A Military History of Belarusian Lands Up to the End of Twelfth Century A.D.

The Rus under the walls of TsargradA Military History of Belarusian Lands Up to the End of Twelfth Century A.D.

Jahor Novikaǔ

Jahor Novikaǔ A Military History of Belarusian Lands Up to the End of 12th Century A.D. Vol. 1. (Minsk, Belarus: Łohvinaǔ, 2007).

(Новікаў Я.У. Ваенная гісторыя беларускіх земляў да канца ХІІ стагоддзя. Т. 1. Мінск, 2007. )


War is the main subject of the present study. A traditional view of war presents it as a totally destructive phenomenon, responsible for the demise of civilizations and states, economic decline and cultural stagnation. However, numerous works of art and literature glorify war heroics. Military victories are being celebrated in virtually every country. This only reflects the fact that war is more than just an evil force. It grossly contributed to the rise of many states to power. It was a driving force of economic and technological innovations. It defined the cultural landscape. It means that war was a major factor of the history of humankind and deserves a complete and thorough analysis.

War shall be defined as an act of violence used for the resolution of a conflict between two and more states or other political entities. The interest of the conflicting states shall be defined in terms of power, although the motives of gain and idea are also present in the nature of war. Consequently, war is analysed mostly within the framework of political history.

The study will concentrate on the history of a region, which only later became known as Belarus, but had always been a meeting ground for the actors, which then formed the core of the Belarusian nation. Those were: Slavic tribes, which colonized the territory of modern Belarus mixing with native Baltic tribes and then under the leadership of Norse warlords formed so called Kyivan Rus’ or Ruthenia;[1] the independent duchies of Połack (Polotsk), Smalensk (Smolensk) and Turaǔ (Turov), which broke away from declining Kyivan Rus’; Baltic tribes of Lithuanians and Yatvingians, who overthrew Ruthenian and then Połack hegemony and laid foundations for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.


The study covers a so called pre-Lithuanian period of Belarusian military history. The starting point is the late 5th century when Slavic tribes began to massively infiltrate the territory of modern Belarus and interact with local Baltic tribes in both peaceful and hostile ways. An analysis of those events helps to trace the very origins of war as a political phenomenon and its reciprocal influence on the evolution of the society. The end of the pre-Lithuanian period is marked by the political crisis of the duchies of Połack, Smalensk and Turaǔ and a steady rise of Lithuania in late 12th century A.D.

In accordance with this timeline the study is divided into four books, each covering a politically distinct sub-period of pre-Lithuanian times. Each book consists of three chapters. The first chapter provides a detailed overview of wars and other political developments of that time. The second one covers the role of war in the political, economic and cultural evolution of societies on Belarusian lands. The third one deals with the art of war.

The first book is devoted to the time between the end of 5th century and early 9th century A.D. In earlier times most of the territory of modern Belarus was occupied by Baltic tribes. Slavic tribes inhabited only those Belarusian lands to the south of Prypiać (Pripyat) River. However, around 500 A.D. under pressure from nomadic tribes they started infiltrating the Baltic lands. Slavic migration grew with the time and by 7th century became massive. On some occasions invading Slavs had violent clashes with native Balts exterminating them or pushing them further North West. A number of Baltic hill-forts was taken by storm and destroyed. In other cases the coexistence of Slavs and Balts was peaceful and led to mutual assimilation. By the beginning of 9th century earlier archaeological cultures gave way to the new ones that are attributed to the Slavic speaking chiefdoms or tribe unions of Kryvičy (Kriviches), Dryhavičy (Dregoviches) and Radzimičy (Radimiches), which otherwise combined both Slavic and Baltic elements. Unassimilated Baltic peoples of Lithuanians and Yatvingians kept their hold on the territories of North-Western and Western Belarus respectively.

Politically, the traditional family structures of Slavic and Baltic tribes were going through a deep crisis. Mass migrations led to armed conflicts between Slavs and Balts and within each respective group. Old family aristocracy, which governed their fellow tribesmen by virtue of their moral and religious authority, could no longer maintain peace and provide security. Their domination started to decline. In search of protection people turned their attention to belligerent chiefs and their warbands (comitatus in Latin, dryžyna in Slavic languages and draugija in Baltic languages). Chiefs became the main contenders for the authority. Based on their military force they redefined the authority as power, stopping just short from establishing a state structure. Tribal society came to an unstable balance between the traditional authority of the family aristocracy and the military based power of chiefs.

This sub-period also became the time of the initial accumulation of wealth, which laid the foundations for the economic stratification of the society in the future.

Finally, the conflicts between Slavs and Balts, which were a paradoxical form of cultural contacts, opened way for numerous mutual influences and defined Belarusian culture as a unique synthesis of Slavic and Baltic elements.

The methods of warfare at that time were still very primitive among Slavs and Balts. There are no written sources left that describe the warfare on Belarusian lands in those times. Analogies can be driven between Slavic tribes on Belarusian lands and those that invaded Byzantine Empire and were described in detail by Mauricius and Theophilactus Simocatta. The military organization consisted of the tribal militia and the warband. The militia included all armed men of a tribe. It was organized by families and headed by family aristocracy. The warband stood beyond the traditional family structure of a tribe, was headed by the chief and consisted of outlaw warriors personally devoted to him. In the time of war the chief normally took command over all armed forces of the tribe. Warbands were generally more skilled and better armed than militias. They were the major striking force on the battlefield, but often pursued their own ends and were unreliable. The whole contingent counted hundreds of warriors and only in exceptional cases there were thousands.

A wooden shield, a few javelins and a bow comprised a standard set of weapons for a warrior. Swords were extremely rare even among chiefs and aristocracy.

Fortification had two basic types: insular and cape. Insular fortifications were built on islands or hills and were protected by the landscape from all sides, while cape fortifications generally belonged to river capes with one side not protected naturally. Fortified sites were mostly represented by hill-forts surrounded with an earthen wall, sometimes with a wooden paling or frame fence on top of it. Hill-forts were uninhabited and served as a shelter only in the moments of danger. Long sieges were rare. Sudden attacks were the tactic of choice against fortified sites.

The strategic goals of military campaigns corresponded to small resources of wandering tribes and were no bigger than seizure of a small area with the purpose of colonization or looting. On the battlefield both Slavs and Balts preferred throwing missiles from the distance over hand-to-hand fighting. Ambushes, hit-and-run attacks and other irregular methods of fighting were the dominant forms of tactics. Occasionally extended orders were used. Compact formations were extremely rare and were used only in the circumstances of vast numerical superiority in a favourable position. The materials of Baltic burials also suggest a wide use of cavalry by Balts. At the same time Byzantine sources indicate that Slavs used horses only for the transportation of troops yet were not skilled enough to fight astride.

Starting in 820s Belarusian lands became an arena for the activity of Norse warriors and traders, often called Vikings. Correspondingly, the sub-period analysed in the second book shall be named Norse. The reason that brought Swedes, Norwegians and Danes to Eastern Europe was their intensive trade with Muslim countries of the Middle East via Dzvina (Dvina), Volhov, Oka, Volga, Dniapro (Dnepr) and other river routes on the territories of modern Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. The Norsemen brought fur, wax and slaves to the Middle East in return for silver coins, produced there in large quantities. Gradually as the trade was developing they tried to control the waterways by conquering local Slavic, Baltic and Finno-Ugrian tribes. Saxo Grammaticus goes as far as speaking of the seizure of Połack by semi-legendary Danish dukes Ragnar Lodbrok and Frode in 840s. However, the Norsemen were outnumbered by the locals, lost the fighting and by 859 were expelled.

