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The musketeers, or streltsy (literally "shooters"), were organized as part of Ivan IV's effort to reform Russia's military during the sixteenth century. In 1550 he recruited six companies of foot soldiers armed with firearms, organized into tactical units of five hundred, commanded and trained by officers from the nobility. These units were based from the beginning in towns, and eventually took on the character of garrison forces. Over time their numbers grew from three thousand in 1550 to fifty thousand in 1680.

Militarily, they were ineffectual, mainly because of their economic character. The musketeers were a hereditary class not subject to taxation, but to state service requirements, including battlefield service, escort, and guard duties. During the seventeenth century, the state provided them with grain and cash, but economic privileges, including permission to act as merchants, artisans, or farmers, became their principal support. One particular plum was permission to produce alcoholic beverages for their own consumption. They also bore civic duties (fire fighting and police) in the towns where they lived. Pursuing economic interests reduced their fighting edge.

Throughout the seventeenth century the musketeers proved to be fractious, regularly threatening, even killing, officers who mistreated them or represented modernizing elements within the military. By 1648 it was apparent that they were unreliable, especially when compared with the new-formation regiments appearing prior to the Thirteen Years War (16541667) under leadership of European mercenary officers. Rather than disband the musketeers entirely, the state made attempts to westernize them. Many units were placed under the command of foreigners and retrained. Administrative changes were made during and after the war, including placing certain units under the jurisdiction of the tsar's Privy Chancery, which appointed officers and collected operations reports. The Privy Chancery, and by extension, the tsar, was at the center of the attempt to transform the musketeers into more thoroughly trained western-style infantry.

Further pressure to reform included official neglect, even to the point of refusing to give the musketeers weapons. Later decrees (1681, 1682) replaced cash payments with grants of unsettled lands as compensation for service. This change in support reduced their status, without improving their overall military effectiveness, and the musketeers vehemently opposed it. By 1680, many regiments had been retrained and officered by foreigners, but the conservative musketeers were anxious to be rid of the hated foreigners and regain their eroded prestige. Thus, in 1682, they were willing to believe rumors that Tsar Fyodor Alexeyevich had been poisoned, and were anxious to punish those responsible with death.

Peter I's (the Great) reign was marred by an uprising in 1698 of military units stationed in Moscow called musketeers or streltsy (literally, "shooters"). The musketeers disliked the tsar's westernizing policies and governing style. Peter rejected traditional behaviors and practices, including standards of dress, grooming, comportment, and faith, but more importantly, he sought to reform Russia's military institutions, which threatened the musketeers' historical prerogatives.

Peter crushed the rebellion with great severity, executing nearly twelve hundred musketeers, and flogging and exiling another six hundred. The Moscow regiments were abolished and survivors sent to serve in provincial units, losing privileges, homes, and lands. They carried with them seeds of defiance that eventually bore fruit in Astrakhan in 17051706, and among the Cossacks in 17071708. Although the last Moscow regiments of musketeers disappeared before 1713, the musketeers continued to exist in the provinces until after Peter's death.

Peter's response to the 16981699 uprising may have arisen from his memories of the 1682 musketeer revolt. The musketeers suspected the Naryshkins (Peter's mother, Natalia's family) of having poisoned Tsar Fyodor and of planning to kill the Tsarevich Ivan, both sons of Tsar Alexei's first wife, Maria Miloslavskaya. The Miloslavskys encouraged these suspicions in order to use their regiments against the Naryshkins. On May 25, 1682, the musketeers attacked the Kremlin. Natalia Naryshkina showed Ivan and Peter to the rioting musketeers to prove they were still alive. Nonetheless, the rebellion was bloody, and the government was powerless because it had no forces capable of stopping the musketeers. From this rebellion came the joint reign of Ivan and Peter with their sister and half-sister, Sophia, who issued decrees in their names, and who was a favorite of the musketeers.

In 1698 the streltsy were unable to see that Peter I was implacable in his rejection of conservatism and that the musketeers represented for him a dangerous and disloyal element. In the final clash, the musketeers were unable to reshape their world, and eventually disappeared.

See also: fyodor alexeyevich; ivan iv; peter i; sophia; westernizers


Hellie, Richard. (1971). Enserfment and Military Change in Muscovy. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1990). Sophia, Regent of Russia 16571704. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hughes, Lindsey. (1998). Russia in the Age of Peter the Great. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

W. M. Reger IV