Saturday, November 5, 2016


Along the road to Borodino Google Street View
Russia* has been invaded five times. Once from the East, four times from the West. None were ultimately successful, yet all had an enormous impact on the history of Russia and the Russian psyche.


They came from the North, navigating down the great river Volga to trade with the Slavic tribes in the region and to trade all the way down to Byzantium, the great city of Constantinople. They were known as the Varangians to the Slavs and to the eastern Greeks. We know them as the Vikings.

They settled along the trade routes, intermarrying with the locals. Who called themselves the Rus', their word for Ruthenia. Which is what they called the area around Kiev. Three great nations trace their lineage back to the dynasty established by Rurik, a legendary Varangian chieftain: Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.

The descendants of Rurik ruled Kievan Rus' until a new scourge arose far to the East.


They came from the steppes, from a land thousands of miles to the East. Small men on small horses, both supremely adapted to the harsh environment of their native land. They were the Mongols. The Golden Horde of Genghis, the Great Khan.
The Mongol Empire invaded Kievan Rus' in the 13th century, destroying numerous cities, including Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, Vladimir, and Kiev, part of the Mongol invasion of Europe. 
The campaign was heralded by the Battle of the Kalka River in April 1223, which resulted in a Mongol victory over the forces of several Rus' principalities. The Mongols nevertheless retreated. A full-scale invasion of Rus' by Batu Khan followed, from 1237 to 1240. The invasion was ended by the Mongol succession process upon the death of Ögedei Khan. All Rus' principalities were forced to submit to Mongol rule and became part of the Golden Horde empire, some of which lasted until 1480. 
The invasion, facilitated by the beginning breakup of Kievan Rus' in the 13th century, had incalculable ramifications for the history of Eastern Europe, including the division of the East Slavic people into three separate nations, modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and in the rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. (Source)
Eventually the ruler of Muscovy, Grand Prince Ivan III defeated the Mongols in 1480 at what is called the "Great Stand on the Ugra River." Legend has it that the Russians use of firearms were key in defeating the Mongols. For the Horde had no such weapons.


The Grand Duchy of Moscow grew over time, far differently though than Western Europe. The differences were not just in language, but in customs and religion. But a great state was about to be born.

Moscow in the 14th Century was little more than a log fort. (Source)
In 1721, a new Tsar came to the throne. A dynamic man with an interest in seemingly everything, but especially Western things. His name was Peter.

Peter I of Russia also known as Peter the Great. (Source)

As Tsar Peter strove to bring Russia into the modern world, a great military power in the North turned its thoughts and ambitions towards Peter's Russia. Sweden, in those days a military power of some renown, was ruled by an extremely capable young king, Charles XII. He was ambitious and a talented soldier as well. The third invasion of Russia began...
In 1700, a triple alliance of Denmark–Norway, Saxony–Poland–Lithuania and Russia launched a threefold attack on the Swedish protectorate of Swedish Holstein-Gottorp and provinces of Livonia and Ingria, aiming to draw advantage as Sweden was unaligned and ruled by a young and inexperienced king, thus initiating the Great Northern War. Leading the Swedish army against the alliance Charles won multiple victories despite being usually significantly outnumbered. A major victory over a Russian army some three times the size in 1700 at the Battle of Narva compelled Peter the Great to sue for peace which Charles then rejected. By 1706 Charles, now 24 years old, had forced all of his foes into submission including, in that year, a decisively devastating victory by Swedish forces under general Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld over a combined army of Saxony and Russia at the Battle of Fraustadt. Russia was now the sole remaining hostile power.

Charles' subsequent march on Moscow met with initial success as victory followed victory, the most significant of which was the Battle of Holowczyn where the smaller Swedish army routed a Russian army twice the size. The campaign ended with disaster when the Swedish army suffered heavy losses to a Russian force more than twice its size at Poltava, Charles had been incapacitated by a wound prior to the battle rendering him unable to take command. The defeat was followed by Surrender at Perevolochna. Charles spent the following years in exile in the Ottoman Empire before returning to lead an assault on Norway, trying to evict the Danish king from the war once more in order to aim all his forces at the Russians. Two campaigns met with frustration and ultimate failure, concluding with his death at the Siege of Fredriksten in 1718. At the time, most of the Swedish Empire was under foreign military occupation, though Sweden itself was still free. This situation was later formalized, albeit moderated in the subsequent Treaty of Nystad. The close would see not only the end of the Swedish Empire but also of its effectively organized absolute monarchy and war machine, commencing a parliamentarian government unique for continental Europe, which would last for half a century until royal autocracy was restored by Gustav III. (Source)
The Battle of Poltava (Source)

The Battle of Poltava (which few westerners know of) was a brilliant victory for Tsar Peter. It crushed the Swedish King's ambitions, he would spend a long exile in the Ottoman Empire before returning home to Sweden. Leading another army into the field, Charles XII was killed in action in 1718.

