially fierce during the 13th century, when Russian lands lay ravaged by Tatar incursions, allowing the Catholic Church to undertake a large-scale crusade against a prostrate Russia. The crusade was initiated by the Roman papacy, and executed by Germanic knights of Livonia, and Swedish and Danish feudal lords.

In the summer of 1240, a Swedish army commanded by their marshal, Birger, landed at the confluence of the Izhora River into the Neva. From there, Swedish generals intended to begin the invasion of Novgorodian lands and occupy Lake Ladoga, but these plans were thwarted by a well-organized defense of the Russian shores. A permanent naval patrol was stationed at the Neva estuary, guarding two inlet channels into branches of the river. The purpose of the naval guard was two-fold: it monitored the movements of the enemy fleet, and provided pilots for merchant ships. The naval sentry stationed at the Neva estuary, commanded by Pelgusiy (the “patriarch” of the Ingrian lands), notified Novgorod of the Swedes’ landing. Upon receiving this news, the Prince of Novgorod Alexander Yaroslavich (Nevsky) immediately marched out with his retinue and the Novgorodian militia, not sparing the time to wait for reinforcements from his father in the Suzdal lands. On July 15, 1240, Alexander Yaroslavich’s warriors took the Swedish encampment by surprise and utterly routed the Swedes. Not contenting themselves with the destruction of the Swedish camp, the Novgorodians attacked enemy vessels moored at the shore, destroying many of them. One Novgorodian, Misha, alone destroyed three Swedish ships. Another Novgorodian, Gavrila Oleksich, forced his way horseback on the gangways (“along the deck”) to an enemy ship while pursuing a Swedish noble, was thrown off the gangways, but survived. The defeat of the Swedish landing force was total, corpses of just the Swedish nobles filling three ships, which were sunk by the Swedes themselves. In the night the enemy fleet sailed out of the Neva and the Gulf of Finland disgraced, abandoning any further attempt to establish themselves on the shores of the Neva. The battle on the Neva had great impact on the subsequent organization of the Russian struggle against German knights and Danish feudal lords. The Swedes could no longer participate in subsequent military operations. This simplified Alexander Nevsky’s efforts against the German knights. The Russian campaign against the German knights immediately acquired a pan-Russian character. Alexander and the Novgorodian regiments were joined by reinforcement armies from the Suzdal lands, under the command of Alexander’s brother. The decisive battle against the combined German and Danish armies took place on April 5, 1242, on the ice of Chud Lake (Lake Peipus). The German and Danish lords were utterly destroyed and attempted to flee, but the springtime ice collapsed, and the lake’s icy waters buried many of the German “knights, like dogs.”

New attempts to firmly establish themselves on the shores of the Neva were made by Swedish feudal lords at the end of the 13th century. They were aligned with Swedish ambitions of bringing Karelia under their rule. In 1284, the Swedish fleet invaded Lake Ladoga. The goal of this expedition was the subordination of Karelians: Swedish lords “wanted to put the squeeze on Karelia." Novgorodians and Ladogans, headed by the Posadnik Semyon, awaited the return of the sea intruders to the Neva delta (“standing on the Neva estuary”), attacked them and destroyed a large part of the Swedish ships. This battle on the Neva affords grounds to claim that Novgorodians possessed sea and river vessels intended for military operations, for otherwise they could not have destroyed the Swedes, who invaded Ladoga “on ‘loyva’ and ‘shneka’ boats.” The presence of the naval guard at the Neva estuary is noted this time as well, as it sent word of the approach of the enemy flotilla.

The Swedish expedition of 1284 was primarily a reconnaissance mission. Events developed in quite a different manner in 1300, when Swedish feudal lords made another attempt to firmly establish themselves on the shores of the Neva, constructing a naval stronghold there. The Swedish fleet stopped at the confluence of the Okhta River into the Neva, where ships could directly approach the bank per se. The Swedes brought architects for constructing the castle, among which was a “significant” (distinguished) master “from great Rome and the Pope.” The undertaking was conceived grandly. The new citadel was named Landskrona (in Russian chronicles, “Crown of the Earth”). The expedition was headed by Torkel Knutsson, ruler of Sweden, called by a Russian chronicler the King’s Viceroy.

The struggle against the Swedes quickly acquired an all-Russian character, as the Novgorodians turned for help to the Crown Prince Andrey Alexandrovich. Prince Andrey arrived with Suzdal troops, and together with the Novgorodians approached Landskrona. The siege of the fortress was conducted according to all the art-of-war rules of the times. In an effort to destroy the Swedish fleet, the Russians released burning log rafts into the river's current. But the Swedes stretched iron chains across the river in anticipation, foiling the Russian plot. Fighting continued day and night under the walls of the fortress. Finally, on May 18, 1301, the Novgorodians breached the stronghold, slaughtered the garrison, and burned and pillaged the fortifications, taking 300 prisoners. “Ruthlessness paid them for their arrogance,” didactically noted a Russian chronicler of the Swedes. The failure of this last Swedish attempt to deprive the Russian people of access to the Baltic Sea was rejoiced in Novgorod, and the chronicler commemorates with gratitude those nameless heroes, “who laid their lives for that city.”

Not being content with just defending their shores, Novgorodians oftentimes moved into active operations against the Swedes. In these they showed themselves to be experienced seamen and created a military fleet suitable for remote expeditions.

