In the 15th century, there originated in Russia the practice, unknown in other countries at the time, of awarding all the participants in a major campaign special tokens of honour - gold medals. The higher the status of the recipient was, the bigger and heavier medal he might expect to receive. For example, a voyevoda (general) might be given a big gold medal, often on a heavy gold chain, while rank-and-file fighting men received small lightweight badges, sometimes even made not of gold but of slightly gilded silver.
A big gold medal has survived to this day from the times of Ivan the Terrible. It has two holes punched in its upper part for fastening the medal to an outer garment or to a gold chain. Of much interest is the record made by the English traveller Giles Fletcher during his stay in Russia in the days of Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich, the son of Ivan the Terrible. He wrote that the tsar sent those who distinguished themselves for bravery or rendered some outstanding service a gold piece with a representation of St George on horseback, to be worn on a sleeve or a hat, which was regarded as the greatest honour that could be received for any service whatsoever.
The tradition of giving out distinctions on a mass scale along with personal awards continued into the 17th century. Thus, in 1654, tens of thousands of gold medals of the value of one gold copeck to three 10-ruble pieces were sent to the Ukraine to be given to the Cossacks headed by Hetman Bogdan Khmelnitsky in commemoration of the reunification of the Ukraine with Russia. The hetman himself was awarded a gold medal of the value of ten 10-ruble gold pieces (about 43 grammes of gold).
In the early 18th century, medals still served as mass distinctive tokens, but now they already had certain specific features. Shown on them was a portrait of Peter the Great and the date on which the event for which the bearer was decorated took place, and also, not infrequently, a battle scene if the medal was a combat decoration. Throughout the first two decades of the 18th century, Russia waged the arduous Northern War with Sweden, and thus an overwhelming majority of medals of the Petrovian period were related with various events of that war. In October 1702, the old Russian fortress Oreshek, which had been in the hands of the Swedes for 90 years under the name of Noteborg and which was renamed Schlusselburg, "key-town", after it was redeemed by Russia, was liberated by storm. "Many a lock has been unlocked by this key", Peter the Great wrote later about the significance of that fortress, which enabled the Russians firmly to establish themselves on the Neva River and the Baltic Sea. The medal awarded to the participants in the taking of Noteborg shows the moment of storming the fortress.
Special medals were also instituted to mark the capture of two Swedish warships in the mouth of the Neva in May 1703 and the victorious battles at Kalish in 1706 and at the village of Lesnaya in 1708.
The central land fight with the Swedes, which decided the outcome of the entire Northern War, was the Battle of Poltava, which took place on June 27, 1709. The victors were lavishly decorated with orders, portraits of Peter the Great given as tokens of honour, and also silver medals specially minted to commemorate the occasion. The latter were intended only for the noncommissioned officers and privates of the Preobrazhensky and Semyonovsky Guards regiments. In addition to a portrait of Peter the Great, the noncoms' medals showed an engagement between cavalry detachments and the medals for private soldiers, an engagement between infantry units. The medals given for the Battle of Poltava were worn on a narrow blue ribbon of the colour of the ribbon of the Order of St Andrew the First-Called, the only Russian order at the time.
The year 1714 saw the famous sea fight at Cape Hanko, which holds in the history of the Russian navy a place as prominent as the Battle of Poltava holds in the list of victories of the Russian army. Ten Swedish warships were captured in the battle. The victory was celebrated on a grand scale and a large number of decorations were given out. The officers who took part in the battle received gold medals, "each in proportion to his rank", and all the sailors and marines were given silver medals. The pictorial compositions and inscriptions on the officers' and sailors' medals awarded for the Battle at Cape Hanko were the same. The design on the obverse featured a traditional portrait of Peter the Great and that on the reverse, the positioning of the Russian and Swedish ships at the moment when the Russians mounted the decisive attack. Shown on the reverse of the medals is also the date on which the battle took place - July 27, 1714.
After the death of Peter the Great in 1725, the custom of awarding medals was abandoned for several decades in Russia, largely due to the fact that the Petrovian military traditions sank into oblivion and because of the domination in Russia of foreigners who made the Russian army blindly follow the Prussian pattern. It was only in the second half of the 18th century that the Russian army and navy began gradually to rid themselves of foreign influence and to revive their national traditions.