Yet Slavs paid due credit to the military ability of Norse warlords and invited some of them back as mercenaries to fight in internal wars. One of them, a Danish duke Ruryk (Hrœrekr, 862 – 879) was invited by the aristocracy of the Slovenian tribe union. In 862 he murdered the local duke (kniaź) Vadim the Brave and proclaimed himself the Duke of Ladoga and then Novgorod, sending one of his earls to govern Połack. Approximately at the same time Norse dukes Askold (Hoskulðr) and Dir took over Kyiv (Kiev) on Dnepr. Ruryk died in 879. His successor Aleh (Oleg, Helgi, 879 – 912) seized Kyiv and murdered Askold and Dir, thus uniting both duchies into a single state, called Rus’ or Ruthenia after roþs, the Old Norse name for warbands. Rus’ thus got to control most of the waterways between the Baltic, Caspian and Black sees securing the interests of Norse traders. Yet none of the Norse dukes could claim to be the conqueror of local tribes. Their power was a result of the social deal they had to strike with the local communities.

On peak of their power the Norse dukes of Rus’ in addition to transit trade did not hesitate to resort to plundering raids on Byzantium and Caspian countries, very typical for Vikings. In 907 Aleh made a successful raid on Byzantium and concluded a mutually beneficial treaty with the latter in 911. His successor Ihar’s (Igor, Ingvarr, 912 – 945) raids on Khazar Crimea in 940 and Byzantium in 941 though ended in crushing defeats. The weakened Rus’ could not prevent the secession of Połack, which occurred between 931 and 945. The newly emerged Duchy of Połack was headed by Rahvałod (Rögnvalðr), presumably of Norwegian royal dynasty. Ihar’s son Sviatasłaǔ (Sviatoslav, 945 – 972) initially managed to repel the Khazar threat, conclusively defeating Khazars in 965, but then waged an unsuccessful war on Byzantium in 967 – 971 and on his way home to Kyiv in 972 was caught in ambush and killed by nomadic Pechenegs. Constant wars took their toll as Rus’ laid in ruins.

After Sviatasłaǔ’s death his sons Jarapołk (Yaropolk), who ruled in Kyiv, and Uładzimir (Vladimir, 970s – 1015), who governed Novgorod, started a civil war. Circa 978 Uładzimir one by one defeated and killed Jarapołk’s ally Rahvałod, subduing Połack and Turaǔ, and then Jarapołk himself, restoring the unity and peace in Rus’. Uładzimir bore little resemblance to his Norse predecessors. Speaking Old Ruthenian rather than Old Norse and bearing a Slavic name, he completed the process of assimilation of Norsemen with Slavs. Unlike the previous dukes of Novgorod, Połack and Kyiv he preferred to concentrate on securing state interests instead of making plundering raids and achieve his goals by diplomacy and politics rather than sword. Under his rule Rus’ turned from a state-like corporation of traders and pirates into a full-fledged state. One of the first acts of his rule in Kyiv was a very symbolic expulsion of his contingent of Norse mercenaries to Byzantium, which indicated the end of the Norse domination on the lands between the Baltic, Caspian and Black sees.

The Norse sub-period of Belarusian history brought about drastic changes with regard to the political development of the society. While in the earlier times intertribal wars had upset the traditional family structures and undermined the authority of family aristocracy, war in the Norse times grossly contributed to the emergence of the state. Internal peace and external security still were the things that society needed the most. Logically, these could be best provided and protected by those groups who possessed armed force i.e. chiefs and their warbands. Based on their force local Slavic, Baltic and Finno-Ugrian chiefs were in a good position to overcome the influence of family aristocracy but ultimately lost to the Norsemen whose military prowess by far surpassed that of Slavs, Balts and Finno-Ugrians. Ruryk, Askold, Aleh and other Norse warlords picked up where Slavic and other local chiefs left off. Upon exterminating or subduing local warbands they inherited their cause of fighting against family aristocracy and successfully completed it. From that time on, the government on Belarusian and other lands of the region between the Baltic, Caspian and Black seas was based on power rather than traditional authority, which marked the transition from a patriarchal family society to a state.

In this way local tribes ended up being governed by foreigners. The situation was a typical rather than unique pattern for European countries and ultimately was more of a blessing than a curse for local residents. As mighty as they were, the Norse dukes could not govern by brute force alone. Their warbands were well armed, skilled and numerous enough to join and spearhead the armed forces and the government of local tribes but not numerous enough to conquer them. Their predecessors, who had tried it in 840s and 850s, were badly defeated. Therefore the dukes of Ladoga, Novgorod, Kyiv and Połack had to reckon with the interests of that very family aristocracy and other layers of the society and strike a social deal with them. Dukes and their warriors provided order, protection and security in return for taxes, collected in the course of paluddzie (poludye), a yearly trip around the territory of Rus’. The new government turned out to be more popular and less self-indulgent and tyrannical than the government of local chiefs might have been. By the end of 10th century the process of assimilation in Rus’ erased even the ethnic differences between various segments within the governing group, which adopted a homogeneous culture including Nordic, Slavic and other local elements.

Another element that differentiated the state from the patriarchal society was its territorial organization. Being traders as much as warriors, the Norsemen were mainly interested in controlling the waterways and concentrated their power in urban centres along these ways. The territorial character of Rus’ destroyed many old family and tribal connections, bringing it closer to the classic pattern of a state.

The codification of customary law, undertaken by Aleh and other Ruthenian dukes, was one more step in the direction of a full-fledged state.

The wars of the Norse sub-period also reached Lithuanians and Yatvingians who at that time were going through the process of disintegration of family ties in their society and its reorganization on the territorial basis. Small districts were uniting in lands where the authority was disputed by family aristocracy and the duke (kunigas) with his warband (draugija). Military and peaceful contacts with Rus’ boosted this process.

Economically the biggest achievement of the wars of the Norse times was the discovery and development of new routes that were simultaneously used for trade and plundering. The same expeditions along these routes could be plundering raids as well as commercial enterprises. The goals of such trips could be swapped immediately depending on what the travellers deemed safer and more profitable. As a result the system of Ruthenian waterways helped the region inhabitants to exchange cultural innovations, technologies and wealth.

The wealth accumulated by trade or war was not used to reproduce and multiply itself, though. In accordance with their ethics, dukes and their warriors used it to finance feasts, generous gifts and other attributes of the grand way of life. That had some practical meaning, too. An invitation to a feast or a gift imposed on the taker certain moral obligations to the giver. Most often the beneficiary was supposed to stand for his benefactor and protect him with arms. Thus the wealth cemented the relationship of brotherhood between the equal and the patron/client relationship between people from different layers of the society. Yet this relationship was based on moral rather than economic aspects of the wealth.

Culture wise, the epic wars of the Norse epoch could not but be glorified in a written form. Rus’ did not create an epic of “Heimskringla” scale, but the most significant events were registered on the pages of early Ruthenian chronicles. Despite the claims to objectivity the account of those events was often reworked in the literary manner. The deeds of the main characters were narrated in an exaggerated legendary manner. That spawned a number of myths representing a popular explanation of the origins of Rus’ and its early history. Some of these myths were crafted so skilfully that they managed to deeply root in mass consciousness, survive well into the modern day and be widely used for different ends.