In 1310, the Novgorodians undertook a campaign to reestablish a town on the River Uzyerva, which flows into Lake Ladoga. The new city of Korela (Kexholm) was built on the site of old fortifications, becoming the base of Novgorodian operations in the region. In 1311, Novgorodians undertook a marine campaign into the heart of Finland. The bold expedition of the Novgorodians is evidence to their determination to defend their lands by aggressive operations in territories captured by the Swedish lords.

Yet, while the Neva remained undefended, the threat of enemy invasion into Lake Ladoga also persisted, especially since the Swedes had a great base on the shores of the Gulf of Finland – the city of Vyborg. Therefore, after an unsuccessful siege of Vyborg, the Novgorodians set about fortifying the defenses of their shores. In 1323, they established the city of Orekhovets (”Nut”), or Oreshek (“Nutlet”), on Orekhovets Island. Subsequently, Peter I renamed it into Schlisselburg (“Key-city”), rightly recognizing its importance as the key to the capture of the Neva, which provides access to the sea. In the same year, Novgorod negotiated the Orekhovets Treaty (Treaty of N?teborg) with Sweden, under which the whole of the Neva remained in Russian possession, with the condition that both nations refrain from establishing any more cities in Karelia. This treaty became the basis for all subsequent treaties between Russia and Sweden right up to the beginning of the 17th century.

The last Swedish attempt to seize the Neva basin likewise ended in disgraceful failure. This attempt was carried out by the Swedish King Magnus, who had earned the derogatory sobriquet “the Weak.” He hoped to improve his image with a successful campaign in the Russian lands. In 1348, the Swedish fleet again found itself in the Neva delta. The assault party was disembarked on Beryozovy Island, where Magnus came to a stop "with his entire force.” In August of that year, he captured the city of Orekhovets. However, Orekhovets wasn’t held by the invaders for long, as within a year it was liberated by the Russian army. After this the struggle for access to the Baltic Sea abated for a long time. Russians firmly held on to the sea passage.

The struggle for the Baltic shores revived with a new vigor in the 16th century. The interests of the economic and political development of the centralized Russian state, which formed in the 15th and 16th centuries, urgently demanded the resolution of the “Baltic question.” Thus even Ivan III already paid special attention to fortifying the part of the coast of the Gulf of Finland belonging to Russia, building the strongholds Jama and Koporye there. In 1492, on the border with Estonia, directly across from Narva, the new city of Ivangorod (in Ivan III's honor) was founded, becoming an important trade and strategic point on the northwestern border of Russia. It was in fact a first-rate castle for its time, constructed out of stone. From that time, Russian trade in the Baltic Sea was mainly conducted through the new port, which at the same time represented the state of the art in Russian fortification on the Baltic coast.

The strengthening of the Russian nation in the 16th century was cause for great alarm in Sweden, Livonia, Poland and Germany. Leaders of these nations did everything they could to impede the establishment of trade relations between Russia and Western Europe. At the same time, Sweden and Denmark also harbored ambitions of dominion in the Baltics. Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), having paid close attention to the situation in the Baltics and to military preparations against Russia, anticipated the enemy, and started the war with the Livonian Order in 1558, before the hostile nations could join forces. The initial years of the war were marked by spectacular successes for the Russians, who captured Yuryev (Tartu) and Narva.

Russia’s objectives in the Livonian War were to gain access to the Baltic Sea. As a result, Ivan IV hoped in the future to create his own fleet on the Baltic.

In the course of the Livonian War, a special emphasis was placed on the question of defending Russian trade on the Baltic Sea. Intending to forcibly paralyze Russian sea trade with the West, Poland, and subsequently Sweden, resorted to the common means of sea trade disruption at the time – piracy. Seas and oceans in those days swarmed with pirates, who gladly went into the service of various governments. Entering into such service, corsairs were granted a special “letter of marque” (or license) which gave them the right to legally exist. Ivan the Terrible also acquired a corsair fleet to defend the shores of the Baltic Sea, commanded by the head pirate Karsten Rode. The emergence in the Baltic Sea of a corsair fleet in the name of Ivan the Terrible’s administration was cause for great consternation in Sweden, Germany and other Baltic nations, although this fleet was very short-lived.

Besides creating a corsair fleet, Ivan IV’s intentions to seriously establish himself on the shores of the Baltic Sea are further evidenced by his attempt to seize Reval, an important trade port and naval stronghold. Control of this city, captured after Sweden’s breakup of the Livonian Order, meant not only the expulsion of the adversary from the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, but also the acquisition of a fortified base for the corsair fleet. But the seven-month-long siege of Reval from land did not yield the intended results. The defensive means of Reval proved too strong, while reinforcements and everything needed by the city was constantly supplied by sea.

The long-lasting Livonian War was a strain on all the resources of the Russian nation. From 1578, military operations took an unfavorable turn for the Russian army, although the advance of the Polish-Lithuanian army was halted at the walls of the heroically defended Pskov. The long war, lasting a quarter of a century, ended with an armistice with Poland (in 1582) and Sweden (in 1583), highly unfavorably for Russia, which lost not only all the lands acquired in Livonia, but also the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland together with the Russian cities of Jama (presently Kingisepp), Koporye and Ivangorod. Russia was cut off from the Baltic Sea.

The Russian nation could not come to terms with the loss of access to the Baltic Sea. Thus the Russian government answered Sweden's offer of signing a peace treaty in place of the armistice with a demand for the return of Russian cities on the Baltic coast, and began seeking the return of the lost lands by armed force. The new Russo-Swedish War ended with the Treaty of Tyavzino in 1595, which forced Sweden to return the coast of the Gulf of Finland and Korela (Kexholm) to Russia.

