Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Warriors: Who were the Streltsy?

Streltsy with their Pischal and BrandicheExplore the story of the notorious military units that scared the life of Peter the Great – the Streltsy.

1682 – A year that traumatized the life of the young Peter Alexeyevich Romanov, the future Tsar Peter the Great. On that year, the Streltsy earned its infamy when it rampaged into a riot in Moscow for three straight days, killing relatives of the future Tsar. But before this, the Streltsy had been one of the top units in the military of the Tsars, becoming the first standing unit within the military and armed with the most powerful weapons in the land. It boasted a long history but also notoriety, which eventually led to their downfall.


The origins of the Streltsy dated back to the reign of Tsar Ivan IV “the Terrible.” In 1550, he wanted to create a unit that provide support to his cavalry and serve as shock troops during sieges. He recruited around 3,000 men and armed them with the most powerful weapon in Russia – pischals, Russian for muskets.

Pischals had already been used in the Russian military even before Ivan IV. During the early 16th century, Ivan III used pischals to fight the Mongols. Few units had been created using guns and became known as pischalniks. Few of this units survived even up to the reign of Tsar Ivan IV. But Ivan wanted a larger and permanent formation utilizing this powerful weapon.

Ivan IV brought his 3,000 shooters or in Russian the “Streltsy” (Strelets in singular form) to their headquarters in Vorobieva or Sparrow Hills located in the outskirts of Moscow. The new unit composed of men from the peasantry and the nobility. Not surprising, men from the nobility served as officers for the regiment. In Vorobieva, they began to train, equip, and organize the streltsy.


The Streltsy was divided into smaller units. The biggest were the regiments followed by smaller units. Each unit had its own officer assigned to them.

The regiment or the Prikaz formed the biggest unit of the Streltsy. Initially, the Streltsy had 6 regiments composed of 500 men each and placed under the command of a golova. The first 6 golova were the following men: (1) Grigory Zelobov-Pusheshnikov, (2) Matvey Diyak Rzevsky, (3) Ivan Cheremisinov, (4) Vasily Funikov-Pronchischev, (5) Fyodor Durasov, (6) Yakov Bundov.

Few sotni (Russian for hundreds) formed a prikaz. Each of the regiment was divided into 5 sotni composed of 100 men. They were then led by a sotnik, which equaled to a captain.

In overall, the command of the whole Streltsy unit fell to the Streletskaya Izsba or the House of Streltsy. But in 1571, records began to show that the House of Streltsy reorganized itself into the Streletsky Prikaz or Streltsy Department.

Weapons and Uniform

An account by the English Ambassador to Russia Giles Flecher in the late 1500’s provided a record about the weapons and the uniform of the Streltsy. From his accounts, he mentioned the Streltsy armed themselves with pishals and a special long battle axes with a long crescent-shaped edge called bradiche.

For their uniforms, Flecher saw them, wearing kaftans or long coats. For their headdresses, they wore either a Kolpak (a pointed hat made of sheepskin) or a Shapka made of fur.

In addition to Flecher’s account, some streltsy wore shallow iron headdresses to cover their heads from debris during battle. Also, some streltsy continued to arm themselves with crossbows besides their specialized weapons – the pischals – which at that time was still in their early stage of development and proved to be sometimes inefficient and inaccurate.


The Streltsy had different duties in the battlefield. Primarily, Ivan IV used the Streltsy to fire their guns to soften the enemy lines before his cavalry charge them. During siege, however, they worked as shock troops.

The Streltsy had a strong advantage in the battlefield. The conventional weapons of that remained the sword, spear, bows and arrows and crossbows. Their weaponry gave them superior power, but sometimes, it proved to be a liability because of its inaccuracy. Nevertheless, the Russians tried new tactics to use this powerful weapon effectively. During sieges or in the battlefield, Streltsy used mobile fortress called gulay gorod to advance in the field. This gulay gorod composed of a wall made of huge timber or wood that covered three to four sides with small peeping holes for observation as well as a place where they fired their guns. Some gulay gorod had wheels so that the Streltsy could push them in the battlefield. Hence, the gulay gorod virtually served as a tank at that time. Their use of gulay gorod showed its effectiveness during Ivan IV’s siege of Kazan, where the Russians triumphantly captured the city, ending years of war against the Tatars.

In Times of Peace

The Streltsy continued to serve the Tsar even after wars. A special feature of the Streltsy was that they were a regular standing military units. Other units were formed by conscripts – peasants brought into military service for only specified period after which they return to civilian life. The Streltsy continued to serve the state even after wars. In times of peace, streltsy regiments were sent into different regions of Russia, with one or two assigned to Moscow.

They vary in duties. In Moscow, Streltsy served as the Tsars bodyguards and defended the Kremlin. Outside, most served as policemen or firemen in their respective localities.

Salary of a Strelet

The Russian state had allocated money for the salary of the Streltsy. In addition, they even created new sources in order to maintain this unit. Besides their wages, the state also endowed special privileges, both official and non-official, along with wages in kinds. 