A very typical of such myths is the legend of Rahvałod and Rahnieda. As it was mentioned above, in 970s Uładzimir, who would later become the Duke of Kyiv, had seized Połack, killed its duke Rahvałod and forced Rahvałod’s daughter Rahnieda to marry him. Trying to avenge the death of her father, Rahnieda had made an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Uładzimir. The latter had initially wanted to execute her yet faced the resistance of his little son Iziasłaǔ (Iziaslav) who tried to protect his mother. A confused Uładzimir had had to send them both back to Połack land, which ultimately resulted in the restoration of Rahvałod’s dynasty, albeit through the maternal line of descent. The way these events were presented in the chronicle bears traces of literary reworking and the true story of Rahvałod and Rahnieda remains unknown. Despite this fact, the legend started living its own life. The loyalty of Rahnieda to her family and her land was later presented by the Dukes of Połack as the major justification of their right to rule Połack contrary to the numerous attempts of the Dukes of Kyiv to overthrow them. The very fact of seizure of Połack by Uładzimir and the subsequent bloodshed made Połack independence a lost but a just and noble cause, justified by blood and worth fighting for. Paradoxically, a military defeat turned into a moral victory and became a source of inspiration for the people of Połack to fight for their independence for centuries ahead. So strong is the influence of the legend that even today the emotional arguments in favour of Belarusian independence are still derived from it.

With the emergence of the state the army of Rus’ turned into a regular force and a state institution, which was headed by the duke and consisted of the warband and popular militia. The warband was now a regular unit divided into the senior warband and the junior warband. The senior warband consisted of the duke’s closest councillors who served as senior commanders or voevodes and had their own warbands. In reward for their service the duke granted them a right for collecting taxes from a certain territory. The junior warband was the duke’s personal troop and retinue. It consisted of otraks (otraki) who were used both as house-serfs and soldiers, and dzetskis (dzieckija) who only carried out military service. With regard to his warband the duke was the first among the equal. His warriors were connected to him by personal allegiance. The warband had a somewhat sacral character of a battle brotherhood. The warband of the Duke of Kyiv numbered about 500 warriors. The popular militia was called up in cases of emergency. It was the largest part of the armed forces that any significant military campaign was impossible without. In campaigns against Byzantium and Caspian countries the armed forces of Rus’ counted from 6,000 to 25,000 soldiers. The army of the Duchy of Połack during its first short period of independence counted few thousand soldiers. Depending on whether a war was waged on land or on sea, Ruthenian armies were organized in accordance with the traditional decimal system or the Norse naval system where the crew of a ship was the smallest unit consisting of 25 to 50 men. Contingents of Norse and Pecheneg mercenaries were occasionally hired, too. They had their separate organizations and did not mix with other units.

The military organization of Lithuanians and Yatvingians still corresponded to that of patriarchal society, yet the dukes with their warbands started being more and more of a factor on the battlefield.

The arms used by warriors in the Norse times made a huge leap forward compared to the previous sub-period. When Norse warriors came to Belarusian lands they were fully equipped with the set of state-of-the-art arms they had not invented and sometimes did not even produce yet learned to use as skilfully as none of their contemporaries. Sword was the weapon par excellence for the Norsemen. So called Carolingian swords were imported by Scandinavians from the Frankish Empire and then widely distributed around Rus’, Byzantium and Mid-Eastern countries. The Norse warriors also had battle axes and spears suitable both for throwing and close combat. Bows became much more powerful than before and were widely used. The regular set of protective arms was represented with a round wooden shield, a mail-coat and a hemispheric helmet. These arms had been known to Slavs, Balts and Finno-Ugrians long before the arrival of the Norsemen yet it was through the latter that they became widely spread and used in warfare in these lands. In their turn the Norsemen adopted spherocon helmets and certain types of battle axes from the locals.

The art of fortification underwent some development. As cape based towns were expanding field wise, a compound cape type of fortification emerged. The fortresses of this type consisted of two and more concentrically located fortified grounds, each having its own line of walls. Frame fences mounted on earthen walls started replacing wooden paling. Sometimes outside parts of earthen walls (e.g. in Połack) were paved with stone to make them steeper and harder, while pavements on the inside facilitated moving soldiers along the walls. The emergence of large armies gave the attack an advantage over the defence. The besieging army no longer had to rely on one sudden attack and had good opportunities to prepare a massive assault. Sviatasłaǔ took Philippopolis (Plovdiv) in Bulgaria by storm in 968 and Uładzimir captured Połack in the same way in 970s. If an assault failed, the besieging army could resort to a long blockade. Kyivan voevode Svienield (Suainaltr) in 942 seized Perechen, the capital of Ugliches, after a three-year long siege. Various stratagems were popular, too. The Norsemen would often infiltrate into a town pretending to be traders. In this way Aleh seized Kyiv in 882.

Similar to most wars, the wars waged by the Norse lords of Rus’ were about gaining power over their neighbours. A specific feature of the wars of that time, however, was a strong accent on looting. Many expeditions of Ruthenian dukes closely resembled huge pirate raids, organized on the state level. The strategy was defined in accordance with these goals. In many cases this was a blunt direct strategy aimed at concentrating all forces in one point and crushing the enemy in a general battle. Sviatasłaǔ was the most prominent representative of this approach and took it to the extreme. Before taking the field he would inform the enemy about his offensive to make the latter accept the challenge and engage in a general battle. This approach also had a demoralizing effect on the enemy. However, the direct strategy had its limitations, was costly and ultimately depended on the outcome of the general battle. Some Ruthenian dukes therefore tended to use an indirect methods of warfare. They would hit a vulnerable area of the enemy country, normally when the defending army was at a different seat of war, and then plunder it completely. Ultimately they would use this as a negotiating argument, securing a favourable peace treaty and a nice ransom on top of everything. This strategy was successfully used against Byzantium by Aleh in 907 and Ihar in 944.

The tactics underwent drastic changes. Throwing missiles from the distance now gave way to the close combat in compact formations. Cavalry was not yet developed among the Norsemen and Slavs and infantry dominated the battlefield. A typical Ruthenian formation was described by Leo Diaconus as “a wall”. It was a phalanx-like infantry order, five or more lines deep and a few hundred files wide, with the shields tightly closed. The Ruthenian army would start a battle by throwing javelins and arrows and then attack the enemy at a run with their spears ahead. After the first strike they would switch to swords, hammers and axes. The battle did not disintegrate into duels. The soldiers tried to keep their order and break up the enemy line. If the order was broken the army had to retreat. The Byzantines could not withstand a front assault by the “wall” but could easily outflank it with their excellent cavalry as the “wall” was hardly able to manoeuvre. That is what ultimately led to the defeat of Ruthenians at Dorostol in 971. Yet the defeat did not lead to the extermination of the whole army. An extremely high level of battle training helped Ruthenians to regroup, retreat in an organized manner and conclude a peace treaty on honourable terms. Under all circumstances the Ruthenian army was a force to be reckoned with.

