Crimean-Nogai raids into East Slavic lands

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The Crimean-Nogai raids were attacks by the Khanate of Crimea and the Nogai Horde into the region of Rus' then controlled earlier by the Grand Duchy of Moscow and later Tsardom of Russia and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (later part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth). They began after Crimea became independent about 1441 and lasted until Crimea was brought under Russian control in 1774. Their main purpose was the capture of slaves, most of whom were exported to the Ottoman Empire. The raids were an important drain of the human and economic resources of both countries. They largely prevented the settlement of the "Wild Fields" – the steppe and forest-steppe land that extends from a hundred or so miles south of Moscow to the Black Sea and now contains most of the Russian and Ukrainian population. The raids were also important in the development of the Cossacks.

The number of people involved can only be estimated. According to Alan Fisher[1] the number of people deported from the Slavic lands on both sides of the border during the 14th to 17th centuries was about 3 million people. Another source[2] gives 150,000–200,000 people taken from Russia in the first 50 years of the 17th century. For comparison the estimate for the Atlantic Slave Trade is perhaps 12 million. The estimate for the Arab slave trade with Africa is around 10 to 18 million over a much longer period.


Economic factors[edit]

Most of the raids fell on Russia and Ukraine – lands then divided between Muscovy and Lithuania, although some fell on Moldavia and Circassia. A considerable part of the male population of Crimea took part in these campaigns.

The main economic goal of the raids was booty, some of it material, but most of it human. These human trade goods were mostly sold on to the Ottoman Empire, although some remained in Crimea. The main slave market was Caffa which after 1475 was part of the coastal strip of Crimea that belonged to the Ottomans.

Political factors[edit]

Crimean Khanate about 1600. Note that the areas marked Poland and especially Muscovy were claimed rather than administered and were thinly populated

The Crimean Khanate broke off from the Golden Horde in 1441. When the Horde came to an end in 1502 the buffer between Crimea and its northern neighbors disappeared. The Khans took advantage of the conflicts between Lithuania and Moscow, allying now with one, now with the other and using the alliance with one as a justification to attack the other. During the Russo-Lithuanian War of 1500–1506 the Crimeans were allied with Russia and penetrated deep into Lithuania. Relations soon deteriorated. Near continuous raids on Muscovy began in 1507.


The theater of war[edit]

At the beginning of our period, between the Crimean Khanate and the Duchy of Moscow was almost 700 miles of thinly peopled grassland, the so-called Wild Fields (dikoye pole). The Oka River 40 miles south of Moscow was both the principal and last line of defense. It was guarded by the Beregovaya Sluzhba ("river-bank service"). This continued to exist even after the construction of the Belgorod Line far to the south. Its troops rarely crossed the Oka, even when there were massive Tatar attacks on the fortresses to the south.

Between Muscovy and Crimea there were three main trails. To avoid fords they generally followed the high ground between one river basin and another.[3]

  • The Muravsky Trail was the western route. It began at the headwaters of the Samara River (Dnieper) and tended north–northwest across tributaries Seversky Donets River. It then crossed to the watershed of the Vorskla River to the east of the Belgorod area. In the steppe north of Belgorod, at the sources of the Donets, Pel and Donetz-Seymitsa there is a place called Dumchy Kurgan. Here the trail split. The main branch went northeast and at the headwaters of the Seym River joined the Izyumsky Trail. To the west the Bekaev Trail went between the Seym River and the Psyol River and the Pakhnutsky Trail went northwest to the upper reaches of the Oka River.
  • The Izyumsky Trail, like the Muravsky Trail, started at the upper reaches to the Samara but went directly north to Izyum-kurgan where the Tatars crossed the Donets. It then passed west of Oskol River and at the headwaters of the Wolf River and the Nezhegol River there was a branch to the east which led to the Oskol Basin and the Kalmius Trail. Continuing further between the Korocha River and the upper right tributaries of the Oskol the Izyumsky Trail connected to the Muravsky Trail at the sources of the Seym River. The villages of the Belgorod District were to the west and those of the Oscol District were to the east. North of the junction the trail led north and crossed to the basin of the Bystraya Sosna River. Having crossed this river the Tatars could turn to the Zusha River – a tributary of the Oka – and the Novosil, Mtsensk and Chernsky districts, or cross to the upper reaches of the Mecha River and the villages around Tula.
  • The Kalmius Trail began east of the other two at the upper Kalmius River north of the Sea of Azov. The Tatars crossed the Donets River west of Aidar and headed the north between the Oskol River and the Aidar River passing east of Valuyki. They usually crossed the Tikhaya Sosna River at Stone Ford, but there were other crossings. Further north Trail forded the Bystraya Sosna River.