Yet Sweden, despite signing “eternal peace,” continued to prepare for the capture of the Russian coast of the Gulf of Finland. At the beginning of the 17th century, when Russia was weakened by Polish encroachment, Sweden began open aggressive actions, even occupying Novgorod.

The Stolbovo Treaty of 1617 again gave Sweden the Russian coast of the Gulf of Finland. The Russian loss of access to the Baltic Sea was a source of jubilation in Sweden. In an official appearance, King Gustavus Adolfus said, “The Russians are dangerous neighbors: their lands stretch to the North, Caspian and Black Seas; they have a powerful noble class, a numerous peasant class, populous cities; they can mobilize large armies; and now this adversary cannot release a single vessel into the Baltic Sea without our permission.”

The lack of access to the Baltic started to be especially felt in Russia in connection with the formation, in the 17th century, of an internal “all-Russian market” and the development of economic and political relations with nations of Western Europe. A staunch supporter of the struggle against Sweden for access to the Baltic Sea was the distinguished Russian diplomat of the 17th century, A. L. Ordin-Naschokin. In a special note served to the Tsar Alexei Mihailovich, he insisted on making peace and allying with the Rzeczpospolita, in order to combine forces against Sweden.

Preparing for war against Sweden, the Muscovite government developed a broad plan of military operations, which provided for a simultaneous advance of Russian forces on several fronts. The main force, headed by the Tsar himself was to take boats down the Western Dvina to Riga. This front was considered the most crucial, as the capture of Riga opened access to the Baltic Sea.

In August of 1656, Russian troops seized Dinaburg and Kokenhausen (Kukenois). Construction of battleships began on the Western Dvina. Yet the capture of Riga was unsuccessful.

Another detachment of the Russian army, led by the Voivode Potemkin, was to clear the Izhora of Swedes, and seize the Neva estuary, after which Potemkin’s mission was to march on Stockholm. For this purpose he was given vessels and over 500 Cossacks were sent from the Don, the latter being experienced seamen. In the spring of 1656, Potemkin approached the Neva and captured the city of Nyenschantz (Kantsy), which was constructed at its mouth. Having taken Nyenschantz, Potemkin approached N?teborg (Oreshek), but was not able to seize it, even though he received reinforcements from the Ladoga in the form of a multitude of smaller vessels. In July of that year, having sailed down the Neva into the Gulf of Finland, Potemkin undertook an attack on Kotlin Island, where he met with a detachment of Swedish vessels, and captured a “galley” and prisoners in battle. A landing force disembarked on Kotlin and burned down the settlements established there.

The international situation, having become more complicated, impeded Russia’s retrieval of lost lands on the shores of the Gulf of Finland. The main goals sought by the Russians in the Ingrian lands were not achieved, and N?teborg remained in Swedish hands. Nevertheless the talks that began in 1658 between Russia and Sweden strongly emphasized the question of harbors for Russian vessels.

But the Swedes were in fact wary most of all of the appearance of Russians on the shores of the Baltic Sea. According to the armistice agreement signed in the village of Valiesar (in 1658), Russia was left only with the several towns that it occupied in Livonia. But even these acquisitions were lost in the treaty with Sweden signed in 1661 in Kardis. Russia and Sweden were left with the borders delineated in the exorbitantly unfavorable Treaty of Stolbovo. Russia persistently sought a harbor on the Baltic Sea, but this crucial historical objective would not be reached until Peter I.

Besides the short section of coastline along the Gulf of Finland, Russia had long possessed hugely expansive stretches of coastline of the northern seas – the White and the Barents. The Barents Sea was known to the Russians under the distinctive sobriquet “breathing,” that is, non-freezing, sea, having tides all year round.

Settlements of the Novgorodians had long ago began appearing on the Kola Peninsula and along the shores of the White Sea. Seal hunting and fishing were the long-time economy of the coast-dwellers, who undertook expeditions on their vessels deep into the Barents Sea. Intrepid Novgorodians made their way far east and north, to the shores of Novaya Zemlya. In the 14th century, three Novgorodian vessels (“yumas”), spent a long time wandering the northern seas: one of them perished, while two moored at a tall mountain range. The sailors were led by Moislav Novgorodets and his son Yakov, who described seeing an "aural light" which was more brilliant than the sun, that is, the Northern Lights. It is surmised that Moislav and his companions reached the mountainous shores of Vaygach and Novaya Zemlya.

The desolate shores of the White Sea were frequently a theater of vicious battles between Russians and Norwegians ("Murmans"), who pillaged the coastal lands. This is described in some detail by chroniclers of the 15th century. In 1419, Norwegians appeared at the mouth of the Northern Dvina with a brigade of 500 men, "in ‘busa’ and ‘shneka’ boats," and plundered Nenoksa and several other villages. The coast-dwellers attacked the marauders and destroyed two ‘shneka’ boats, after which the surviving Norwegian ships sailed out to sea. In 1445, Norwegians again appeared at the Dvina estuary, wreaking havoc on the locals. This invasion was perpetrated, apparently, to avenge a campaign by the Novgorod-allied Karelians within the borders of Norway (possibly this refers to the northern parts of Finland and Norway). The Karelians had caused great damage, having "beat them and warred and captured." As the first time, the Norwegian expedition was a total failure. In a surprise attack, the Dvinians slaughtered a great number of Norwegians, killed three of their leaders, and took prisoners, sending them to Novgorod. The remaining Norwegians "darted to the ships fleeing.”