Russia would not be troubled by the West for nearly a hundred years.


It was not a French Army which the Emperor Napoléon led into Russia, it was a European Army. There were Frenchmen yes, but there were also Poles, Germans, Prussians, Danes, Italians, Neapolitans, Austrians, and even Spaniards. It numbered upwards of 650,000 men.

The army of Napoléon crosses the Nieman River, beginning the invasion of Russia in 1812. (Source)
The Russian Army fell back into the vastness of Russia, avoiding battle. Whether through intent or just bad generalship, historians disagree. But Napoléon's forces were already beginning to suffer without combat.

The weather was hot that summer. Thousands of horses died through neglect, lack of fodder, and Murat's seemingly insane need to dash off after every sighting of Cossacks. The men were falling by the wayside as well. The logistics of supplying an army in Russia are extremely daunting. With bad roads and only horse drawn wagons to rely on, the task was even beyond Napoléon's genius.

Finally, not far from Moscow, on the high road from Smolensk, the Russian Army, now under Kutusov, made a stand along the Moskova River. The battle was a bloodbath, a slugging match. Upwards of 300,000 combatants struggled an entire day, neither side yielding an inch.

Battle of Borodino (Source)

At the end of the day, nearly 100,000 men lay dead or wounded on the field. Feeling that he had done his job, believing he had won a victory, Kutusov drew back from the field. The Russians were battered and exhausted. Memories of Austerlitz surely haunted many a man that day. But they had stood their ground against the hated Bonaparte. They did not feel like a defeated army.

Napoléon drove his battered forces on to Moscow. Seizing the city, Napoléon sent emissaries to the Tsar in St. Petersburg, demanding that the Russians surrender. The Tsar remained silent, another Russian "general" would soon come to his aid.

General Winter.

As the Emperor waited for the Tsar's reply,  Moscow burned, the weather turned cold, the army looked nervously to the West, surely the Emperor didn't plan on staying in Russia for the winter?

He did not. As the weather continued to get colder, the orders went out. Withdraw.

The retreat was a disaster. Though Napoléon's army suffered horribly, so did the Russian. Their pursuit was not as aggressive as it could have been, they were having trouble supplying their own men and keeping them alive in the bitter ice and snow of a Russian winter.

Of the 650,000 men who went into Russia, less than 100,000 came out. The rest were dead or being marched East. To Siberia.

Night bivouac of the Grande Armée (Source)

Legend says that Marshal Ney, Le Rougeaud, was the last man out of Russia, valiantly leading the rear guard, he turned and fired a last musket shot at the pursuing Cossacks. The fourth invasion of Russia was over.

The end of the retreat, Marshal Ney and the rear guard. (Source)


The waiting German infantry watched as the last Soviet train carrying grain rumbled past, heading West to Germany. All part and parcel of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Moments later the western horizon lit up as the lanyards of hundreds of German artillery pieces were pulled.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union had begun.

This time the Russian Army stood and fought, and were slaughtered in their thousands. The Germans didn't bother building camps for the hundreds of thousands of prisoners they took. A barbed wire pen out on the steppe was good enough.

The German tanks rolled East, driving the "red hordes" before them. Here and there, Russians stood their ground. All for nothing, the diving Stukas, the roaring artillery and the clattering tracks of the panzers sealed their doom. Moscow was paralyzed with indecision, no one knew what to do, and Stalin, shocked, was incommunicado.

All through the summer and into the late fall, the Wehrmacht drove East. Kiev fell, Leningrad (the old St. Petersburg) was surrounded. German reconnaissance patrols could make out the spires of the Kremlin in their binoculars. Why won't the Soviets surrender? Don't they know when they're defeated?

No, they don't. Russians don't go down easily. As one French soldier in Napoléon's time put it, "The average Russian soldier is stubborn, even when you kill him he won't go down, you have to push him over!"

Hitler, in his arrogance, hadn't supplied his army with proper winter clothing. November was upon the Germans, they shivered in their thin summer uniforms as the temperature dropped lower and lower. Men began to be hospitalized with frostbite. The invasion was stalled.

Then one morning, out of the mist, new divisions shipped west from Siberia broke over the German lines. Reeling, they fell back, surrounded in some areas the Germans fought desperately. For once Hitler's seemingly insane orders to not give up one inch of Russian ground worked. The freezing Germans dug in, the Russian winter offensive was stopped.

