The Russian army is rightly preoccupying people at present.
When preparing for the first live talk I have given for quite a long time, I was trying to find a better image to illustrate Peter the Great’s ‘play regiments’.
I came across this bright 17th century woodcut, the illustration from a book. I think the figure in red in the foreground, among the green jacketed troops, must be Peter. The scene perhaps shows one of the mock battles that he fought with his ‘troops‘ at the real fort that was constructed for their use outside Moscow in 1685 when Peter was just twelve years old. I particularly like the pot-bellied mortar that Peter seems to be about to ignite.
Peter became joint Tsar with his older brother Ivan in 1782, at the age of ten. Soon after this his older sister, Sophia, seized power helped by her lover Golytsin. Despite this Peter, it seems, was allowed plenty of freedom and, extraordinarily, Sophia did not seem to notice how to the north of Moscow he occupied himself playing soldiers. Initially Peter engaged his young friends from the nobility, but later boys and men from other parts of society were co-opted. In time proper officers from abroad were recruited to train the troops, and ultimately in 1689/70 Peter was able to use them to overthrow his sister and take back the throne.
Peter formed his troops into two regiments, the Preobrazhensky and Semenovsky, named after two villages close to Moscow where their manoeuvres took place. In time these regiments came to form elite life guard regiments with close personal links to all later Emperors. Unsurprisingly, they were disbanded after the Revolution of 1917.
It was only in 2013, coincidentally just before Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula, that the elite regiments returned. By presidential decree an existing regiment was given the name Preobrazhensky. The Semenovsky Regiment was in the same year recreated as a rifle regiment with responsibility for securing at the Moscow Kremlin. The narrative surrounding these changes emphasized the historic continuity intended in resurrecting the names of ‘famous legendary units’.
It seems clear that, like Catherine the Great before him, Vladimir Putin is keen to underscore his legitimacy by associating himself with Peter, his autocratic and ambiguous predecessor, although sadly the contemporary photographs of the revived regiments rather lack the romance of the pre-revolutionary guards.