In light of the lack of a consistent link to Western Europe through the Baltic Sea, communication across the northern seas acquired a great economic and political significance for Russia. The route to Europe through the White and Barents Seas had long been known to Russian coastal dwellers, rather than having been discovered by English sailors, as is asserted in many English sources. This route to Europe was taken by Istoma Grigoryev, together with Danish ambassadors, at the end of the 15th century. The travelers boarded four vessels at the mouth of the Northern Dvina, and sailed along the coast of the Kola Peninsula and Scandinavia, thus reaching Bergen. Istoma's journey was not an exceptional occurrence. The same route was taken by the Russian ambassador on his way to Spain, and by several other Russians. Most noteworthy is the fact that Russian travelers characterized this route to northern Europe as “longer, but also safer.”

Thus, the arrival of an English ship, commanded by Chancellor, at the Northern Dvina estuary was just the beginning of more or less regular English trade relations with Russia. Following the English visit were Dutch ships. The small settlement at the Northern Dvina delta quickly grew and became the city of Arkhangelsk (in 1584), the largest Russian port of the 17th century.

In the course of the Livonian War, seafaring in the White Sea underwent expansive growth. It was during this time that Sweden made attempts to establish itself in the White Sea. In 1571, Swedish military vessels appeared near the Solovetsky Islands. The Swedes were apparently conducting reconnaissance, preparing for the capture of the Solovetsky Islands, which would guarantee them supremacy on the White Sea. To defend against enemy attacks, a wooden stockade was built around the Solovetsky Monastery, and archers and Cossacks recruited. This proved to be a timely measure, for during the Russo-Swedish War of 1590-1595, the Swedes attacked the western coast of the White Sea.

In August of 1591, military operations unfolded on a rather large scale in the North. A Swedish detachment of 1200 men “in small vessels” made its way to the Kola stockade. The adversary approached two towers of the wooden stockade, intending to set fire to them, but was repulsed. The attack was repeated in September. This time, 400 Swedes made their way in small vessels along the River Kem, and unexpectedly appeared at the Sumsky stockade. The Swedes attempted to set fire to the stockade for eight hours, but they lifted the siege the same day (September 23) and turned back, plundering several villages along the way. The Swedes suffered great losses in men killed, wounded and taken prisoner under the walls of the wooden stockade, which was defended by 200 Russians, of which only 30 were archers and cannoneers. The Swedish military commander was killed.

In response to the Swedish attack, Russian troops crossed into Swedish territory in the winter of the same year, 1591. The Russian detachment numbered 3000 men – archers, Cossacks and recruits from Ustyug, Kholmogor, Zaonezhye, and monasterial servants from the Kirillo-Belozersky and Solovetsky Monasteries. The voivodes were the Princes Andrey and Grigoriy Volkonsky. The march set out from the Sumsky stockade, with the goal of reaching the Kayan lands in the north of Finland, where the Russian troops waged war for six weeks.

Thus, Sweden’s attempt at the end of the 16th century to force the Russians off the Kola Peninsula, with the aim of obstructing their merchant marine in the White Sea, was not successful. The northern route became especially significant at the end of the 16th century, after the conquest of Siberia. The sea route along the coast of the North Arctic Ocean led to Mangazeya, located on the River Taz in Siberia, which was the main center of the fur trade at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries.

Russian vessels (“kochs”), leaving from the mouth of the Northern Dvina, would sail along the eastern shore of the White Sea, round Kanin Peninsula, though sometimes traverse it by using the river system and the fact that during even the driest time of year the “portage,” that is, the dry section between the rivers feeding into Mezen Bay and Czech Bay, was insignificant. Experienced seafarers would sail “the great sea-ocean through the tract of the Yugorsky Strait,” then enter the Kara Sea. The entire journey to Mangazeya was wrought with extreme hardship, but this didn’t stop Russian tradesmen. In 1610, 16 kochs with 150 people arrived at Mangazeya. A later chronicle states that "many people came by sea" to Mangazeya.

Word of the existence of a route to Mangazeya percolated through Western-European trade circles. Already during the talks preceding the Treaty of Stolbovo, Swedish delegates interrogated Russian ambassadors, "how long is it from Muscovy to Siberia?” The English and Dutch dreamed of opening a northern route from Europe to China, Japan and India, in place of the longer route through the Atlantic and Indian Oceans to the southern and eastern shores of Asia. Theoretically the northern route to the East was shorter and, consequently, more profitable, but practically, this route, mastered only in modern times, was inaccessible to the merchant vessels of Western Europe.

All geographic discoveries in Siberia were made by intrepid Russian seafarers. Already in 1610, Russian merchants in Mangazeya had made an important discovery: the Dvinian Kondratiy Kurochkin, together with merchants from the Northern Dvina, undertook a sailing expedition from the Turukhansk winter outpost on the Yenisey estuary, "and as the river and sea cleared... and they sailed from the Yenisey into open sea." Thus it was shown that the Yenisey feeds the "Glacial" sea, that there is access to the mouth of the Yenisey, that "large ships can enter the Yenisey from the sea."

