Ushkuyniks – pirates from Novgorod

The ushkuiniks (Russian: ушкуйники) (from old-Rus. Ushkuy – marine or river sailing-rowing vessel) or povolniks (Russian: повольники) were members of the armed squads in Novgorod and Vyatka Lands XIV-XV centuries. According to common opinion the formation of ushkuyniki brigades was associated with the seizure of land in the north and commercial and piratical expeditions to the Volga and Kama rivers. However, in recent years, the analysis of chronicles about their campaigns forms another opinion about ushkuyniks. Given their participate in the defense of Novgorod and Pskov lands against the attacks from the West, we can say that ushkuyniki played the role of border guards. Ushkuyniki were not simple robbers, but also voluntary professional warriors for protection of the Russian land.

In their spare time from military operations ushkuyniks investigated trade and fishing river ways. At the same time, they traded or accompanied river trade caravans. The famous Russian traveler, writer, Tver merchant, famous author of the travel records known as “Travel across the three seas”, Athanasiy Nikitin was a direct descendant of Novgorod ushkuyniks.

Ushkuyniki, as the phenomenon of Russia, are often compared with the predatory raids of the Varangians or Vikings. They often called themselves descendants of the Rus-Varyags, who came with duke Vladimir to Novgorod. It is worth noting that ushkuyniks in their military campaigns used tactics of Vikings.

The prerequisites to their emergence

Taking into account close neighborhood and active contacts of Novgorod (and  the whole North-Western Russia) with Norman and Varangian lands and tribes, some of the region’s inhabitants could know the quite common style of behavior for those times. Their appearance is attributed to the XI century. According to Chronicle In 1088 Kama Bulgars captured Murom city. Russian historians suggest that the Bulgars took revenge for the Russian robbery of Oka and Volga regions, that impaired Bulgar’s trade. It’s possible to specify the earlier evidence of the ushuynik’s existence at the beginning of the XI century in the “heart” of their movement – Novgorod – for example, their campaign to Ugra before 1032. In other regions of Russia ushkuynichestvo did not reach such size as in Novgorod, where this movement had appeared. Large freedom, less constrained by the elements of the democratic Novgorod government, and the constant struggle of parties – all this gave rise to a special class of Novgorod people, which were not attributed to any community (as it was required by laws for Novgorod complete citizenship). Authorities sought to get rid of such violent elements of the population and directed them to expand the limits of Novgorod, landowners and hunters used them as defenders of their interests against various foreigners, most often, however, ushkuyniks at their own risk, made predatory expeditions, chiefly to the east, in order to profit. Ushkuynik robberies often caused troubles for Novgorod, especially from the Moscow princes, who revenged for that.

The history of attacks

Chronicles repeatedly note ushkuynik campaigns:

