Russian Tortuga or pirates of the Vyatka region


In the 2000s, children all over the world played pirates of the Caribbean, and meanwhile, Russian history also had its own traditions of sea (or rather river) robbers. Now Vyatka (aka Kirov) is known only for its Dymkovo toy, washing machines and refrigerators, but 600 years ago, outside the city, then called Khlynov, there was a completely different glory!

It is believed that the Normans stopped terrorizing Europe at the end of the 11th century. However, a bad example is known to be contagious. Around the same time, the so-called «ushkuyniki» appeared in Russia.

There is considerable debate about the etymology of the word. According to the version defended by the famous philologist Vasmer, the name of the boat of Russian pirates «ushkuy» goes back to the name of the polar bear among the northern peoples — «oskui». It sounds very convincing, especially when you consider that bear heads were carved on the prows of ships, just as the Vikings decorated their longships with images of dragons.

Another common version derives the name «ushkuy» from the local rivulet, on which these rowing boats allegedly first began to be made. They were 14 meters long and allowed to accommodate up to 30 people with their weapons, and if luck smiles, then with prey.

At first, probably, the actions of the ushkuiniks completely repeated the patterns of behavior of the Varangian squads. They were also hired to secure the movement of their own cargo on the water, however, being out of work, they easily retrained as robbers and attacked other people’s caravans, not really making out the Slavs in front of them, the Bulgars or who else.

Originally, the Ushkuiniki were probably Novgorodians, and although in the end the center of their stay shifted far to the northeast, they always retained close ties with the free city. In 1187, it was these «pirates of the northern rivers» who plundered and destroyed the Swedish capital of Sigtuna. The talk that the Novgorodians had nothing to do with this operation is ridiculous, since it is in the St. Sophia Cathedral of this city that the famous “Sigtun Gates” can still be observed.

In 1318, the ushkuiniks get to the capital of Finland and seize money there that had been collected for the pope for five years, which seriously exposes the neighbors to the wrath of the Vatican. Soon a series of raids on the Norwegian coast forced the Swedes who were in charge there at that time to make peace with Veliky Novgorod.

It is obvious that in each of these operations, the ushkuins acted not only in their own interests, and therefore maintained close contacts with the city. In the end, just to rob someone rich, it was not necessary to sail to Norway, it was enough to attack the same Novgorodians, who always had something to profit from.

When Russia plunged into the dark ages of Mongol domination and humility, rather than love of freedom, began to be considered a virtue, the ushkuyns remained, perhaps, the only bearers of the former Slavic values. They were as far as possible from the Christian commandments in the spirit of “turn the other cheek”, and therefore all agreements with them based on kissing the cross had no weight. As soon as the earmen saw a benefit for themselves, they did not miss it.

And now it was not the Scandinavians and not the Bulgars who got it from Russian pirates, but the Golden Horde itself. In 1360, the Ushkuiniki took the Tatar city of Zhukotin, and after another 14 years, they took advantage of the confusion in the enemy’s capital and captured Sarai! Just after returning from this campaign, they founded Khlynov — the prototype of the future Zaporizhzhya Sich and other free fortresses on the territory of our country.

However, it is not worth idealizing the earpieces. They were not the defenders of Orthodox Russia from alien invaders. For example, just two years after the looting of Saray, a 1,500-strong army of ushkuiniks ravaged Kostroma and Nizhny Novgorod, not only taking valuables, but also taking many people into slavery, who were later sold in slave markets in the same Horde.

In the 15th century, Moscow tried to negotiate with northern pirates both through the Novgorodians and using church leaders, in particular, Metropolitan Gerontius, who called for an end to raids on Orthodox lands. However, everything was in vain. Then Ivan III gathered a truly all-Russian army, numbering 74 thousand people, and sent him to Khlynov with the firm intention of putting an end to the pirate republic.

The Ushkuyniki tried, as usual, to pay off, but this time nothing came of it. For the salvation of the city from plunder, they had to pay by issuing three leaders for reprisal. The rest of the pirates were left alive, but (following the example of the recent “pacification” of Novgorod) they were expelled from Khlynov, and a population loyal to Moscow was brought in their place.

As for the earwigs, their work has not disappeared. Around this time, the Cossacks appeared in Russia, who, although they acted in a completely different region, with their way of life, behavior, and even a number of military traditions, very unequivocally reminded of the pirate republic that once flourished in the northeast of Europe.