Smolensk

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

An earthwork fort with five bastions'was built in Smolensk after forces of the Polish-Lethuanian Commonwealth captured the town from the Grand Duchy of Muscovy (later Russia) in 1611. This fort was known as Sigmund Fort (Fortalitium Sigismundanum) to the Poles or Royal Bastion (Korolievskij Bastion) to the Russians. Smolensk had been lost to Muscovy in 1514 and Polish King Sigismund III Vasa (Zygmunt III Waza) invaded Russia during its Time of Troubles (Smuta) to recapture the town for the Commonwealth. An epic siege of the late medieval style town walls lasted 20 months, and in the last assault on the 13th of June 1611 the royal infantry assaulted a large breach in south-west part of brick-stone walling, which had been made by a heavy artillery bombardment. One of the towers was completely destroyed, and the neighbouring ones as well as the adjoining walls were badly damaged.

To close the gap in the town walls, Prince Wladislaus Vasa (later King Władysław IV Waza), son of King Sigismund , heir to the Polish Crown and viceroy of the recaptured territory, decided to erect a Dutch-style earthwork fort, such as he had seen in Antwerp in the Netherlands while travelling abroad. There he hired a young German-Dutch military engineer, Johann Pleitner, who was made responsible for the construction of a citadel, filling the gap in town's defences. In the following years he also worked on fortifications on the Polish Baltic coast and took part in surveying Ukraine.

Both Vasa and Pleitner had been impressed by the citadel of Antwerp, so they decided on a pentagonal citadel of the same form. The fort has narrow curtains and acute bastions, which were revetted in white stone at the foot of the rampart. Three bastions are on the outside of the town walls to cover the deep ditch'in front of the walls and the other two bastions extend inside the town to facilitate an artillery bombardment of riotous or treacherous inhabitants. The form of the fort is a slightly stretched pentagon, with the longitudinal axis between the faces of the longest bastion inside town in the NE direction. Construction began in 1626 and was completed in 1632 just before the Muscovite siege of Smolensk in 1632-1634.

The size of pentagon at its base is approximately 170-158-170-170-158 metres. The height of the parapet is about 18 metres, level with the top of town walls. The earthen bastions and curtain walls were built in two steps, each 9 metres high. Inside the upper step of the embankment arsenals and stores for the powder and munitions were built from brick and there are small stone gates on the inside of the rampart that lead to these facilities. Underground brick-lined countermines and listening galleries, to detect the enemy's mining activity, were also built. The only entrance gateway, built of brick, was located in the curtain between two bastions inside the town. The gate was equipped with lateral guardrooms and arrangements for an iron portcullis. On top there was a cavalier'or artillery platform, which commanded the curtain and swept the space of the inner town.

The citadel was surrounded with a flooded ditch 3 metres deep and was connected to the town by a wooden drawbridge. The gap between the rampart and the old town walls at the foot of the ditch was closed with an iron grating. There was a line of palisades running along the middle of the ditch and storm poles (sharpened stakes) set horizontally at parapet level. Inside the fort there were garrison barracks, storehouses and inner guardrooms beside the gate. In the middle of the inner courtyard stood a signaling tower with an alarm bell and a sentry hut on top.

During the first siege by Russians in 1632-1633 the citadel was not even assaulted and the Muscovites, on the advice of hired western military engineers, battered the southernmost part of the old walls with artillery fire and mines. A general assault in June 1633 through the breach was met with a bloody repulse. The relief army led by newly elected King Wladislaus IV freed the town from the siege, the citadel artillery covered up the passage of the royal infantry to the Dnieper river Muscovite retrenchements. The Russians with their western mercenaries were in turn besieged in their field fortifications in a bend in the river Dnieper, few kilometers east of town. The constant Polish bombardment, hunger and rampant diseases forced Russian army to capitulate. Only a quarter of the army that came to the walls of Smolensk in 1632 survived to march back to Moscow, leaving all artillery and military equipment to the Commonwealth forces.

The last siege of Smolensk in 1654, this time in Polish Time of Trouble - constant wars with Swedes and Ukrainian rebels, lasted only three months. The Commonwealth armies were engaged in many other parts of the Commonwealth, against rebels and Swedes and so they could not provide for relief for the besieged town as in 1633. The first Muscovite general assault was rebuffed, the citadel showing its strength, decimating Russian infantry on the slopes of its ramparts. But this was the last success for the besieged. The morale of the defenders ran low after the news of Lithuanian army's defeat at the battle of Szepielewicze to a Russian army of superior numbers. With no hope of relief, short of ammunition and with part of the gentry collaborating with Tsar Alexey, Smolensk yielded by capitulation at the end of September 1654. Smolensk region with the town was ceded formally to Russia in 1667 and was never regained by the Commonwealth.

The Royal Citadel was a modern strongpoint of the town defences and showed its worth during both of the sieges. But it had the same disadvantage as all earthen Dutch-style fortifications, in the course of time the earthen banks subsided and palisades decayed. The severe Russian winters with the freezing and thawing served to hasten the erosion of the rampart. The citadel, like other earthen fortifications, proved to be difficult to maintain in peacetime. Shortly before the siege, the rampart had to be repaired feverishly, often under enemy fire.

The Russians repaired the fort twice in XVII century, at the beginning of XVIII century and at the beginning of XIX century during the Napoleonic wars. In XVIII century casemates were built into the subsided parts of the curtains and the gaps between the rampart slopes and the old walls were filled with brick walls. The last use of the citadel took place in 1812 ,when Russians gave a brief two-day resistance to Emperor Napoleon's army that was marching east to Moscow. In 1875 the decaying citadel was turned into a municipal park with planted flowers, trees and restaurant.

Visiting Smolensk

During the Soviet era, the citadel as well as the rest of town walls was neglected and fell into complete disrepair. Now it is used as place for shabby garages, storehouses and as a rubbish dump. Some of bastions are fenced off and there is no access to them, most are eroded and have subsided into shapeless lumps. On the occasion of 1150 anniversary of Smolensk, to be celebrated in 2012, some funding from the Russian government was declared for a restoration of the walls and the citadel. Maybe at last, some measures will be taken to clear up the site and to restore the earthworks, masonry and inner spaces. The fortification is a classic example of an early Dutch pentagonal bastioned fort that in Russia. Most of the other fortifications of this kind in Europe did not last so long. Turin and Antwerp's citadels, which were a template for the Smolensk one, do not exist any more.

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

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