The next summer the Russians' nightmare began anew. Again German troops were driving East, towards the Volga. The more prescient amongst the Russian officers might have noticed that the Germans were not driving along the entire 1,000 mile front, only in the south were the panzers attacking.

But again thousands of Russians fell or were herded into the POW pens. The Germans reached the Volga north and south of Stalingrad. The city was in danger.

But again the simple Russian soldier stood his ground (I should say "her" as well, Russian women served, some were superb snipers, other flew against the Luftwaffe, the entire nation was at war). The Germans were stopped cold, eventually, again out of the snow, Russian armies advanced against weaker German allies guarding the flanks.

The Soviets cut through the Italians and the Romanians as if they were not even there. Soon an entire German army, the 6th under von Paulus, was surrounded in the city and its environs, they didn't even hold the entire city. The Russian 62nd Army under Chuikov held a bridgehead on the western bank of the Volga River. Held it at all costs. The cost was great indeed.


The war in Russia lasted from the 22nd of June 1941 until Berlin fell on the 8th of May, 1945. Millions died. The Russians suffered greatly, but they survived.

They also survived Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and a host of other Communist monsters and bureaucrats. For that is what Russians do.

They survive.

They endure.

A great people, not to be taken lightly.

*Россия, romanized as "Rossiya", which is also close to the pronunciation of the word.


  1. This is most certainly true. You do have a talent for writing.

  2. "A great people, not to be taken lightly."

    "На здоровье"

  3. A stolid, stoic, yet passionate, people. The west will never really understand them.

  4. With seemingly clock-punch regularity Russia was invaded from the West, almost every century... 1610 Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, 1709 Swedes, 1812 French et consortes, 1914 Germans (and round 2 in 1941). No wonder they are slightly paronoic...
    On the other hand, whenever not being ivaded, Russians busied themselves expanding to gain "buffer" to soak inevitable next invasion. This of course set them on a collision course with any nations they happened to conquer, Poles and Finns, and Ukrainians being prime examples. In the end this resulted in the joke of Soviet Union being the only country on Earth completely surrounded by HOSTILE communist staes. In the course of 1700-today there were 2 major "empure falls", namely 1917 and 1989-91. Both resulted in retrenchment, and preparation for another phase of expansion. STRATFOR has excellent free article on that cycle if anyone bothers to seek it out as free sample...

    1. Some excellent points Paweł. You Poles know the Russians very well. They are not the best of neighbors.

  5. Anyone who invades Russia is clearly not sane. The same can be said about China.

    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Two strategic points every Western politician needs drummed into their head:
      1) Don't invade Russia, it never ends well.
      2) Don't get involved in a land war in Asia.

  6. Russia's saving grace has always been its size. Being able to trade land for time, to play the long game, is something most western European states have never been truly able to do. Rather, it forced the westerners to focus on sharp violence, which worked and works on other western states but, of course, not on Russia (or China, or India either.)

    Sad to say, you can even see it in their criminal element. They are willing to play the long game (my people will prevail while I languish in prison for life) much more than western gangs. Only some of the southern Hispanic gangs even approach the Russian gang concept, and only in Southwest USA. Russian gangs everywhere in the world play for time and keeps, giving up short-term gains for long-term profits.

    As to poor Poland, land of some of the best and most courageous fighters in the last two millenia, to be stuck as a freeway between the west and the east. Few remember the saviors of Vienna were the Poles, most only think of Pollack jokes.

    1. The Poles have always been favorites of mine. Saviors of Vienna indeed, John III Sobieski was a badass king.

      Not to mention their long standing ties with France.

  7. Excellent history lesson. Like most Americans I've only known bits and pieces of Russian history
    previous to WWII.

    1. I've been guilty of that, I'm trying to expand my horizons. Good glimpse of Russia in WWII, read Ivan's War by Catherine Merridale. Really interesting and shows the stolid character of the Russians.

  8. One quibble. There are many different peoples in Russia. Once did a bit of business with a Siberian who was very offended when someone called him a Russian.

    1. There were many different peoples in the Soviet Union true. But in Russia proper (doesn't include Siberia) those of Russian stock predominate. Siberians are a different breed altogether, it's all those miles of forest and taiga. Bugs in the summer, snow and ice in the winter. A beautiful country, I flew over it once. That took quite a while.

      My post was about Russia proper, not the Soviet or Russian Empire.

    2. "I flew over it once"
      Story there!

    3. :)

      Not really. Flew from Frankfurt am Main to Seoul on vacation in 1995. There is a story but it's pretty mundane.


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