Polar journeys were exceptionally dangerous and frequently resulted in the deaths of courageous Russian seafarers. Stories of unknown explorers are told in a wonderful discovery made by the eastern coast of the Taymyr Peninsula by Soviet sailors in 1940. They found here the remains of items belonging to Russian winterers who survived a shipwreck in Simsa Bay. That these explorers “went by sea and not by land, is undeniably demonstrated not only by the debris of a wrecked vessel and an iron sail rig pulley, but the remnants of at least six special sea navigation instruments.”

From the middle of the 17th century, Russian vessels began to appear in the eastern part of the North Arctic Ocean. From the mouth of the Lena they would sail west and within “a day of sailing” reach the River Olenyok. Sailing further the Russian vessels would reach the mouth of the Yana within three to five days. The biggest obstacles en route for the gallant sailors were the hunks of ice, which the kochs had to navigate while being blown against the coast by marine winds.

After the construction of three fortified winter outposts on the Kolyma River, eastward expeditions along the coast of the North Arctic Ocean became more frequent. In 1648, an expedition of six kochs began from the Kolyma estuary. Three vessels reached the Great Chuckchi Peninsula, now known as Cape Dezhnev in honor of Semyon Dezhnev, leader of one of the kochs that discovered the channel between Asia and America. The expedition rounded the easternmost end of Asia and reached the River Anadyr. In this way, the passage from the North Arctic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean was shown to exist. The contours of the great Northern Sea Route around the Asian shores were thus outlined by courageous Russian seafarers already in the 17th century.


In the 16th and 17th centuries, Russian and Ukrainian settlements extended almost to the very shores of the Black and Azov Seas. The Zaporozhian Cossacks settled on one of the Dnieper islands (Khortytsia), in close proximity to Turkish fortresses located in the Dnieper and Bug estuaries. Don Cossack villages were established, already at the end of the 16th century, on the lower Don, also in close proximity to the Turkish fortress of Azov.

The struggle against the khanate of Crimea and against Turkey for the northern Black Sea coastline was, for Russia, historically inevitable. It was mainly a result of the necessity of defending the perimeter of Russian lands from Turkish and Tatar attacks.

The Don and Zaporozhian Cossacks played a crucial role in this struggle of the Russian and Ukrainian people. Oppression of the lower classes caused mass migration of peasants into the lower reaches of the Dnieper and the Don. The Zaporozhian and Don Cossacks established themselves there. The Cossacks were involved in a persistent struggle against the Crimean Tatars and Turks, which was not limited to a defensive position, but included response attacks on Crimea and the Turkish coast of the Black Sea. In these excursions they proved themselves to be experienced seamen.

In the 16th century the Black Sea became the setting for frequent maritime battles between small Cossack vessels and the large ships of the Turkish fleet. Cossack sorties to the Turkish shores fundamentally undermined Turkey’s military prowess, decidedly shattering the mythos of invincibility they possessed at the time.

The Cossacks’ maritime heroics are striking for the bravery displayed, and their campaigns for the thoroughness of the preparations. For these sea sorties the Cossacks built special vessels ("chaikas"), up to 20 m in length, 3 to 4 m wide, with a draft of 50-60 cm. These vessels were equipped with two rudders – one each on the stern and the bow. Each of them had a mast, and in fair weather and favorable wind, a sail would be raised; normally, however, the "chaikas" were propelled by oars, for which 10 to 15 rowers were seated on each side. Bundles of reed were tied to the sides, which would keep the Cossack “chaikas” afloat even in the event that they took on water. Supplies were kept in barrels. Eighty to one hundred Cossack "chaikas" would be assembled for long-distance sorties. Each vessel was equipped with four or six small-caliber cannons (falconets), and had a crew of 50-70 people; each Cossack had two rifles and a saber. Such a squadron constituted a formidable force, especially since the Cossacks usually staged surprise attacks, not allowing the enemy the opportunity to assemble their forces.

The Cossack fleet would sail down the Dnieper to the mouth of the river. At the front would be the Ataman’s vessel with a flag on its mast, followed by the other "chaikas." Knowing that Turkish galleys closely guard the Dnieper estuary, the Cossacks would hide their vessels in the cattail thickets of river channels, awaiting nightfall. Often the Cossack fleet penetration would not go unnoticed by the Turks, who would notify Constantinople in time of the impending danger. The alarm would spread immediately along the coast of the Black Sea, but the Cossacks would suddenly appear where they were not expected. Battles unfolded between the Cossacks and Turkish flotillas.

The successful sorties of the Zaporozhian and Don Cossacks demonstrated the effectiveness of using river routes for attacks on Tatar and Turkish cities. Moreover, this was the only way to deal a blow to the Crimean Tatars on their own territory, since Crimea was securely defended from the north by nearly insuperable coastal steppes and marine firths.

The Crimean campaign of 1556 ranks among the remarkable military feats of the 16th century. The main Russian forces marched from Putivel toward the Dnieper under the command of a representative of the Muscovite government, the Dyak Rzhevsky. On the Dnieper, Rzhevsky’s Cossacks were joined by 300 Ukrainian Cossacks from Kaniv. The vessels for the campaign were built on a tributary of the Dnieper – the River Psyol. The farthest outpost of the Crimean Tatars on the Dnieper – Islam-Kermen – turned out to have been abandoned by the Tatars. Having occupied it, the Russian force moved further, to Ochakiv, which guarded the exit from the Dnieper and the Bug into the Black Sea. Rzhevsky secured a great victory here, destroying a detachment of Tatars and Turks and seizing the outskirts of Ochakiv (a “stockade”). Rzhevsky’s campaign demonstrated the fragility of the Turko-Tatar defenses on the Dnieper, and thus the vulnerability of the Black Sea coastline of Crimea and Turkey.