During the Seven Years' War, Russian troops, which fought against the Prussians, inflicted several defeats on them. Russian soldiers and Cossacks appeared in the streets of Berlin. It was not accidental that the first Russian soldiers' medal instituted after a long interval commemorated the glorious victory of the Russian army over Prussian forces at Kuhnersdorf on August 1,1759. This victory vividly demonstrated the fact that neither the Prussian nor any other West European army could serve as a model for the Russian armed forces. The medal given for participation in the battle at Kuhnersdorf on August 1, 1759, had the inscription "To Victor over the Prussians" on its reverse. For a long period after the giving of this decoration, of which 30,000 pieces were minted, Prussian emissaries kept coming to Russia, offering plenty of money for these medals so as to buy them up from their bearers and thus to wipe out the memory of the victory of the Russian fighting spirit and military art.
The progressive changes that were taking place in the Russian army manifested themselves particularly vividly in the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774. The outstanding Russian military leader Pyotr Rumyantsev inflicted three defeats on numerically superior Turkish troops at Ryabaya Mogila, Larga and Kagul over a period of two months in 1770. The last of the three battles, in which Turkish troops were defeated despite the fact that they outnumbered Russian forces fivefold, was marked by issuing silver medals with the inscription "Kagul 21 July 1770".
In June of that same year, less than a month prior to the victory of the Russian army at Kagul, the Turkish fleet was routed in a sea fight at Chesma Bay. All the Turkish warships taking part in the battle were destroyed. The medal, which was awarded to all the sailors, shows a scene from the battle and has only one word, "Was", meaning that there had been a Turkish fleet and now it was no more, inscribed on it.
On October 1,1787, at the very beginning of the next Russo-Turkish war the famous battle of Kinburn took place. In that battle, Russian troops led by Alexander Suvorov severely defeated and threw into the sea a strong Turkish landing force supported by fire from enemy warships. Silver medals were instituted for the decoration of participants in the battle, but the procedure of awarding them was rather unusual for the Russian award system of the day. Out of the 4,000 Russian participants in the battle, only 19 fighting men, selected by the soldiers themselves from among their number, were given the medal. "These men", wrote Suvorov, submitting the list of those put forward for decoration, "have been unanimously selected by their units as the worthiest of the distinction."
The taking of Ochakov and Izmail by storm added glorious pages to Russian military history. All the soldiers who took part in the assaults were given silver medals with appropriate inscriptions for the capture of the fortresses.
The following exceptional episode should also be recalled. In 1790, a unit of Russian troops under the command of Lieutenant-General Yu. B. Bibikov, who launched the operation on his own initiative, set out on an expedition with the objective of taking the fortress Anapa, which was held by the Turks. The expedition was absolutely unprepared, the area had not been reconnoitred and the timing was wrong, for it coincided with the season of springtime floods. Yet nevertheless, the enemy was defeated in several engagements thanks to the heroism and endurance of the Russian soldiers. When the unit led by Bibikov finally reached Anapa, the Russians found themselves in a disastrous situation: there were no food supplies and horses left and the soldiers were worn out by incessant encounters with the enemy on the way. Under these conditions, the assault on the Anapa fortress ended in failure. The unit had to retreat, completely lacking provisions and experiencing an acute shortage of warm clothes. Only five thousand Russian men and officers out of the nearly 8,000-strong unit returned from the 40-day-long expedition. Fifteen hundred men died of starvation while the unit was on the road. And yet not a single gun was left for the enemy to get hold of. Bibikov was put to trial for the unauthorised operation and subsequently discharged from the army. The rank-and-file participants in the expedition were awarded silver soldiers' medals with the inscription "For Loyalty".