In addition to these three steppe trails there were others, usually connected to the main three. The Savinsky Trail crossed the Donets above Izyum-Kurgan and connected with the Izyumsky Trail. East of the three main trails was the Nogai Trail which was used by the independent Nogais who lived in the Caspian and Kuban region. It crossed the upper Bityug River between Voronezh and the Tsna River. All to the Tatar invasion routes tended to follow the high and dry lands between river basins to avoid river crossings, swamps and forests. The raiding parties were always accompanied by guides who knew the steppe country, the easiest fords and best camping places.


Crimean Tatar Warrior

According to Giles Fletcher (the elder) the Tatars would split into several groups, attack one or two places on the border and then direct their main attack to another place that had been left undefended. They fought in small groups. They would sometimes mount straw dummies on their spare horses to make themselves appear more numerous. According to Jacques Margeret 20,000–30,000 Tatar horsemen would attack the main Russian force while other troops would devastate the Russian lands and return without suffering much damage. They deliberately spread false rumors about their strength and plans. The French engineer Beauplan, who had participated in the war against them, gave a good description of Tatar tactics in the 1630s and 1640s in what is now Ukraine. He said that the Tatars looked oriental and could be easily distinguished form the Russians and Poles. A Tatar horseman was armed with a saber, bow and quiver with 18–20 arrows. On his belt was a knife, an awl and an flint for making fires. He also carried 10 or 12 yards of rope to tie up prisoners. They were skilled horsemen and each man usually had two spare horses. When crossing a river they loaded their clothing and equipment on a light raft, tied it to a horse and crossed the river swimming, holding on to the horse's mane. Both large and small groups raided in summer. Winter raids were rare, but always involved large numbers of warriors. When they reached a populated area groups of several hundred split off from the main body. These spread out through the countryside and surrounded villages. So that no one would escape at night they lit large fires. They then robbed, burned and slaughtered and carried away not only men, women and children, but bulls, cows, goats and sheep.

The fate of the captives[edit]

On the steppe[edit]

The condition of the captives as they were being carried to the Crimea was very difficult. Held in bondage, divided into small groups, hands tied behind their backs with rawhide straps, tied to wooden poles with ropes around their necks. held at the end of a rope, surrounded by and tied to horsemen, they were driven by whips across the steppe without stopping. The weak and infirm often had their throats cut so they would not delay the march. They were often fed the meat of worn-out horses. Reaching the lower Dnieper where they were relatively safe from Cossacks, the Tatars let their horses graze freely while they set about dividing the captives each of whom had been marked with a hot iron. Having received their slaves as inalienable property each Tatar could do with them as he wished. According to Sigismund von Herberstein, "the old and infirm, who were not worth much money, were given to the Tatar youths like rabbits to hunting dogs for their first military practice and were either stoned to death, or thrown into the sea or killed in some other way."

Here are the words of Duke Antoine de Gramont who was with the Polish-Tatar army during the campaign of King John Casimir on the Left Bank Ukraine in 1663–1664 when, according to him, about 20,000 were captured. "The Tatars slit the throats of all men over 60 years old who were thought to be incapable of work, forty-year-olds were saved for the galleys, young boys for their pleasure and girls and women to continue their kind and then later to be sold. The prisoners were divided equally and lots were cast according to age so that no one could complain that he had gotten more old ones than young. To their credit I must say that they were not stingy with their booty and with extreme politeness offered it to all who came their way."

In Crimea and Turkey[edit]

In Crimea they were driven to the slave market and placed in single file, bound together by the neck. The buyers carefully inspected the slaves, starting with their exterior appearance and ending with intimate parts of their bodies, to be sure that there were no missing or blackened teeth, warts, bumps or other imperfections. Beautiful girls were especially valued.

The main slave market was at Caffa which after 1475 belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The town had artillery and a strong garrison of Janissaries. Besides Caffa, slaves were sold in Karasubazar, Tuzleri, Bakhchysarai and Khazleve. Slave dealers came from various backgrounds: Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and others. For the right to trade they paid tax to the Crimean Khan and Turkish Pasha. In Caffa there were sometimes as many as 30,000 slaves, mostly from Muscovy and the southeastern lands of the Commonwealth. Ruthenian slaves were slightly more valuable than those from Muscovy since the latter were considered treacherous and likely to run away. Michalon Litvin described Caffa as "an insatiable and lawless abyss, drinking our blood." Besides the bad food, water, clothing and shelter, they were subjected to exhausting labor and abuse. According to Litvin "the stronger slaves were castrated, others had their noses and ears slit and were branded on the forehead or cheek. By day they were tormented with forced labor and at night kept in dungeons."