Rzhevsky’s brave feats were carried further in 1559. This time, the Dnieper detachment was commanded by the Okolnichiy Daniil Adashev. Garnering a force of 8000 men, he sailed his boats down the Dnieper to Ochakiv, whereabouts he seized two Turkish ships. Disembarking on the northern coast of Crimea, 15 kilometers from Perekop, the Russian troops plundered Tatar settlements and successfully returned. The Khan pursued them with a small force, "as not many people rushed to join him.”

The significance of Adashev's campaign as the first successful Russian sea attack on Crimea was characterized thus by a chronicler of these events: “heretofore from the beginning, since the Yurt became Crimean, and since that Korsun Isle (i.e., Crimea) was overrun by the impious Busorman, the Russian saber has not shed crimson blood in those impious dwellings until now.” For the first time, the war was taken to the territory of the Crimean horde itself, which had been marauding across Russian and Ukrainian lands unpunished.

This marked the beginning of Cossack excursions into the Black Sea. In 1589, Cossack “chaikas” under the command of Ataman Kaluga sailed down the Dnieper and headed for the shores of Crimea. The Cossacks captured a Turkish ship at sea, and attacked the city of Kozlov (now Eupatoria) at night. In 1606, Zaporozhian Cossacks captured 10 Turkish galleys at sea, with all their supplies, and attacked Varna. In the fall of 1608, Cossacks took Perekop, and next year 16 “chaikas” appeared in branches of the Danube.

The Cossack campaigns became even more threatening for the Turks after the Zaporozhians began combining forces with the Don Cossacks. It became clear that the mighty Turkish fleet was in no condition to defend the shores of Crimea and Asia Minor. The major Black Sea ports – Kefe (Feodosiya), Trabzon and Sinop – became targets of Cossack attacks; Cossack “chaikas” even started appearing under the walls of Constantinople.

The most important event in the 17th-century history of Cossack campaigns was the siege of Sinop, one of the wealthiest Turkish cities on the Asia-Minor coast of the Black Sea. The way to Sinop was shown the Cossacks by their own kin, “Poturnaks,” i.e., captive Cossacks who, not able to bear the torture and forced heavy labor on the Turkish galleys, succumbed and converted to Islam. Having been converted by force, the Poturnaks detested their oppressors and gladly served as guides to the Cossacks. The Cossacks staged a surprise attack on the city, plundered the castle and its arsenal, destroyed sail- and rowboats in the harbor, and liberated the Christian captives. The capture of Sinop (1616) had a great impact in Turkey, and was a cause of the ousting of the Grand Vizier.

In 1615, Don Cossacks attacked Azov and destroyed many Turkish ships, after which they sailed 70 boats to Kefe, captured it and liberated many captives. From the shores of Crimea, they headed to the south shore of the Black Sea and captured Trabzon. Here, too, the Don and Zaporozhian Cossacks acted jointly and simultaneously. Contemporaries credited the leader of the Cossack fleet, the Hetman Peter Sagaydanovich, with, “during his hetmanship, taking from Turkey the town of Kefe; that even the Turkish Caesar was in a great fear.” Soon after the capture of Sinop and Trabzon, the Cossack fleet appeared under the walls of Istanbul (Constantinople), the capital of the Turkish Empire. The expedition comprised Don and Zaporozhian Cossacks under the command of the Ataman Shil.

The amphibious expeditions of the Zaporozhian Cossacks were, indubitably, a remarkable military undertaking, playing an important role in the defense of Russian and Ukrainian lands from the predatory forays of Crimean Tatars.

The Zaporozhian and Don Cossacks participated equally in the naval campaigns on the Black Sea. Yet the campaigns of the Zaporozhian Cossacks are celebrated by Russian historians, while the Don campaigns remain relatively unknown, even though the Don naval expeditions not only held their own in scope, as compared to the Zaporozhian ones, but frequently outdid them.

The Cossack naval sorties were, of course, a source of constant diplomatic tension between Russia and Turkey, the latter demanding the cessation of Cossack raids on the Black Sea coastline. This explains the fact that the Muscovite government, in their missives, forbade the Cossacks from pillaging the Crimean and Turkish shores. However, this injunction was just a formality, since the Muscovite government had a vested interest in the existence of a permanent Cossack fleet on the Don, to counterbalance the Turkish naval force that held absolute dominion over the Black and Azov Seas. As a result, the Cossack flotillas not only didn't disband, but in fact were reinforced with new boats that were built in Voronezh, at the expense of the Tsar’s treasury. Thus, the Tsar’s missive of 1627, which reprimanded the Don Cossacks for raids on Crimean and Turkish lands, at the same time allowed the Cossacks to retain 14 boats on the Don for escorting Turkish and Russian ambassadors.

The greatest moment in the history of Don Cossack naval campaigns was the capture of Azov. The Azov fortress stood on the left bank of the Don, close to its mouth. Consequently, such a fortress could only be besieged by river or light sea vessels. The Cossacks’ siege of Azov began on April 21, and continued for two months. The Cossacks took Azov on June 18, 1637, and “killed many people.” During the siege, the Cossacks pounded the city walls with cannons, surrounded the fortress with trenches, and attempted to sap the towers. All this was made possible only by the fact that the Cossacks possessed adequate artillery and ammunition, provided by Moscow. The arrival in Azov of the nobleman Stepan Chirikov and the Ataman Ivan Katorzhnop from Moscow, bearing bread, gunpowder and money was considered by a writer of a historical novel about Azov to be the turning point of the siege of that stronghold. That day "the Great Don host” shelled the castle walls with rifles and cannons.