The rate of salary for each strelet depended on their ranks and their assignment. In Moscow, a normal strelet had a salary of 4 to 7 rubles; a sotnik received 12 to 20 rubles; and a golova got 30 to 60 rubles. In the provinces, the salaries of the strelets were lower.

In addition to money, they also received other types of benefits and privileges. A strelet received grain rations of either rye, oats or wheat. They also received plots of land where there families stayed and farmed for additional subsistence and income. They also received annual ration of cloth for their uniforms and salt.

The government used various measures to pay for the streltsy. They began to impose the so-called streltsy money or taxes to the peasants. Moreover, peasants also had to give a part of their harvest to the government to supply the rations of the streltsy.
In 1648, financial reforms under the corrupt adviser and tutor of Tsar Alexei, Boris Morozov, led to financial constraints in maintaining the streltsy. As compensation for the late payment of wages, they allowed the streltsy to work in other jobs such as a butcher or carpenter or blacksmith. But most became merchants and the government allowed it and even supported it by giving them tax exemptions. The streltsy on the other hand, used their salt and their local connections and influences to become wealthy merchants.

By becoming wealthy merchants and people in charge of security and men with wide influence in the government, streltsy became leading figures in Russian politics.


Streltsy were recruited from the peasantry and nobility. Initially, 3,000 men became the first Streltsy. But as their effectiveness became evident, more were recruited. The following decades after they fought in the siege of Kazan in 1555, their numbers swelled. From just 3,000, their ranks rose to 7,000 to 20,000 Streltsy by 1600.

The government had requirements in becoming a strelet. They must be strong, healthy and loyal. In addition, they also wanted the Streltsy to become pious and religious. The government also required recommendation by a whole village in order for a peasant to join the streltsy. But sometimes, a recommendation of a trusted and skillful military officer was sufficient. Most usually, however, a man became a strelet due to his birth.

A position of a strelet was hereditary. A family of a strelet maintained their land grants after the death of a strelet in their family. But in order to keep it longer, they needed to provide another member of the family to replace the deceased strelet. This hereditary situation led further to the maintaining of the numbers of the streltsy.

Streltsy History

The streltsy boasted more than a century of service. The unit debuted in the siege of Kazan where they fought ferociously against the Tatar defenders. They used their firearms and their golay gorod to their advantage, gunning down enemy cavalry and soldiers. With regular pay, a career in becoming a strelet enticed many to join.

The streltsy endured during the Time of Troubles, where they became part of major intrigues and foreign invasion. They allowed the death of Boris Godunov’s son. They also allowed the overthrow of Tsar Vasily Shuisky. They even became part of the famous battle between the Poles and the Russians for Moscow in 1612. During the Time of Troubles, they effectively became vital in the politics of the Kremlin.

After the Time of Troubles, the Streltsy continued to be part of the Russian military. They fought in the south against Tatar raiders from Crimea. Some fought in the Smolensk War of 1632.

In 1648, the Streltsy faced financial troubles. On that year, Boris Morozov ceased the Streltsy Money, causing cuts in wages. To supplement their income and to feed their families, many streltsy worked in the sidelines. Most became merchants. But some took the dark side and became corrupt and abusive of their police powers within their localities. Because of higher income working in the sidelines, many streltsy choose to concentrate more in their sidelines rather than their military training. Hence, their organization and discipline disintegrated.

In Moscow, the Streltsy became ever more influential and critical in the politics of succession, especially with two rival families wanting their own sons to be Tsars.

In 1682, Tsar Feodor II passed away without an heir. The throne was left to two of his brother, both coming from bitter rival clans. The problem began with Feodor’s father Tsar Alexei’s two marriage. Alexei first married Maria Miloslavskaya. But she passed away, leaving three prominent children: Feodor (who succeeded as Tsar), Ivan, and Sophia. After few year, Alexei remarried with Nataliya Naryshkina as his new wife. She bore him a son, Peter (the future Peter the Great). The two families fought for the throne after the death of Feodor III. A Zemsky Sobor or a national assembly convened to elect a new Tsar.

The Zemsky Sobor had two candidates: Peter and Ivan. Both, however, had disadvantages. Ivan had mental illness and had no chance of recovering or maturing. Peter on the other hand was young, only ten years old. So the Zemsky Sobor chose Peter as the more suitable Tsar. The Miloslavsky opposed the election results.

Sophia, a member of the Miloslavsky and brother of Ivan, wanted to grab power. He induced the support of the Streltsy in order to succeed. She spread intrigues and lies to gain the vital and critical support of the Streltsy. She succeeded and instigated them to riot.

Moscow Uprising of 1682

Sophia’s lies resulted to the Moscow Uprising of May 1682. She duped the Streltsy under the command of Ivan Khovansky into attacking the Naryskins and their supporters for three days. Peter luckily survived with the protection of his mother Nataliya. But the event scarred Peter when he saw the Streltsy hacking and impaling those he knew. The traumatized Tsarevitch never forgot this event throughout his life.
Moscow Uprising of 1682 by Nikolai Orenburgsky
The uprising by the Streltsy forced the Zemsky Sobor to make an unprecedented decision. They made Peter and Ivan co-Tsars with Sophia as their regent. The condition lasted only until 1689.