Once sold they were transported to distant provinces – Greece, Turkey, Palestine Syria, and Anatolia. On the way they had to endure torment: often a ship was so overcrowded that they could neither move nor lie down on the deck. They ate and slept standing up. Under such conditions large numbers grew sick and died, the latter being thrown into the sea.

Men were often sent to the Turkish galleys where they were worked to exhaustion chained to the benches. One galley slave who managed to escape was Ivan Bolotnikov who later led a Cossack uprising. According to the Greeks, during the Ottoman epoch three or four ships arrived at Constantinople every day loaded with Russian slaves. A significant number were sent to Anatolia for agricultural work. Female captives were sent to rich homes for carnal pleasure and harems, while the less beautiful were assigned domestic work. The Venetian monk Giovanni Carraro wrote that in Constantinople there was little demand for hired servants since the place was full of Ruthenian and Russian slaves. Perhaps the most famous of these was the sultan's wife Roxelana. Michalon Litvin wrote "All of them, that is the eastern peoples, eagerly seek wives among the Slavonic captives. The current sultan's favorite wife and the mother of his son and heir was abducted from our land. The Perekop Khan, Sahib-Giray, was born a Christian and is married to a Christian. The ministers of these tyrants, their eunuchs, secretaries and other officials and their special troops, who are called Janissaries – all have come from our blood."

Despite the large number of slaves sent to Asia Minor, there was no shortage of them in Crimea. Many slaves were used for domestic work, the digging of wells, the production of salt and the gathering of dung on the steppe. The women were concubines and also performed household chores, yarn-making and the care of children and domestic animals.

Resistance to the raids[edit]


The Abatis Line

In addition to simple self-defense, the Russians slowly pushed a line of forts and walls southward, behind which grew an increasing peasant population, until, after 250 years, the Crimea was overwhelmed. See Zasechnaya cherta, Don Cossacks, Expansion of Russia 1500–1800


In the early 1550s Dmytro Vyshnevetsky, a Ruthenian noble and Cossack hetman began building forts at the mouth of the Dnieper, to close the trail from Crimea to Ukraine and Poland. 'On the island of Khortytsya near Konskaya Boda and the Crimean nomads' a fortress was built, which gave rise to the Zaporizhian Sich composed of Cossacks living on the lower Dnieper beyond the rapids. Polish King Sigismund II Augustus assigned Vishnevetsky the duty of protecting the Polish and Ukrainian borderlands from Crimean Tatar raids. Polish resistance might have become significant, but it was vitiated by the Khmelnitsky Uprising and The Ruin (Ukrainian history).

In folk culture[edit]

The numerous raids and abduction of captives left a deep imprint on popular culture. In Ukrainian ballads and tales, one of the main themes is Turkish slavery ("Slaves", "Slave's Lament", "Marusya Bohuslavka", "Ivan Boguslavets ","Falcon", "Flight of the Three Brothers from Azov") or the release from bondage and safe return to the homeland ("Samoylo the Cat", "Alexey Popovich", "Ataman Matyas the Old", "The Dnieper Talks to the Danube").

Historians on the Tatar raids[edit]

Vasily Klyuchevsky : "During the 16th century, year after year, thousands of people on the borderland vanished from their fatherland, and tens of thousands of the best people in the country set off for the southern border to protect the inhabitants of the central provinces from captivity and ruin. If you consider how much time and spiritual and material strength was wasted in the monotonous, brutal, toilsome and painful pursuit of these wily steppe predators, one need not ask what people in Eastern Europe were doing while those of Western Europe advanced in industry and commerce, in civil life and in the arts and sciences."

List of raids[edit]


  • This is a translation of the corresponding article in the Russian Wikipedia as of 16 April 2013, with a few changes.
  • The best book in English is probably: Brian L. Davies, "Warfare, State and Society on the Black Sea Steppe 1500–1700", 2007.
  • Michael Khodarkovsky, "Russia's Steppe Frontier", 2002 – it is somewhat better on the steppe peoples caught between Russia and Crimea.


  1. ^ Alan Fisher "Muscovy and the Black Sea Slave Trade", Canadian American Slavic Studies, 1972, Vol. 6, pp. 575–594.
  2. ^ Michael Khodarkovsky,"Russia's Steppe Frontier, p. 22
  3. ^ A slightly different account of the three trails is given in the Muravsky Trail article