Azov quickly attained the status of being the Don Cossack capital, and the destination of a steady flow of Zaporozhian Cossack migrants from Ukraine, whose numbers were estimated by the Don migrants themselves to be, "in Azov and on the Don," 10,000 strong. Soon Azov established trade relations with Kerch and Taman, from which two ships came with Turkish merchants and goods. Azov garnered an even greater significance as a naval base, from which light Cossack boats could set out to sea.

In 1638, the Cossack fleet encountered 44 Turkish galleys. The confrontation occurred during a storm that destroyed six of the Turkish galleys. The galley fleet, according to Cossack intelligence, was to serve as a barrier for Cossack vessels in the Kerch Strait. The Cossack flotilla, according to a Russian chronicler, comprised 40 boats manned by 2000 crew (on average 50 men per vessel). The battle continued all day, and by night both sides retreated: the galleys went out to sea, the Cossacks – to the shores of the Azov Sea. The next day, the sea battle recommenced: “there was a big battle made, and a great smoke rose up.” The Cossack fleet of 53 vessels and 1700 crew, after an unsuccessful attack on Kefe, escaped into branches of the Kuban. The Turkish fleet blocked off the mouth of the Kuban and pursued the Cossacks in smaller vessels.

This was not the end of the Cossack operations on the Black Sea. Receiving orders from Moscow, the Cossacks sent 37 large boats into the Black Sea. Here the Cossack flotilla encountered Turkish galleys and engaged them. The Cossacks had to battle a mighty Turkish squadron of 80 large and 100 small battleships. Nevertheless, they captured 5 galleys and sank them together with their cannons. The Cossacks' military operations on the sea continued for three weeks. Cossack boats damaged by cannon fire from Turkish vessels moored by the shore; the Cossacks returned to Azov by land.

The combat activity on the sea was renewed soon after the Cossacks abandoned Azov in 1642. The Don "water route" allowed the possibility of dealing severe blows on Crimea and Turkey. This fact was duly noted in Russian administrative circles. In 1646, the nobleman Zhdan Kondyryov came to the Don as a representative of the government, and was to accompany the Don Cossacks to the Crimean shores. The Don host's leader suspected in Kondyryov’s mission an attempt by the Muscovite government to establish control over Cossack naval campaigns. The Cossacks diplomatically explained their unwillingness to obey Kondyryov with the claim that he would hardly withstand the Cossacks’ sea and land travels, being a “delicate man.” In like manner, they also raised the issue of the quality of sea vessels that could be used for a sea sortie to the Crimean shores. Agreeing to set out on 30 boats, the Cossacks pointed out that expeditions to the Turkish and Crimean shores require 300-400 boats.

Around this time, the Muscovite government made attempts to establish a fleet on the Don. To build the Don fleet, 100 boats were to be collected in cities on the Volga, “made from a single wood, suitable for sea travel.” In the case that such a quantity of boats could not to be found, the remainder was to be immediately constructed in Kazan. All collected and constructed boats were to be sailed down the Volga to Tsaritsyn, having been loaded with rye flour. From Tsaritsyn, the boats had to be portaged by land to the Don, with the use of iron-clad rollers. The experts appointed to determine “which kind of boats are needed” were Don Cossacks.

The extent to which a Cossack flotilla consisting of such vessels posed a serious threat for the Turks is evidenced by the fact that in June of the same year, 1646, the Cossacks seized two Turkish ships, together with cannons and ammunition, without any resistance. The Turkish crew abandoned the ships upon hearing shots fired by Azov. Moreover, the Cossacks burned three more Turkish ships near Azov.

Thus, the construction of the fleet on the Don under Peter I was not an absolute novelty. Peter profited from the experience of earlier achievements of the 17th century. In the mid-17th century, the Don fleet, apparently, was not completed, as Russia stood on the brink of war with the Rzeczpospolita over Ukraine and Belarus, but the naval campaigns of the Cossacks were nevertheless a remarkable phenomenon in the history of the fleet, demonstrating the high level of martial skill possessed by the Russian and Ukrainian people.


The Caspian Sea also became a theater for campaigns of the Don and Yaik (Ural) Cossacks. The most courageous of the Cossack expeditions in the Caspian Sea is the well-known Persian campaign of Stepan Razin, which was begun in March of 1668. The Cossack fleet comprised 24 boats. The Cossacks moved along the western shore of the Caspian Sea to the Terek delta, where Razin was joined by Ataman Sergey Krivoy. From there, the Cossacks headed to Derbent, Baku and further south. Passing the winter on the Miyan-Kala Peninsula, they marauded the eastern shores of the Caspian, afterwards retreating to the isle of Suina, near the mouth of the Kura, where they destroyed a joint fleet of Persians and Kumyks, comprised of 70 vessels, and captured 33 cannons.

Due to the development of trade relations with nations of the East, the Muscovite government undertook a series of measures for the defense of the Volga route. At the end of the 16th century, the cities of Samara, Saratov and Tsaritsyn were built on the Volga, and a stone citadel erected in Astrakhan. Yet complete safety of travel on the Caspian Sea could only be guaranteed with the creation of naval vessels. A fleet on the Volga was to secure Russia’s position in the Caspian basin and provide assistance to the Cossack flotillas on the Don.