The next sub-period, which started in late 970s and ended in 1101 is called the sub-period of might as Kyivan Rus’ achieved the peak of its strength under duke Jarasłaǔ (Yaroslav, 1019 – 1054) and the breakaway Duchy of Połack rose to power under dukes Bračysłaǔ (Briachislav, 1003 – 1044) and his son Usiasłaǔ (Vseslav, 1044 – 1101). Upon consolidating his power in Kyiv Uładzimir waged a number of successful wars. In 983 he defeated Yatvingians and brought them to submission. In 984 his voevode Voǔčy Chvost (Volchy Hvost) defeated Radimiches. In 988 after a successful war with the Byzantine Empire Uładzimir cemented Kyivan Rus’ with the adoption of the Orthodox Christianity. Yet the cracks in the state soon started to show. In 1001 Uładzimir was unable to prevent another successful secession of Połack. The rest of Belarusian lands remained under the power of Kyiv. In 1015 Uładzimir died and an incredibly bloody civil war between his sons broke out. The Ruthenian, Polish and German chronicles and Scandinavian sagas present mutually contradicting accounts of those events. One can only be sure that Uładzimir’s sons Barys (Boris) and Hleb (Gleb) were dead by 1018. In that year another Uładzimir’s son Sviatapołk (Sviatopolk) of Turaǔ with the help of Polish king Boleslaw the Brave defeated Jarasłaǔ at Western Buh River and seized Kyiv. Yet in 1019 he lost a battle at Alta River to Jarasłaǔ and had to go exile.

Jarasłaǔ remained the master of Kyivan Rus’. His most powerful rival was Bračysłaǔ, the Duke of Połack, who ascended the throne in 1003 and in 1021 seized and plundered Novgorod. Jarasłaǔ defeated Bračysłaǔ at Sudom River but ultimately had to conclude peace with him and concede him some of the disputed territories. Both Ruthenian dukes enjoyed mutually beneficial peace and political union. They used it for the expansion of their duchies into Lithuanian and Yatvingian territories. Bračysłaǔ occupied the land of Nalša and consolidated his dominance there by founding a fortified town of Brasłaǔ (Braslav). Jarasłaǔ clashed with Yatvingians in 1038 and twice with Lithuanians in 1040 and 1044. His advance into Yatvingian and Lithuanian lands was marked by the foundation of the towns of Vaǔkavysk (Volkovysk) and Navaharodak (Novogrudok).

The struggle against Ruthenian aggression, however, made Lithuanians and Yatvingians consolidate their societies under the authority of dukes. The increased influence of dukes in 11th century is reflected in written sources and confirmed by archaeological data, which point at the massive construction of wooden castles. The family aristocracy seemed to finally lose its grip on the authority. The Lithuanian and Yatvingian societies came very close to the emergence of their statehood.

The deaths of Bračysłaǔ in 1044 and Jarasłaǔ in 1054 marked the end of the union between Połack and Kyiv. Jarasłaǔ’s sons Iziasłaǔ (Iziaslav, 1054 – 1073, 1077 – 1078), Sviatasłaǔ (Sviatoslav, 1073 – 1076) and Usievaład (Vsevolod, 1076 – 1077, 1078 – 1093), who succeeded him, started their rule with destroying the internal opposition. Sensing an imminent invasion, Bračysłaǔ’s son Usiasłaǔ decided to render a pre-emptive blow. In 1066 he seized and plundered Novgorod. In the next year he lost the Battle of Niamiha (Nemiga) to Jarasłaǔ’s sons and was briefly imprisoned but then released by insurgent people of Kyiv in 1068. He was expelled from Połack in 1069 but returned to his throne for good in 1071. Usiasłaǔ once again interfered in Kyivan affairs by supporting the internal opposition in Kyivan Rus’ and making a raid on Smalensk in 1078.

When the dust settled, Usiasłaǔ could claim to have achieved his goals. His pre-emptive strikes weakened Kyivan Rus’ and neutralized potential threats from that side. That let Usiasłaǔ continue the expansion of Połack into Lithuania and Livonia until his death in 1101. At the same time Kyivan Rus’ went through a severe political crisis. By the end of 11th century a shaky balance of power between Iziasłaǔ’s son Sviatapołk (Sviatopolk) of Kyiv (1093 – 1113), Sviatasłaǔ’s son Aleh (Oleg) of Chernihiv and Usievaład’s son Uładzimir Manamach (Vladimir Monomah) of Pereyaslavl was established. At a congress in Lubech in 1097 the dukes of Kyivan Rus’ mutually recognized their hereditary rights on their duchies. This concord became a legislative basis of the disintegration of Kyivan Rus’ into a number of independent states.

In 11th century war was a powerful factor of the political evolution of the society. The successors of Uładzimir in both Połack and Kyiv built on his achievements and finished the transformation of the Duchy of Połack and Kyivan Rus’ into full-fledged states. War no longer belonged to heroes and outlaws but instead was institutionalized as an instrument of the state. While their Norse predecessors were busy looting neighbouring lands, the 11th century rulers were relentlessly developing and putting in order their own territories. Offence made way to defence. To provide security and protection from the external enemies, the Dukes of Połack and Kyiv waged defensive wars and built endless lines of border towns and fortresses. They paved new roads and exterminated robbers for the sake of safety on those roads. The members of their warbands and militiamen served as government officials, garrison soldiers and sometimes as a policing force. While the fortresses and roads constituted the infrastructure of the state, the military manned that infrastructure, thus forming the state administration. The emergence of the administration laid the final cornerstone in the foundation of the statehood.

Similarly, the economic impact of war in 11th century could be more attributed to the consistent colonization of newly conquered lands than looting.

The place of war in the spiritual culture and system of values of the Ruthenian society changed, too. Previously, the pagans had viewed war as the natural state of things. Everybody could wage war for power, gain and glory. Warriors had been considered to be akin to the beasts and had been believed to derive their strength from the animal world. Finally, they had not been held responsible for their deeds, no matter good or evil. Blind fate had ruled the life of a pagan warrior, leaving him no choice but follow it and accept his lot with dignity.

When Ruthenians adopted Christianity and shunned their pagan beliefs their views on war changed accordingly. This evolution is best represented in “The Story of Barys and Hleb” and Ruthenian chronicles. First, war was pronounced a necessary evil rather than the natural state of things. Second, starting with Uładzimir only the state represented by duke had the legitimate right to wage wars. Third, in compliance with the Bible war could be waged only to repel enemies, protect the helpless and fight criminals. E.g. Uładzimir for a while hesitated to prosecute criminals for the fear of sin, but then took the advice from the bishops and started using the military force to fight crime. Fourth, now that a warrior was expected to fight for the right cause he could rely on heavenly support and derive his strength from divine sources. Finally, he was free to make the choice between good and evil and bear all responsibility for it. Faced with the temptation to start the war against his elder brother Sviatapołk, duke Barys refused to take up arms for an unjust cause, got murdered by Sviatapołk and found salvation as a martyr. On the opposite Sviatapołk was doomed for the eternal torture.

The new Christian ideal of the warrior was personified in the figures of military saints. Exported from the Byzantine Empire was the cult of Demetrius and George, soon joint by Barys and Hleb, sanctified by the Ruthenian clergy. The latter two were closer to martyrs than classic warrior saints, yet to an extent they assumed the functions of the warrior saints, in particular assisting Christian warriors on the battlefield. Christianity therefore set a very high and noble standard for the Ruthenian military elite.