  • 1181 capture of the  Cheremis city Koksharov (now Kotelnich of the Kirov region).
  • 1318 their boats across the AboAland archipelago and “Full River” (Aura-oki) went to the city of Abo (now Turku) – the old capital of Finland. Was captured the  Vatican church tax collected within 5 years. As mentioned in the chronicle, “they came back to Novgorod without losses”
  • 1320 and 1323’s. Ushkuyniki attacked the Norwegians (as a response), ravaged the region of Finnmark and Holugaland. Norwegian rulers appealed to the papal throne. The similar effect on the Swedes accelerated the signing of the compromise Orekhovets  peace treaty with Novgorod. Swedish wars with Novgorod lands had been stopped.
  • In 1349 followed the sea campaign in the province Halogaland, where was taken the strongly fortified castle Barkey. It was a return trip to the invasion of the Swedish King Magnus in the Novgorod lands in 1348 and 1349. The trek of King Magnus was the last of the “Crusades” of the Swedish knights to the Novgorod land. Then, more than 100 years in the north of Russia, there were no serious military action. Ushkuyniki also turned their attention to the southeast, the Golden Horde.
  • In 1360. Ushkuyniki, drifted down the Volga, captured the Horde’s city  Zhukotin (near the modern Chistopol) on Kama river and killed all Tartars. This act was met fully with the approval of Dionysius of Suzdal, who preached all his life the compaign against “wicked Hagarites”. Khan Hyzr demanded from Dmitri of Suzdal as the Grand Duke, capturing and extradition of those ushkuyniks. Prince Dmitry, rather than to wait for replacement of Khan and to miss the extremely unpopular in Russia act, captured ushkuyniks. As a result of the decision of the princes of Suzdal, Kostroma, Nizhny Novgorod, and Kostroma nobles, returned from the trip ushkuyniks were made drunk, tied and forwarded to the Horde. Taken captive people in Russia, were sold to the Horde.
  • In 1363. Trekking to Western Siberia, the Ob River, under the leadership of Governor Alexander Abakunovich and Stepan Lyapa.
  • In 1363. Novgorod boyars Osip Varfolomeyevich, Vassily and Alexander F. Abakunovich robbed caravans between Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan. Khan of Golden Horde asked for help to his Moscow vassal Prince Dmitry Ivanovich (the future Dmitry of the Don). Dmitry sends threatening letter to Novgorod. The boyars of Novgorod respond unsubscribing: “There were young people on the Volga without our directives, but the your merchants were not robbed, only infidels were attacked.”
  • In 1369. Trekking on the Volga and Kama rivers.
  • 1369-1370 years ushkuyniks captured Kostroma and Yaroslavl. These raids took place in connection with the hostility of Novgorod Prince and Tver
  • 1398 – 1399 years fighting on the Northern Dvina.
  • In 1370. Trekking on the River Volga.
  • In 1371. At the request of Prince Dmitry of Moscow and Suzdal ushkuyniks made pre-emptive attack on the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai.
  • In 1374. Hike on the 90 ships. Vyatka had been looted,  Bulgars had been captured, part of ushkuyniks went down to the south, the others went to the East.
  • In 1375. Under the command of Procopius 1500 ushkuyniks smashed the five thousandth Kostroma governor’s army and captured Kostroma city, where rested for a while. After resting a couple of weeks in Kostroma, ushkuyniks marched down the Volga. Traditionally, they “visited” the city of Bulgars and Sarai-Berke. The governor of Bulgars, taught by bitter experience, bought off a great tribute, but Khan’s capital Sarai-Berke was stormed and looted.
  • In 1391. Hike to Zhukotin city.
  • In 1409. Warchief Anfal had raided by using more than 250 ships on the Volga and Kama rivers.
  • In 1436. At the mouth of Kotorosl river forty ushkuyniks from Vyatka managed to capture the Yaroslavl prince Aleksandr Fyodorovich nicknamed “Paunchy”. The prince at that time headed the seven thousandth troops, but was careless enough to retire with his young wife at some distance, it was his mistake. In Russia, this time was related with the civil war for the throne of Moscow (Civil war in Muscovia (1425-1453)).

Further, news about ushkuyniks disappear in the annals. But it happened due not to their real disappearance, but with a more rigid censorship Moscow rulers in the annals of XV – XVII centuries.

Some Novgorod politicians pursued the policy of independence against influence of the Golden Horde at first, and then against the Moscow principality, not considered ushkuynik’s actions as a negative element. Although ushkuynichestvo was kinda random phenomenon and not part of the armed organization of Novgorod, Novgorod republic was sometimes called to account for the actions of ushkuyniks.

Ushkuynichestvo existed in the XV century in a weaker form: the centralization and consolidation of authority and power in the hands of the Moscow princes had significantly reduced the number of spontaneous attacks with involved ushkuyniks. As one of their raids can be considered the successful campaign of Vyatka people in 1471 against the Horde capital Saray. Perhaps it was organised by order of the Prince of Moscow to divert Horde during the war between Moscow and Novgorod. This and other similar events compel historians to believe that a significant part of ushkuyniks in the late 14th century settled on the Vyatka.

What do you think?

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