The first attempt in this direction was made in the 17th century. The foundation was laid on the construction of a ship by 50 Russian carpenters in Nizhny Novgorod. The ship was built “of pine boards,” with a flat bottom. It had a length of about 38 m, and a width of 12.5 m. The ship was propelled by sails, and in the absence of wind, by oars (it had 12 pairs of oars, with two rowers per oar). Its armament consisted of several cannons.

This ship set sail on July 30, 1636, when the Volga already began to shallow out. The trip was mostly uneventful, other than delays in the shallows. On September 15, a month and a half after leaving Nizhny Novgorod, the ship arrived at Astrakhan. From Astrakhan, it headed further only on October 10. The sailing on the Caspian Sea was difficult, and ended in catastrophe, in which, on November 14, 1636, the ship was thrown ashore by a storm, south of Derbent. The failure of this first military ship was due, primarily, to the expedition’s poor preparation for sailing in the stormy Caspian waters.

The necessity of creating a naval flotilla on the Caspian Sea was clearly recognized by the Muscovite government. Also not insignificant was the Tsarist government’s endeavor to keep the “Volga outlaws” in fear by creating a naval fleet on the Volga and in the Caspian Sea, during a time when the peasant uprising led by Stepan Razin was already beginning. A. L. Ordin-Naschokin, at the peak of his fame during this time, was the initiator of the construction of a new military vessel “for sorties out of Astrakhan and into the Khvalyn Sea.” Naschokin clearly saw the tremendous possibilities of marine trade on the Caspian Sea that would be open with the creation of a naval flotilla here. The order for the construction of the ship was given on June 19, 1667. The location for the construction was selected to be the palatial village of Dedinovo, on the banks of the Oka, where river vessels had long been built – mainly flat-bottomed boats. Among the workers sent to Dedinovo for the ship’s construction were Russian masters and 30 carpenters, “that had previously been building ‘busa’ and ‘strug’ boats.” Thus, the construction of the ship in Dedinovo was carried out by the hands of Russian masters. Materials for the ship were likewise of Russian manufacture: the iron, for instance, was delivered from the Tula and Kashira factories. The ship, later given the name Oryol (Eagle), was begun in Novemeber of 1667. It had a length of 24.5 m, width of 6.5 m, and a draft of 1.5 m. Simultaneously, a small yacht was also being built, for courier service, with an armament of six small cannons, a boat and two other small craft.

The logging was carried out in the Kolomna region, and the iron, “the fittest for shipbuilding,” was supplied by Tula and Kashira factories. Overseeing the shipbuilding was entrusted to Yakov Poluyektov. In March of 1668, the Oryol’s body was in a sufficient state of readiness to send for a painter and an engraver to perform finishing and decorative work. In January of 1668, the state of the ship’s construction was thus: “the ship’s bottom and sides are formed, and the bent wood is all nailed down, and timber for the top is being ground.” In May of 1668, the ship was lowered onto water, but the decorative work was lagging behind, and the Oryol passed the winter in Dedinovo. An inspection of the ship established its complete fitness for sailing in the Caspian Sea. Furthermore, Astrakhanians indicated that the vessels sailing the Caspian Sea followed “the same design.”

In April of 1669, the ship was named the Oryol (Eagle), and a depiction of the eagle as the Russian national coat of arms was sewn onto the ship’s flags. On May 7, the new vessel raised its sails and left port. The entire trip from Dedinovo to Astrakhan took three and a half months.

The commissioning of the first military ship necessitated the organization of service aboard it. A short marine charter project, in the form of a "letter of a ship’s regime" (i.e. organization) was introduced in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This “letter” consisted of an introduction and 34 regulatory articles, which outlined the basic rules of ship service, responsibilities and interrelationship of the captain with other servicemen aboard the vessel, as well as short instructions for crew actions while moored, while under way, during battle and under other circumstances. These articles, receiving the Tsar’s approval, were evidence to the fact that the construction of the Oryol was not a random phenomenon in the history of the Russian nation, but the true beginning of the creation of a regular naval fleet.

The Oryol arrived in Astrakhan in troubled times. The entire Volga was in the grips of an uprising against the Tsarist administration. At the head of the uprising stood Stepan Timofeyevich Razin. Soon after the usurpation of Astrakhan by the rebels, the Oryol was burned, as its operation and sail equipment were too difficult to master, while posing a danger to the rebels if captured by Tsarist troops.

The construction of a military vessel in Dedinovo, as well as the boat construction on the Don, did not pass into history in vain for the Russian fleet. Perhaps even the notorious “Brandt’s boat,” discovered by Peter I in a barn, was a remnant of the construction that took place on the Oka in 1667-1668. Peter I’s work on construction of a Russian fleet had precedents and relied on their broad experience. Russia already possessed experienced ship carpenters that took part in the shipbuilding of small military and merchant vessels. It was their experience that was used by Peter I in the construction of ships on the Baltic Sea, and earlier on the Don, during the Azov campaigns. Russia also possessed experienced sailors, familiar with sailing conditions on the White and the Barents, on the Black and Caspian Seas. Peter’s shipbuilding efforts would be severely stunted, were Russia not to have already possessed the experienced manpower in the form of ship carpenters, captains, sailors, and experience in building military ships.