The military organizations of the Duchy of Połack and Kyivan Rus’ were developing within the established forms of the warband and the popular militia. Under the command of the duke both parts together constituted the army that was a regular institution of the state. It was aimed at achieving political ends by military means. The warband was a professional military detachment and the core of the whole army. With the development of cavalry the warband became mounted. It also grew in numbers. In 1093 duke Sviatapołk of Kyiv and Turaǔ had 800 otraks ready to fight. Together with dzetskis and senior warband members the warband could number more than 1,000 warriors.

The need for the mobilization of the popular militia lessened and the degree of the militarization of the society decreased compared to the epic Norse times. Accordingly the militia shrank relative to the quantity of population as the economy growth and the subsequent employment drew people away from the military service. Yet it still grossly outnumbered the warband and was battle-worthy quality wise. In cases of emergency Jarasłaǔ would mobilize the militia by sending an arrow around the country. Now some of the militiamen were mounted, too. The number of mobilized militiamen in wars of Kyivan dukes could reach 3,000 – 5,000. The numbers for the Duchy of Połack were smaller, proportional to the size of the territory and population. The militia kept its old decimal organization but “tens”, “hundreds” and “thousands” now were more of formal categories than real numbers. In fact, the contingent of a town with the adjacent area was referred to as a “thousand”. A “hundred” was the contingent of a town district, and a “ten” – that of a street. Although the militia was under the general command of the duke, the direct commanders (voevodes) would more and more often be recruited from the townsfolk and be appointed by the local self-government rather than by the duke himself.

The garrisons of towns were staffed by either warband members or militiamen depending on whether a town was ruled directly by the duke or had a degree of self-government.

Hiring Norse mercenaries still was widely practiced in the first half of 11th century. Jarasłaǔ hired a contingent of 1,000 Norsemen in his struggle for Kyiv. The detachment of Eymund, hired first by Jarasłaǔ and then by Bračysłaǔ of Połack, numbered 600 soldiers.

The dukes of both Kyiv and Połack often resorted to using the auxiliary troops of allied and dependent lands. Kyivan dukes often had nomadic Pechenegs and Kumans take part in their campaigns, while the Dukes of Połack turned to Lithuanians and Livonians for help.

The arsenal of Ruthenian warriors gradually evolved. Sword was still the preferred weapon of warbands but the decreased militarization of the society and the decline of Norse presence in Rus’ contributed to a less frequent use of swords by militiamen. Militias were predominantly armed with spears and axes. Bow went into decline because of the predominance of close combat. The biggest novelty of protective arms was a long almond-like shield, which originated in Western Europe circa 1000 but was later dubbed Norman. Its emergence is linked to the development of cavalry. The long Norman shield protected a horseman from shoulder to toe and with two fastening belts kept the left hand free to steer the horse.

Many towns and fortresses were still confined to their insular or cape shape. At the same time the urban growth set a task of protecting town suburbs. This situation gave birth to a new compound type of fortification, similar to the compound cape type. The difference was in the fact that with the compound type fortified sites the outer line of walls no longer depended on the landscape. Compound type fortifications were built in Połack, Smalensk and Viciebsk. So called “round” fortresses adopted from Western Slavs represented an even more drastic departure from the old landscape dependent fortification. They could be built at any location and with their regular round shape provided opportunities for equally dense frontal shooting from any given section of the wall. Round fortresses first emerged in Western Belarusian lands on the border of Rus’ with Yatvingians and Lithuanians and then in Turaǔ land. The best known attempt at building a round fortress in Belarusian lands though was an oval shaped Miensk (Minsk) in the Duchy of Połack.

The biggest technology innovations were: internal wooden frame constructions and external stone-work, used to strengthen the earthen wall; and complex gateways.

Massive construction of wooden castles in Lithuania resulted in some impressive examples of fortification, too. E.g. Impiltis hill-fort in addition to mighty walls had an advanced tunnel-like gateway. Some Lithuanian castles like Apuole were designed for long sieges and had specialized water reservoirs.

Despite the progress of fortification, the attack still had a significant advantage over the defence. As the seizure of Miensk in 1084 by Uładzimir Manamach shows even the best fortresses of the time sometimes could not resist a single sudden attack. The role of sudden attacks, however, started decreasing as generals tended to force the garrison of the besieged fortress to surrender by a long blockade.

Direct action still was the prevailing method of strategy. For example, the whole war between Uładzimir’s sons in 1015 – 1019 consisted of a series of head-to-head campaigns with both rivals concentrating all of their forces in one point and trying to defeat each other in the general battle.

At the same time indirect forms of strategy found further development in the wars of the Dukes of Połack against Kyivan Rus’. The Duchy of Połack was the smaller and weaker of the two states. It was under a constant threat from Kyiv and therefore had to wage wars to prevent a potential aggression and keep the existing balance of power or shift it in favour of Połack. With little chance to defeat the Kyivan army in a straight battle, the Dukes of Połack preferred to launch pre-emptive strikes with limited goals. Such a strike would normally be launched against an ill-defended periphery of Kyivan Rus’ while Kyivan rulers were busy elsewhere. A seizure of a town and devastation of the adjacent area would undermine the defensive potential of Kyivan Rus’ and be used as an irrefutable negotiating argument. The efficiency of such a strategy was first proven by Bračysłaǔ’s successful raid on Novgorod in 1021 and the subsequent favourable peace treaty. Usiasłaǔ repeated his father’s success by seizing and plundering Novgorod in 1066 and threatening Smalensk in 1078. Despite a number of tactical defeats, a formidable strategic skill won Usiasłaǔ the reputation of one of the best generals of his time.

Both direct and indirect strategy most often took the shape of an offence rather than a defence. Even the wars of the Dukes of Połack that ultimately had defensive goals were waged in an offensive manner.

Tactics also became more complicated. Instead of the monolithic “wall” a typical battle order of the Połack or Kyivan army would consist of three separate tactical units: centre and two flanks. This battle order was more flexible and better fit for manoeuvring. Each unit either could be a mixed formation of cavalry and infantry or cavalry could be placed on flanks. It could easier protect its flanks or outflank the enemy. In the Battle of Koloksha against Aleh of Chernihiv in 1096 Mstislav of Novgorod used his longer front line to outflank Aleh, attack him in the rear and win the battle. Light cavalry and light infantry were often sent ahead for reconnaissance or to engage the enemy in the battle. Sometimes a separate detachment could be placed in ambush with the purpose of attacking the enemy in the rear. A sudden attack of Norse mercenaries from the ambush helped Jarasłaǔ win the Battle of Lubech in 1015. While the new tactics was potentially more efficient than the previous one, it required a much better control of the army on part of the command. Sometimes that was not the case. One of the reasons of Jarasłaǔ’s defeat from Bolesław and Sviatapołk in the Battle of Western Buh in 1018 was the absence of connection and mutual aid between his detachments in the face of a blistering Polish attack.

After a magnificent 11th century, 12th century became a sub-period of constant internal wars. Both the Duchy of Połack and Kyivan Rus’ disintegrated into a number of statelets when the dukes of the ruling dynasties had established their hereditary rights on certain lands. Having secured their rear, Ruthenian dukes were quick to go to war with each other. They tried either to gain power and wealth at the expense of each other or take control over the capital city of the country (respectively Połack or Kyiv) to gain the formal supremacy over the rest. Their vast manors, which by 12th century they had managed to make their private property, delivered them plenty of resources for their military activities. The end result was the state of almost endless war.

