Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Military Paper Award


Regimental Organization

Organization of Regular Forces

Organization of Irregular Forces


The Development of the Russian Inspectorate, 1762-1806:

Part I: Organization of the Forces

By Robert Goetz

Regimental Organization

Regimental organization and administration in the Russian army, which remained relatively constant from the middle of the eighteenth century through the Napoleonic wars, formed the underlying infrastructure for the Inspectorate.  The creation of higher administrative units and the imposition of supervisory structures in the regular army in the second half of the eighteenth century only imposed layers on top of the fundamental regimental system.  Irregular forces played an important supporting role in the formation of higher administrative units by fulfilling a special defensive role on the sparsely populated southern and eastern frontiers.  These forces remained outside the divisions/inspections but formed a key component in the overall war-readiness of the Russian army.

Organization of Regular Forces

As was the case with other eighteenth century armies, the administrative system of the Russian military was separate from the operational structure.  Prior to 1806, the highest permanent unit of organization was the regiment.  Regiments originally were recruited in specific districts and took the name of that district (except for a brief period during the reign of Paul where they took the name of their colonel according to the Prussian model).  Most regiments were recruited from Great Russia where the population density was highest and the homogeneous ethnicity and long-established governmental control provided stability.  As Russia expanded, the former frontier regions experienced heavier recruiting, particularly in the Baltic provinces and Belorus.  Although the regiments originally had a regional composition, over the course of the eighteenth century recruits were increasingly collected at “processing” centers and distributed to the regiments without regard to the geographic origins of the recruits.  Thus while the regiments carried regional names, they had largely lost their regional character by the time of Catherine.[3]

A confused conglomeration of civil-military personnel handled the administration of the army.  Provincial governors (Gubernatory) were appointed by the Tsar, and possessed both civil and military authority in their district or Guberniya.  Beneath the Gubernatory were the Ober-Komissar managing revenues, the Ober-Proviant managing deliveries in kind, the Ober-Komandant managing military affairs and the Landrikhter managing affairs of justice.  The civil authorities were responsible for seeing that the men received billets and provisions.  In exchange, the soldiers assisted the peasants on whom they were billeted with routine farm labor when they were not on campaign or involved in the annual summer exercises.[4]

Beneath this bureaucracy were the individual regiments.  Each company was assigned to several villages or hamlets, which can be termed “cantons”, although the Russian structure differed from the Prussian and Swedish canton systems that this term typically describes.[5]  Regiments stationed in or near cities might actually have had barracks of a sort, although these seem to have been little more than large collective hovels that promoted the spread of disease among the men.  In theory, each regiment was assigned the revenues collected from one dolya, a theoretical subdivision of a province that originally was based on 5536 households.  Obviously the number of households changed over time, but the practice of localities supporting regiments, regardless of their actual location was continued.[6] Regiments seem to have been shifted around to different cantons over time for reasons practical or arbitrary - most likely reflecting the political influence (or lack thereof) of the colonels in getting choice cantons as much as the Russia’s shifting frontiers and military requirements.[7] 

Each colonel had full authority for maintaining his regiment, creating two authorities in the provinces – one civil and one military.  Because the military authority had precedence, the colonels of the regiments possessed nearly absolute power in their localities.  Additionally, because there was only loose central administrative control, colonels were left to supply and equip their regiments as they saw fit, and as a result the funds used to “purchase” military equipment and supplies frequently found their way into the colonels’ pockets.  Often uniforms, weapons, ammunition and even the number of soldiers in the regiment were not maintained at the required levels, requiring some scrambling to make up the shortfall when the regiment was mobilized.  A different form of abuse came in the form of using soldiers as a labor force for the colonels’ estates or factories or to hire them out to others.  While the canton system in Prussia had allowed the soldiers to earn extra money and to augment the local labor force, the practice in Russia was for the colonel to pocket the pay earned, a concept that was undoubtedly an offshoot of the serf culture of Russia.[8] 

While peacetime administration of the regiments was handled reasonably well under the old regimental structure, in time of war the enormous distances between the more populous regions of Russia where many regiments were billeted and the frontiers created problems.  Mobilization was a time-consuming process that required long marches from regimental cantons to designated assembly points within Russia, and then equally long marches to the front.  For example, Suvorov’s Suzdal regiment was ordered to Smolensk in November 1768 to participate in the spring campaign in Poland, a march that was expected to take at least two months.  Although Suvorov managed it in half the time allotted, this provides a good indication of the speed at which mobilization could be expected:  up to 60 days to concentrate at the designated point within the frontiers and 30 days and more to march beyond them.[9]  While the presence of irregular forces on the southern and eastern frontiers provided an measure of security that allowed time for mobilization of the regular army units, the western and northern frontiers were particularly vulnerable.

