The art of battle takes a special place in every country’s culture. Often it involves peculiar rituals that were believed to bring luck, strength and victory to the army. Many different nations fought among Russian soldiers, each bringing their own traditions to the battlefield. Lets have a look at some of the most fascinating of them.
In ancient times, every Slavic man was seen as a future hunter and warrior. When a boy was born, an umbilical cord was cut by the sharp arrowhead signifying his fate. A great deal of attention went to training of young men. A solider was supposed to be proficient in all kinds of martial arts and be skilled with many different weapons. For this reason the puberty rites involved several stages of various tests to check the physical and psychological endurance. One of the stages was a trial of three elements.
To conquer fire a young man was supposed to walk on burning coals, to tame water he must have proven his ability to swim long distances and hold his breath underwater. To pass the last examination, the trial by earth, a future warrior was laid in a grave-like hole and covered with branches. One was expected to spend there at least 24 hours without any food and water. If all the tests were passed, a priest conducted the final ceremony of initiation, giving a man a new name to indicate the beginning of his life as a warrior and as an adult.
In certain Slavic tribes initiation also included a ritual of rebirth in one’s own totem animal such as wolf, bear, lynx, etc. After choosing their animal, young men were to adopt their characteristic manners and behavior to later use the strength of their totem on the battlefield.
Slavic warriors of the past, when facing a particularly dangerous fiend, often came out to the combat without the upper part of their clothing. Usually it happened when the soldiers knew that surrender would not be an option. This tradition is closely tied to some pagan beliefs. It was considered that a person comes to this world naked and should also leave it like this. Later on, during the war of 1812 against Napoleon armies, this custom made itself known once more, although in a different way. Dead were always buried in clean modesty clothing, so before the famous Battle of Borodino, Russian soldiers wore fresh undergarments. They have also refused an offered drink of vodka, explaining that one can’t face God after death being unclean and intoxicated.
Another common practice that appeared among warriors after the introduction of Christianity in Russia was exchanging crosses with each other. It was seen as a symbol of becoming brothers before the eye of God, and boosted their motivation to protect each other and fight vigorously.
Cossacks, who occupied territories of Southern Russia and in South-Eastern Ukraine, also had special rituals that helped them prepare for the battle. Mostly they were created in order to strengthen their unity and infuse the spirit of brotherhood. Before departing for a fight they performed an intricate dance with sabers or daggers called “trepak”. The act of dancing before the battle was important in the culture of The North Caucasus. Men did traditional “Lezginka” to demonstrate their fearlessness and swiftness. Another show of boldness that was highly appreciated among them was to proudly prance on a horse right in front of the enemy, not minding the fired shots.
The Bashkirs, who also were a part of Russian armies since 17th century, were nomads and horses often played a key role in their lives. This is why their warriors had a special spiritual connection with this animal. During military expeditions, when men found themselves in desperate shortage of provision, they compensated the lack of calories and water with horse’s blood. They made a very clean and precise cut and then expertly bandaged the wound.
As you can see, the art of war is not only about strategy and physical abilities. Religious beliefs and brotherhood also played a great role for the fighters, psychologically preparing them for the battle.