Posted by: internationalroutier | August 8, 2010

Russia’s Time of Troubles and the Battle of Klushino

,now with added Russian film festival invite on the bottom! Ed

Post by the Captayne, Andy Brew

Last month was the four hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kłuszin (Klushino), a rather spectacular victory for Poland (and especially for the winged hussars) over the combined forces of Russia and Sweden. The campaign of which it was a part came close to uniting all of Eastern Europe east of the river Oder under one ruler, and perhaps represents the high tide mark of the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Polish Background
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been formed in 1569 by the Union of Lublin, contracted between the Crown of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The two had been closely allied since the fourteenth century, but from this date they can be regarded as single nation, although there were some internal tensions. Lithuania brought with it a tradition of conflict to the East, as it and the rising power of Moscow squabbled for dominance over the lands previously overshadowed by the Mongol Golden Horde.

The kingship of the Commonwealth was elective. I will pass over its early years, but in 1587 parliament (the Seym) elected as king Prince Sigismund Vasa of Sweden. On his father’s death five years later he was offered the crown of Sweden also, subject to his promise to support Lutheranism there. He gave the promise, but Sigismund was himself a devoted servant of Rome, and a keen supporter of the counter-reformation. He ruled through his uncle Charles (brother of the late king John) as viceroy, remaining himself in Kraków. Despite (or because of) his absenteeism, the Lutheran Swedes came increasingly to distrust him. One thing led to another, and Sigusmund was formally deposed, in favour of Charles, in 1599. His refusal to accept his deposition led to war between the two branches of the house of Vasa (the Polish and the Swedish) for a further thirty years.

Russian Background
Meantime, Poland’s eastern neighbour was also in difficulties. Since 1550, the Tsardom of Rus, under the formidable leadership of Ivan IV (the Terrible) had pursued a series of wars, first against the Mongol khanates in its immediate neighbourhood, then against its Lithuanian neighbours to the west, which established Russia as a significant power. In 1598, though, Feodor Ivanovitch, the last Tsar of the traditional ruling house of Rurik, died. His chief minister, Boris Godunov, was elected Tsar, over the objections of the nobility. The succession might have passed to Feodor’s younger brother Dmitri, but that Dmitri had been sent into exile by Godunov many years earlier, and had been stabbed to death as a boy in 1591.

The Time of Troubles

Godunov’s reign was marked by famine, and by economic and social turmoil. Many Russians, especially of the nobility, were quick to accept the claim in 1603 of a young man who appeared in Poland. He claimed to be Dmitri Ivanovitch, not murdered after all, but returned from obscurity to claim his rightful throne. Although King Sigismund was not looking for trouble with Russia (hie already had his hands full with his native Sweden), Polish magnates supported the false Dmitri to the extent of invading Russia. In particular, Voivode Jerzy Mniszech supplied his daughter Marina to be Dmitri’s wife, in exchange for extensive Russian territory after the takeover. In June 1605, following Boris’ death from a stroke, Dmitri entered Moscow and was acclaimed as Tsar.

Dmitri did not last long. In May of 1608 he was joined by Marina. She was crowned as Tsarina, and her marriage to Dmitri confirmed, on 8 May. With Boris out of the way, the Russian nobles had no desire to allow a pretender with foreign support to rule them. On 17 May Dmitri was assassinated, and thousands of his supporters massacred. The plot was led by Rurikid prince Vasili Shuyskiy, who was in turn proclaimed Tsar by his supporters, Marina Mniszech was permitted to escape to Poland, after renouncing her Russian titles and claims.

In 1607, Dmitri re-appeared, again miraculously not murdered after all. He raised an army, and won the support of the same Polish magnates who had supported false Dmitri I. Summoned by her father, Marina Mniszech confirmed that he was the same man. Shuyskiy guarded himself in 1609 against this new threat by allying himself with Charles of Sweden, and ceded the county of Kexholm to Sweden in payment for services to be rendered.

The services came in the form of several thousand troops led by Count Jakob de la Gardie. These were largely mercenaries, including a number of Britons. I have been unable to discover just how many or who they were, but the famous Alexander Leslie was one. Count Jakob operated in support of Vasili’s cousin Mikhail Skopin-Shuyskiy, marching south from Novgorod to guard Moscow against the second Dmitri. By now, the war with Poland was official. Previously the threat had come from Polish magnates acting without the king’s authority, but Shuyskiy’s alliance with Sigismund’s enemy provoked him sufficiently to declare war. The king invaded Russia and besieged the city of Smolensk, while de la Gardie and Prince Mikhail’s faced Dmitri. Apparently no battle was necessary. The approach of the joint force was enough to drive Dmitri to flee from Tushino, near Moscow, where he had set up his alternative court, to Kostroma, where he was murdered in December by one of his erstwhile followers.

Prince Mikhail fared no better. Jealous of Mikhail’s successful campaign, his cousin had him poisoned in April 1610, and took over command of the army. This cousin is not Vasili Shuyskiy, temorarily Tsar in Moscow, but Vasili’s younger brother, confusingly also called Dmitri. With the the false Dmitri Ivanovitch taken care of, the joint Russian-Swedish army turned west in the spring of 1610 to relieve the siege of Smolensk.