In 1689, Tsar Peter reached the aged of majority, hence, Sophia’s time a regent was over. But Sophia planned to stay in power indefinitely and sent a unit of Streltsy to attack Peter. But many Streltsy unit sided with the true Tsar. In the end, Sophia fell and Peter took power.

Under Peter the Great

Streltsy power and significance slumped under Peter the Great. The Streltsy had become outdated, not to mention, Tsar Peter distrusted them. Ultimately, the nature of the Streltsy and the sovereign conflicted and resulted eventually to the disbandment of the unit.

After the coup in 1689 that resulted to overthrow of Sophia, the Streltsy maintained its integrity as a military unit. But its reputation as bodyguards and able units of the Tsars waned. Peter preferred over the Streltsy his toy regiment, the Preobrazensky and Semenovsky Regiments, which were modeled to the latest western military organization and armed with modern weaponry. Nevertheless, the Streltsy joined Peter in capturing the fortress of Azov in 1696.

The Streltsy, however, opposed Peter’s reform and his inclination to western culture. Most of the Streltsy had conservative views. It meant they remain strongly pious to the Russian Orthodox Church and distrust foreign culture and influence. This came from the requirement of becoming a streltsy, which demanded Strelet’s loyalty to the Church besides the Tsar. Peter, on the other, opposed the narrow-mindedness of the Russian Orthodox Church and welcomed western influences. He broke the taboos of the church and made the ultimate break in 1697 when he set out to travel to Europe in a Grand Embassy. In 1698, news of the Tsars travel leaked out to the Streltsy and they took the opportunity to move against their Tsar.

A Streltsy mutiny erupted in 1698. Other than their Tsar’s western views, they also received orders to march down the south, away from their camps, their families and their incomes, to fight the Tartar raiders. A Streltsy unit marched down to Moscow to remove Peter from power, reinstall Sophia as ruler and kill all foreigners in the capital city. However, Peter’s supporters rallied the military, including the modern regiments of Preobrezensky and Semenovsky, and met the Streltsy in the New Jerusalem Monastery. The outdated, ill-trained and ill-disciplined Streltsy were no match to the well-equipped, well-trained and well organized government forces under the command of Peter’s skilled generals. At the end of the battle, thousands of Streltsy went to prison and the ringleaders, executed.

When Peter returned about a month later, he restarted the investigation on the matter. The memories of the previous massacre by the Streltsy that so scared the Tsar haunted him once more. It brought him to look for evidences of her half-sister Sophia’s involvement in the mutiny whatever the cost or methods. Eventually, thousands faced torture, execution and exile. Thousands were beheaded in Red Square. Peter’s hatred of the Streltsy led him to behead 4 Streltsy with his own hands. To warn her half-sister, he hanged three streltsy outside Sophia’s convent window.

After the event, the Streltsy began to melt away in history. The lack of the Tsar’s trust caused a slump in its recruitment. Peter himself did not want to recruit any new streltsy and preferred Russians to join his new modern regiments. The tactics and weaponry of the Streltsy were also obsolete. And so, by the early 18th century, the Streltsy lacked luster and by 1720, it had completely disappeared.

Summing Up

The Streltsy unit played a momentous role in Russian history. At first, they stood as Russia’s model military, with its organization, salary, and most importantly, weaponry. But with corruption and abuse, the Streltsy became politicize, which led them to be embroiled in bitter succession battles. Ultimately, their politicization led them to commit heinous crimes, which they paid later on. Their barbarism and their weakness to be neutral in politics scarred a boy that grew to become Peter the Great. Their actions contributed to the young Tsar’s opposition to old, conservative and traditional Russia. Eventually, Peter took retributions against the unit when they once again oppose the Tsar’s decision. This time, the Tsar weakened the unit and allowed it to slip into oblivion by 1720.

Explore also:

Dunning, C. A Short History of Russia's First Civil War: The Time of Troubles and Founding of the Romanov Dynasty. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University, 2004.

Filjushkin, Alexander. Ivan the Terrible: A Military History. Barnsley, S. Yorkshire: Pen and Sword Books, Ltd., 2008.
Freeze, G. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ralston, D. Importing the European Army: The Introduction of European Military Techniques and Institutions into the Extra-European World, 1600 - 1914. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Shpakovsky, V. & D. Nicole. Armies of Ivan the Terrible: Russian Troops, 1505 - 1700. New York: Osprey Publishing, 2006.

Thackery, F. & J. Findling (eds.). Events that Formed the Modern World: From European Renaissance to the War on Terror. California: ABC-CLIO LLC, 2012.

Wren, M. & T. Stults. The Course of Russian History. Oregon: Wipf and Stocks Publishers, 1994.

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