Organization of Irregular Forces

In the south a different method for rapid mobilization and defense was adopted.  The southern frontier was characterized by wide-open steppe and was sparsely populated.  In this great plain, the task of supplying a regular army was difficult.  As a result, irregular forces provided a two-tier defense for the southern frontier.  In the more secure inner ring on the southern fringe of Great Russia, a Ukrainian Land Militia was established to provide a rapid-reaction force.  The original land militia was concentrated in an arc through what would become the gubernii (plural of guberniya) of Orel, Kursk, Voronezh and Tambov.  As the frontier shifted southwards, these regiments were absorbed into the regular army after 1763 and new militia settlements formed around Elisabetgrad and Ekaterinoslav in New Russia.  The land militia was comprised of armed peasants who received land from the state (freeholdings) in exchange for military obligations.  This produced a society of farmer-soldiers who, in the event of a Turkish or Tartar raid, would be able to assemble and provide some means of defense.  These settlements were organized into “campaign battalions” starting in 1775, an organization paralleling the similar organization of the Austrian Grenz regiments.  In the event of an actual war with the Turks these forces would form an auxiliary force to support the regular army that would march from the more heavily populated and richer provinces to the immediate north.[10] 

The defense of the outer ring was entrusted to the Cossacks.  Cossacks fell into two general types: the “settled” Cossacks, which included those attached to military garrisons (Gorodovye Cossacks), and those receiving land grants (Slobod Cossacks); and the “free” or “unrestricted” Cossack armies or “hordes.”  In the Ukraine, Cossacks were more settled and had formal regiments taking the name of their main villages.  In exchange for their military service, the Cossacks received free holdings giving them considerable autonomy in a land characterized by noble landholders and serfs.  These were grouped into the Little Russian Cossacks in the region that would become Chernigov and Poltava gubernii and the Ukrainian Slobod Cossacks located in the region that would become Kharkov gubernia.  Other Cossack regiments were composed of ethnic Russians or from the garrisons of fortresses.  Thus the Azov, Astrakhan, Bakhmout and Tchougouiev Cossacks came into being, forming a string of settlements stretching south from Great Russia to Azov.  Beyond this inner ring of “settled” Cossacks were the great Cossack hordes comprised of the nomadic indigenous population of the region.  The Cossack population was offered incentives, particularly land grants and allowances for considerable autonomy, to make them loyal to the Tsar.  The main groups were the Zaporogian Cossacks in the Dnieper region, the Don Cossacks, and the Volga Cossacks.  Smaller Cossack armies, more or less “settled,” lined the frontiers, including several different groups in the Caucasus, and the Orenburg, Iaik (Ural) and Siberian Cossacks stretching across the central Asian frontier. [11]

As the frontier was pressed southward, the “settled” Cossacks were absorbed into the regular army and “free” Cossacks displaced to the new frontier.  The Slobod Cossacks were formed into regiments of the regular army as hussar or uhlan regiments in 1765, the Cossacks of Little Russia following suit in 1783 as a part of the broader military reorganization of the 1780s.  The troublesome Zaporogs (also called Circassians) were disarmed in 1775 and the Tchougouiev Cossacks resettled in their place in 1787, with the remnants of the Zaparogs being transported to the Kuban in 1788-90 to form the “Black Sea Cossack Army”.  With the acquisition of the area between the Bug and Dniester after 1774, a Bug Cossack army was formed to create a new buffer on the new frontier.  Thus while the settled Cossacks were regularized (except for a few scattered regiments that retained Cossacks status despite a formalized regimental structure), the other Cossacks were pushed towards the new frontiers to remain the outer defensive ring in the south, reflecting the changing nature of the population as the frontier shifted.  With the relative stabilization of Russia’s frontiers by 1796, the Cossack organization stabilized as well, although isolated Cossack regiments were periodically raised and disbanded to serve local needs.[12]






[3] Keep, J. L. H. Soldiers of the Tsar Oxford, 1985; pp. 148, 192.

[4] Ibid; pp. 129-30.

[5] The Prussian and Swedish cantons provided districts for recruiting as well as supply and maintenance of the regiments.  Russian practice in the later 18th century made separate arrangements for recruiting as noted.

[6] For example, in 1762 the regiment originally raised in Suzdal was billeted in villages and barracks on the shores of Lake Ladoga near St. Petersburg and may have collected revenues from a dolya unrelated to either the Ladoga region or Suzdal.  Longworth, P. The Art of Victory New York; 1966; pp. 30-1.

[7] Keep; pp. 129-31; 190-2.

[8] Keep; pp. 176-8; Duffy. Russia’s Military Way pp. 148-51.

[9] Longworth; pp. 45-6.

[10] Keep; pp. 276-8; Nafziger, G.The Imperial Russian Army Vol. I Pisgah, Ohio; 1996. pp. 60-1.

[11] Duffy; pp. 157-60; Nafziger; Vol. II, pp. 45-6; See Velikanov for a description of the origins of the various Cossack groups.

[12] Duffy; pp. 157-60; Nafziger; Vol. II, pp. 45-6.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: December, 2001


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