Sigismund ordered Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski to deal with the relief force, and he marched to intercept it with a force variously quoted as four or six thousand men, mostly winged hussars with perhaps a single regiment of infantry and two guns. He was in any case hugely outnumbered. Shuyiskiy and de la Gardie between them had over 40,000 men (mostly Russians), but their quality was not of the best, and nor was co-ordination between the two commands. A dawn attack by the hussars had the Russians on the defensive from the beginning. They had the protection of a long and high hedge which the Poles had to break through. The hussars attacked again and again through gaps in the hedge, and eventually the Russian centre broke, along with the Swedish cavalry that had been sent to their aid. The Polish infantry and guns, arriving later than the cavalry, drove off the Swedish infantry, on the allied left. The hussars did terrible execution against the fleeing infantry in the ensuing pursuit back to the two fortified camps. The Swedes apparently maintained better order in the retreat, but both they and the Russians maintained enough integrity to defend their entrenched camps. They were not able, though, to re-unite or to push any further against the Poles. Żółkiewski was able to negotiate with the two camps separately. The Swedes surrendered, and having given their oaths not to take up arms against Poland, were permitted to return home. Shuyskiy’s Russians were able to slip away from the exhausted Poles, but had to abandon all of their guns.

The Aftermath
Żółkiewski advanced on Moscow, and Vasili was deposed. Żółkiewski made the proposal that Władisłav Vasa, Sigismund’s son, should become Tsar, leading on his succession to the crown of Poland to personal union between Poland and Russia. The proposal was accepted by the Russians, on condition that Władisłav did not attempt to impose Roman Catholicism, and the Poles entered the city on October 8th on that basis. Smolensk fell to the Poles in June 1611

Perhaps inevitably, the stiff-necked Sigismund Vasa would have none of such a deal. He preferred to become Tsar himself, and convert Russia to Catholicism. This was naturally not acceptable to to the Russians, nor to the Swedes, who found among themselves in Novgorod…. Dmitri Ivanovitch! False Dmitri III was even less convincing than his two predecessors, but he supplied a shadow of a pretext for continued involvement of the Swedes in Russian affairs. By October 1612 much of Russia was in insurrection against the Poles, and thousands were killed in riots in Moscow. In November the Poles were bloodily expelled from the city by Prince Dmitri (yes, yet another one) Pozharsky.

In February 1613, Mikhael Romanov was elected Tsar, and his descendants held the throne until 1917. One of his first acts in office was to find Marina Mniszech, and her young son by false Dmitri II, and have them killed.

Modern Celebrations of the Campaign
The battle was recently celebrated in a re-enactment near Warsaw, and pictures can be found here.

Imperial Russia celebrated 4 November as a “Day of National Unity” to celebrate the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612, marking the symbolic end of the Time of Troubles. The holiday was abandoned in 1917, but re-instituted in 2005. The battle of Kłuszin is not much celebrated in Russia.

from the editor
This is an excellent segue into a suggestion that we go to the Russian Resurection film festival in Sydney during August. There are 2 sessions of Tsar available 6.45pm 21 August or 8.45pm Tues 24th. Lots of other films too but that one the most relevant here I feel! Tickets are by presale and we shall need to act smartish (esp if we have the Sat night in our sights). Anyone keen? Leave a comment or email me.

…from the film festival website

Set in 16th Century Russia, Tsar looks at one dramatic year from Ivan the Terrible’s reign, and the confrontation between the Tsar and his close friend and head of the church, Filipp Kolychev. In a country riddled with riots and conspiracies to dethrone him, Ivan believes he is on a mission bestowed upon him by God: a mission to prepare the country for the end of the world. He establishes
absolute power and declares that “those who resist power resist God.” It is up to Filipp to stand up to Ivan and challenge this reign of terror. Tsar challenges the “Ivan as nation builder” mythos that was built up in Stalin’s reign and as a result has generated much debate not only about how we interpret History as a modern audience, but where we get our History from. Does it come from
a book, the web, or the silver screen. Lensed by Clint Eastwood’s cinematographer and included in the official selection of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, Tsar is a big budget Russian epic.



  1. The film sounds an excellent plan. Count Vic and me in, on either the Saturday or Tuesday.

  2. Andy, thats quite timely – are stalking me? I’m currently writing a history of (tentatively titled) The Horse & War, and had decided to include a chapter on the winged hussars. Thats all great stuff and I would love to know of a few favourite sources (not sauces) – on the winged hussars in general and on the battle of Klushino in particular. Each chapter has to focus on a battle – and of course this is a good one.
    The overall angle of the book is about psychology and speed as 2 critical elements of the long successes, and sometimes failures, of cavalry.
    I’d also be interested in yours or anyones erudite opinions on any other period. I’ve chosen several already, but am looking for the not-so-well-known angle of ‘engagements that really explain any particular given cavalry epoch’. Naseby is there of course.

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