The Duchy of Połack was the one to lose most from such a state of affairs. After the death of Usiasłaǔ in 1101 it broke up into a number of independent duchies, Połack and Miensk being the most important of them. After a period of rapprochement with Kyiv in late 11th – early 12th centuries the Dukes of Połack were unfortunate to take a line of confrontation with Kyiv in 1120s. That came in the time when Kyivan Rus’ enjoyed its last blaze of glory under Uładzimir Manamach (1113 – 1125) and his son Mstislav (1125 – 1132), both influential politicians and gifted generals. When Davyd of Połack (? – 1128) refused to render military assistance to Mstislav against Kumans in 1127, the Kyivan duke responded by occupying Połack twice in 1128 and 1130 and sending some members of the ruling Połack dynasty to exile in Byzantium. In the meantime Miensk fared little better. Hleb of Miensk (1101 – 1119), the most active of all Połack dukes, had conquered Orša (Orsha) and Kopyś before 1104 and seized and plundered Słuck (Slutsk) in 1116. He fought off the coalition of the dukes of Kyiv, Chernihiv and Pereyaslavl in 1104 but in 1117 had to capitulate to Uładzimir Manamach and became his vassal. After one more clash in 1119 he was captured by Manamach and died in Kyiv prison.

Połack and Miensk separately restored their independency in 1130s but their revival was interrupted by a war between them in 1151 – 1167. Hleb’s son Rascisłaǔ (Rostislav, 1135 – 1161) became the Duke of Połack in 1151 dethroning Rahvałod (Rogvolod, 1144 – 1151, 1158 – 1162), only to be expelled by the supporters of the latter in 1158. Rascisłaǔ’s brother Vaładar (Volodar, 1162 – ?) called up his Lithuanian vassals and badly defeated Połack troops at Haradziec in 1162 and in 1167 on Dzvina River briefly ascending the Połack throne. Yet his limited resources could not match his military skills. In the same year he was defeated by the troops of the Duchy of Smalensk, who interfered in the war on the side of Połack, and had to return to Miensk. As a result of this “friendly” help Połack lost some of its eastern territories to Smalensk and came under the protectorate of the latter. Połack regained its independence yet again in 1180 and in a series of wars re-conquered Druck (Drutsk) and Viciebsk (Vitebsk) from Smalensk. Yet by that time Połack hegemony over Lithuania was over and German crusaders supported by Holy See set their sights on Livonia. Połack approached 13th century significantly weakened and facing a severe internal crisis.

The military history of Smalensk in 12th century was much more trouble-free than that of Połack. While Połack for centuries had to fight for its independence tooth and nail, Smalensk quietly gained it in 1132 after the death of Mstislav of Kyiv when the political unity of Kyivan Rus’ disappeared in all but name. Duke Rascisłaǔ (Rostislav, 1125 – 1167), a son of Mstislav, defined the foreign policy of Smalensk as selective engagement. He preferred to take care of his domestic affairs, interfering in the struggle for Kyiv only when it fitted his agenda, e.g. in 1149, 1151 and 1154. Otherwise he took advantage of others’ feuds to carve large pieces out of the territories of Chernihiv in 1127 and Połack in 1165. Rascisłaǔ finally became the Duke of Kyiv in 1159 and before his death in 1167 solidified the positions of his family in Rus’ by appointing his sons to govern Ovruch, Vyshgorod and Belgorod, strategically the most important towns around Kyiv.

Rascisłaǔ’s sons continued his policy of selective engagement. In 1169 they joined a grand coalition of Ruthenian dukes headed by Andrey of Suzdal against Kyiv and took part in seizing and plundering the city. On the opposite, when the situation changed, they successfully defended Vyshgorod against Andrey in 1173 and later regained Kyiv. Facing a threat from Vsevolod of Chernihiv in 1176 Rascisłaǔ’son Raman (Roman) took it easy and left Kyiv for Smalensk. He perfectly knew that with the military presence of his brothers in Ovruch, Vyshgorod and Belgorod he still had a lot of influence in Kyivan affairs.

The situation somewhat deteriorated in 1180 when Raman died and was succeeded by his brother Davyd (1180 – 1197). Inflexible and authoritarian Davyd had to cope with the mutinies in his field army in 1185 and in Smalensk in 1186. He dragged his duchy into a number of unnecessary conflicts with Połack and Chernihiv that resulted in a decisive defeat of his army by united Połack and Chernihiv troops at Viciebsk in 1196. Although by the moment of his death one year later Smalensk still kept most of its political and military power, one can argue that Davyd left Smalensk to his successors in a worse shape than he had found it himself.

Of all Ruthenian duchies Turaǔ was the last to gain its independence from the central Kyivan government. The first attempt headed by one of Uładzimir Manamach’s sons Viačasłaǔ (Viacheslav) in 1146 was crushed by his nephew Iziaslav of Kyiv. What turned out to be too difficult for a mild and simple-hearted Viačasłaǔ, was feasible for a brave and energetic Jury Jarasłavič (Yury Yaroslavich, 1158 – ?), a grandson of Sviatapołk of Kyiv and Turaǔ and therefore a heir apparent of Turaǔ throne. In 1158 he turned up in town and was overwhelmingly welcome by the local community as a legitimate ruler. He immediately had to withstand a ten-week long siege by a large coalition of Ruthenian duchies. The length of the siege was a record for early mediaeval Rus’. Jury again successfully defended Turaǔ in 1160. In 1162 Rascisłaǔ of Smalensk, who by that time had also become the Duke of Kyiv, finally recognized de facto independence of Turaǔ and concluded peace with Jury. Jury and his successors were wise enough not to waste the results of this major diplomatic victory. They cautiously stayed out of major conflicts but were ready to supply necessary military aid to their stronger neighbours whenever the latter needed it. Even after the break-up of the Duchy of Turaǔ into separate statelets that happened between 1167 and 1174 their rulers managed to keep their relations non-hostile. Turaǔ land would never become a major international force to be reckoned with yet it stayed in peace and relative security amid intestine wars.

For the most part of 12th century Lithuanians and Yatvingians stayed in the shadow of Rus’. Lithuania, being a true vassal of Połack, survived a punitive expedition of Kyivan troops in 1131 immediately following the fall of Połack. Lithuanians even managed to defeat one of Kyivan detachments on its way back. In 1162 Lithuanians fought under the banners of Miensk duke Vaładar and in 1180 participated in the Druck expedition of Połack dukes. Yatvingians clashed with Jarasłaǔ (Yaroslav), the Duke of Volyn’ in 1112 and 1113.

At the same time political and social evolution of Lithuanian and Yatvingian societies led to the emergence of their statehood. Earlier chiefdoms or lands finally gave way to states, which had certain territory and were ruled by dukes in accordance with the customary law. If an increased military activity is any indication of early statehood, as it was the case with the Norsemen, the emergence of Yatvingian statehood could be dated by 1140s when Polish and Ruthenian dukes had to protect Mazovia from Yatvingian threat. Yatvingian states enjoyed independence right from the outset while Lithuanians had to wait. They broke free from the Dukes of Połack and Miensk in early 1180s. The raid on Pskov in 1183 was the first independent military action of Lithuanian dukes. The raid on Lyvonia followed in 1184 – 1185. Then it was Połack’s turn. In 1185 Lithuanians defeated Połack army and killed duke Iziasłaǔ (Iziaslav) in the battle. Yet their success was short-lived. In 1191 the Duke of Połack returned favour by raiding Lithuania. Yatvingians were defeated in 1192 by Polish king Bolesław and in 1196 by Volynian duke Raman (Roman).

In view of their limited resources Lithuanians had to abandon their all-out offensive on Rus’ and instead switch to the policy of making alliances with selected Ruthenian duchies. Połack, as their former senior, was logically the first choice. In 1198 Lithuanians together with Połack troops plundered Velikiye Luki, which belonged to Novgorod land. Livonian Rhymed Chronicle tells about a joint operation of Lithuanians and Połack troops against Germans at Kokenhûsen in Livonia circa 1200, where both sides suffered heavy losses. Political and military cooperation between Rus’ and Lithuania paved way for the subsequent formation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Just as the wars of 9th – 11th centuries contributed to the promotion of capable and popular Ruthenian rulers, the wars of 12th century led to the decline of their epigones and a general political crisis in Rus’. Having secured their hereditary rights, Ruthenian dukes were eager to win more at the expense of each other and therefore easily went to war every now and then. Many clashes were caused by dynastic reasons. By 12th century the ruling dynasties of Rus’ were connected by numerous family ties and divided into several blocks in accordance with those. A conflict around a small peripheral town could easily ignite all Ruthenian duchies through these connections. These wars benefited dukes and their closest environment but the rest of the society was not so happy. While dukes where busy fighting, a system of civil self-government emerged behind their backs in major Ruthenian cities. Most often it was headed by civil aristocracy. Popular assemblies (vieča or veche) wanted to restrain the authoritarian tendencies of dukes and their belligerence. The standoffs between the duke and the assembly caused major rebellions often directed against unnecessary military campaigns. E.g. in 1158 the residents of Połack revolted against duke Rascisłaǔ after an unsuccessful expedition against Turaǔ. In 1185 Smalensk militia refused to fight against Kumans and forced duke Davyd to return back home.

To compensate for the reluctance of common folk to fight, Ruthenian dukes more and more often had to resort to the help from their vassals and auxiliaries. The Dukes of Połack and Miensk relied mostly on Lithuanians. In the attle of Haradziec between the troops of Połack and Miensk in 1162 the army of Miensk consisted completely of Lithuanians. When Lithuania gained its independence in 1180s, it first became a dangerous enemy of its former seniors and then their ally. In 1198 at Vialikiye Luki and in 1200 at Kokenhûsen Połack and Lithuanian warriors again fought side by side.

It was not long before the growing Lithuanization of the Połack army made the Połack society think that energetic Lithuanian dukes and their brave warriors contributed to the defence and security of Połack much more than Ruthenian ruling families, hopelessly stuck in their dynastic disputes. A real possibility of substitution of the existing elites by Lithuanians became visible. In exchange Połack attracted Lithuanians by its developed economy and trade, rich cultural tradition and elaborate legislation. Some other Ruthenian duchies were to follow the path of Połack. A synthesis of Lithuanian military power and Ruthenian civil tradition was to become the cornerstone of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

This process can be roughly compared to the Barbarization of the Roman army in 1st – 3rd centuries A.D. when Barbarians were often promoted to the positions of high commanders and could eventually ascend the imperial throne. When the Roman Empire fell in 476 A.D., the lines of division between Romans and Barbarians had essentially blurred. As a result, the kingdoms of Goths in Italy and Spain and the kingdom of Franks in Gaul combined both Barbarian and Roman traditions.

The economy of Rus’ in 12th century was debilitated by internal wars just as badly as its political system. Dynastic wars could hardly achieve any meaningful goals yet provided endless opportunities for looting. Some rulers did not hesitate to take advantage of it. Hleb of Miensk was the most known of them. According to some sources, he used his raids on neighbouring lands to capture people and sell them later as slaves. Druck was used as the main river port for slave trade. Hleb then would use the profits to finance his further military activities. The principle “War pays for war” worked some 500 years before Wallenstein. What went around came around, though. In 1117 Hleb had to capitulate to Kyivan duke Uładzimir Manamach. Druck was taken by storm. Its residents were taken prisoners and forcefully resettled in a newly built town of Zhelni.

The wars of 12th century also contributed to the emergence of certain cultural stereotypes. Ruthenian dukes and their environment put a lot of effort into emphasizing their status of the military elite by developing a chivalrous code of conduct and glorifying it in the literature. The most valued quality was nobleness. Some excellent examples of that were registered in chronicles. When Vsevolod of Pskov, an old enemy of the Dukes of Połack, was expelled in 1138 from his town and had to pass through the Połack territory, duke Vasilka (Vasilko, 1132 – 1144) of Połack met him on the border and accompanied him all the way to make sure that his unfortunate guest reaches his destination safely. Ruthenian dukes also liked to show off their courage, pride and dignity sometimes verging on bravado. Mscisłaǔ of Smalensk in 1173 made a laughing stock of his powerful enemy Andrey of Suzdal by cutting off the beard of his envoy Mikhn and sending him back to Andrey.

Yet the chivalry could not disguise two facts. First, Ruthenian dukes demonstrated their noble qualities in the atmosphere of endless wars that badly hurt other layers of society. Second, their courage and pride were often self-indulgent and had such downsides as vanity, selfishness and gratuitous cruelty. For these reasons the attitude of the society towards the princely corporate culture, reflected in the contemporary literature, was ambiguous. On one hand common people appreciated the courage of dukes when it contributed to the struggle against external enemies or protection of the weak. On the other hand they openly condemned dukes for meaningless belligerence. The famous “Lay of Igor’s Campaign” splendidly presents this common view of Ruthenian rulers reflecting both their courageous nobleness and selfish vanity. Both images of the Ruthenian dukes that emerged in 12th century, the chivalrous one and the objective one, accompanied them for centuries to come.

The military organization of Belarusian lands in 12th century became quite complex. First, each independent statelet had its own army. Second, as the princely families branched out, the senior dukes made dukes from junior branches their vassals. In their turn junior dukes could have their own princeling vassals. Every duke from the senior one in Połack, Smalensk or Turaǔ to a very minor princeling had his own warband. Therefore a united army, called up for a certain campaign, was a loose crowd of separate dukes’ warbands ranked in accordance with the hierarchy of vassalage. Skill wise warbands were as professional as ever yet the army of warbands was unreliable because of constant political infighting between seniors and vassals and even allies. Yet as war was becoming less of a state-wide cause and more of a dynastic affair, the dukes had to rely more and more on warbands and less on popular militias. The warband was gradually turning from a battle brotherhood into a feudal troop. The combined number of all warband soldiers of all dukes of Połack land in 12th century equalled 3,400 – 3,500.

Militias shrank even further, compared to 11th century, due to a general reluctance of common folk and civil aristocracy to fight. Under the normal circumstances only one of 30 battle-worthy men was subject to mobilization. In case of an extraordinary danger the norm was one of 12. Yet even these modest norms often were not observed and the actual numbers were smaller. Proceeding from these data the total number of men subject to mobilization in Połack land under the normal circumstances was about 2,300 and could reach 5,000 – 6,000 in case of emergency. The numbers for Smalensk and Turaǔ lands were comparable.

The number of armed Lithuanians who served in Połack army first as vassals and auxiliaries and then as allies constantly grew and by late 12th century roughly equalled that of native Połack residents.

The arms in the described time became heavier. The Carolingian sword was replaced with the Romanic or Capetingian one, which was 1.2 metres long, 2 kg heavy and had a long handle and crossing. Cavalry started using pikes with tetrahedral heads designed for ramming blows. The horseman would clasp the pike tight against his torso with his elbow, using all of his momentum to pierce the enemy. Protective arms followed the trend. Mail-coats became longer and sometimes had long sleeves and hood for head protection. Soldiers also frequently wore lamellar and scaly armours.

Fortification only had moderate innovations. Further spreading of round fortresses and frequent construction of watchtowers (e.g. in Davyd-haradok and Carkovišča) were the main developments. However, one could argue that Ruthenians had learnt to build decent fortresses already in 11th century. Yet it was in 12th century when they learnt to defend them successfully. Well-organized guard service and sorties that disrupted enemy’s activities were the major factors that contributed to the success of defence. One of the factors that helped Jury Jarasłavič to withstand the ten-week long siege of Turaǔ in 1158 was his pacifist propaganda among the enemy troops. The success of defence gave boost to the construction of small private castles like Mscibava (Mstibovo) and Viščyn (Vischin), which now had good chances to withstand sieges.

The art of war of 12th century gained a bad reputation among later military historians, who considered it primitive at best and non-existent at worst. Indeed, the political situation was very unstable and sometimes chaotic. No matter how brilliant a military victory was, it rarely led to meaningful political results. As a result, the rulers seldom set themselves big purposes. Small time political goals led to small time strategy. Wars were often reduced to pirate raids and simple head-to-head clashes. Yet this is only part of the truth. 12th century Ruthenian generals had to act in the situation, where wars were increasingly waged by professionals, who had equal arms and battle training in all Ruthenian duchies. It took a superior strategic thinking and tactical skill to beat an otherwise equal enemy. When generals had decent resources and favourable political situation on their side, they sometimes demonstrated outstanding examples of the art of war, undeservedly forgotten later.

An excellent example of strategic skill was the concentric offensive of Mstislav of Kyiv on Połack land in 1128. He divided his troops into four columns, which had to attack the most important towns around Połack: Zasłaǔje (Zaslavl), Łahojsk (Logoysk), Barysaǔ (Borisov) and Druck. The concentric form of the offensive was supposed to force Davyd, the Duke of Połack, to scatter his forces. The fifth column had to advance on Połack land from north and further divert the attention of defenders. Mstislav himself stayed in Kyiv to coordinate the whole operation. The invading troops attacked their goals simultaneously on August 10 – 11, 1129 and seized Zasłaǔje and Łahojsk, completely paralyzing the defence of the country. They did not even need to engage in battle with the army of Połack or besiege the capital as Davyd had to capitulate. Implementation of Mstislav’s brilliant plan was possible thanks to his superb control over the advancing armies and precise coordination of their actions.

On the opposite, Smalensk dukes, who had to defend Kyiv from the troops of Suzdal-led coalition in 1173, divided their forces, left Kyiv and locked themselves in nearby Vyshgorod and Belgorod. This time it was the attackers who had to scatter their forces and engage in fruitless sieges of Vyshgorod and Belgorod. After Suzdal troops wasted a lot of time and effort the arrival of reinforcements to the defenders made the attackers retreat in panic.

Sometimes generals would use indirect strategy by posing a threat to civil purposes, thus provoking unrest in enemy’s camp and forcing him to surrender. In this way Kyiv-led coalitions including Połack and Smalensk troops gained victory over Chernihiv in 1139 and Halych in 1144.

While the jury on the state of strategy in 12th is still out, the art of tactics was definitely blooming. The growing professionalism of soldiers and their specialization gave generals handy material for building complex combinations on the battlefield. Newly emerged branches of army were now ready to accomplish specialized tasks. The fast-developing cavalry had a special knack for quick manoeuvres. Heavy warband cavalry was the main striking force of the army. Light cavalry and light infantry were used for engaging enemy and cutting off his communication lines. Mid-armed militia infantry still was the basis of the battle order. The battle orders mostly consisted of several tactical units. Cavalry tended to be placed on flanks, while mid-armed infantry stayed in centre. Sometimes a reserve was detached. At the same time the battles were very dynamic and often irregular. They could start straight off without prior deployment. In this case some of the regular parts of the battle order might have been absent. The new developments put a premium on the skills of the commander and his control over the troops.

The Battle of Viciebsk between Połack and Chernihiv troops on one side and Smalensk troops on the other on March 12, 1196 was a classic example of 12th century tactics. The battle orders of both sides had two wings. On one wing Smalensk heavy cavalry attacked that of Chernihiv, threw it back and started chasing it. In the heat of the chase Smalensk commanders lost control over their soldiers. On the other wing Smalensk militia infantry, unhappy with the whole war, made a half-hearted attempt to attack Połack troops but then turned to retreat. Połack cavalry was not carried away by this success but instead of chasing Smalensk militia hit Smalensk victorious cavalry in the rear and smashed it. Smalensk commander Mscisłaǔ (Mstislav) was taken prisoner and the rest of his army had to flee to Smalensk. The battle demonstrated the importance of efficient command and the role of heavy cavalry, whose fast manoeuvre decided the outcome.

Lithuanians and Yatvingians still stuck to irregular forms of tactics yet brought it to perfection. In 1131 Lithuanians defeated a detachment of the Kyivan punitive army with a sudden attack. Yatvingians and Prussians in 1166 defeated the army of Polish king Bolesław the Curly by ambushing it in a swamped area.

Overall, war was a complex phenomenon of Belarusian history in the early mediaeval period. Politically war was a mobilizing factor that catalyzed the emergence of the statehood on Belarusian lands and promoted the ascent of Ruthenian military aristocracy to power. Yet the latter’s self-indulgence at war caused the political crisis in Rus’ in 12th century, left the society searching for help from neighbouring Lithuanians and ultimately led to the demise of Ruthenian rulers. Economically war helped the discovery of new trade routes and initial accumulation of wealth but would often leave previously prospering regions devastated. It contributed to the synthesis of cultures and appearance of stable cultural stereotypes, which glorified courage and patriotism yet condemned unnecessary belligerence and cruelty. Evil or good, war in early mediaeval times defined the paths of evolution for the Belarusian society for centuries to come.

This study of war is neither written just for the sake of it, nor intended for the exclusive use by scholars. It aims to return history to its basic function of providing people with an understanding of reality based on the analysis of the past experience of the humankind. The application of this knowledge may range from figuring out everyday situations to providing blueprint for decision-making by politicians, generals and researchers. Given the tendency of events to repeat in cycles throughout history, the analysis of such an important and persistent matter as war in the past must help to treat it more adequately in the future. This study, as raw and imperfect as it might be, is a step in this direction.

[1] The terms “Rus'”, “Kyivan Rus'”, “Ruthenia” and “Ruthenian” as opposed to “Russia” and “Russian” are used to distinguish between the early mediaeval state with the centres in Kyiv and Novgorod and the independent duchies it disintegrated into on one hand, and the later state with the centre in Moscow on the other. The latter could be considered a distant descendant of the former yet the two are not identical. The confusion with the names is often purposefully used by Russian nationalists to lay claims on all political and spiritual heritage of Kyivan Rus’.

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