A special place among the numerous Russian medals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is held by a group of personal distinctions with the family name of the bearer inscribed on the medal. They were intended for those who had rendered prominent services to the state but who, being of humble birth, were not entitled to receive an order. Among others, these medals were given to Cossack leaders, mostly in connection with the participation of a large number of Cossacks in the Russo-Turkish wars in the second half of the 18th century. On these medals, the reason for awarding them was briefly stated in addition to the name of the bearer, for example: "To Kalnishevsky, Commander of the Zaporozhye Cos-sack Army, for exceptional gallantry in fighting the enemy and for particular devotion to the service."
A severe trial that fell to Russia's lot was the Patriotic War of 1812, from which the country emerged victorious owing to the fortitude and patriotism of the ordinary Russian people. Quite a few Russian officers and generals, disciples and successors of great Suvorov, also made an immense contribution to the victory. A special medal, made of silver or bronze, was instituted in commemoration of the Patriotic War of 1812. The silver medal was intended for all those who had been in action and the bronze medal, for noblemen, merchants and clergymen who had not taken immediate part in the warfare.
The biggest war of the 19th century, not counting the Napoleon-ian wars, was the Crimean War which Russia waged against the coalition of Great Britain, France, Turkey, and Sardinia, which joined in with them later on. It was an unjust, annexionist war on either side, but a number of its individual episodes such as the battle at Sinop or the defence of Sevastopol were major landmarks in Russian military history.
The principal Russian decoration instituted in commemoration of the Eastern War (as the war of 1853-1856 was officially named) was a bronze medal for members of all the civilian and military ranks of the Russian Empire, established in August 1856. The part played by the bearer in the war was indicated by the colour of the ribbon on which the medal was worn. Medals on the orange-and-black ribbon of the Order of St George, the most honourable Russian military decoration, instituted in 1769, were given to participants in those battles fought during the Eastern War which were successful for the Russian forces. Medals on St George's ribbon were given to the participants in the battle at Sinop in November 1853, in which a Russian squadron under the command of Admiral Nakhimov defeated a Turkish squadron, having destroyed 15 out of 16 enemy warships and having lost none of its own. Medals on this ribbon were also granted to those who had taken part in the warfare in the Caucasus in the course of which the troops of the Separate Caucasian Corps, supported from the sea by the ships of the Russian Black Sea Squadron, defeated the Turkish army, having captured a number of the enemy's strongholds.
The medal "In Memory of the War of 1853-1856" with the right to wear it on St George's ribbon was given to still another small group of participants in the Eastern War. In August 1854, a combined Anglo-French squadron of six warships under the joint command of a British and a French admiral approached the coast of Kamchatka. On August 18, the squadron dropped anchor in Avachinsk Bay, intending to capture Petropavlovsk-on-Kamchatka, the principal Russian base in that area. The numerical strength of the defenders of Petropavlovsk together with volunteers from among the local population came to less than 1,000 officers and men, with a 39-gun coast artillery unit and two warships armed with a total of 29 guns, which were stationed in Petropavlovsk Bay. The enemy warships had more than 200 guns.
The Petropavlovsk garrison accepted an unequal battle and repulsed two attempts of the enemy, supported by artillery, to land troops in the environs of the town. Considerable losses were inflicted on the attackers. On August 27, the Anglo-French squadron raised anchor and left the Russian territorial waters.
Men of all the military and civilian ranks who had been in action at other theatres of war, where it was the Allies that were more successful, or who had been in areas where a state of siege was declared received medals on the blue ribbon of the Order of St Andrew the First-Called. All other military men and civilians were awarded medals on the black-and-red ribbon of the Order of St Vladimir, and the merchants who had donated in support of the war effort or in aid of the wounded were given medals on the golden-and-red ribbon of the Order of St Anne.
The medals for participants in the war of 1853-1856 were of two varieties: light bronze medals for members of the army and the navy and dark bronze medals for civilians. Later on, the awarding of the light bronze medal on St Andrew's ribbon was extended to "persons of all the estates, even serfs, who have a badge of honour of the military order (St George's cross - V.D.) or a medal for Sevastopol and who were wounded in action."
Participants in the heroic defence of Sevastopol were awarded the silver medal "For the Defence of Sevastopol" on St George's ribbon. Everyone, including serfs, who had taken part in the defence of the city from September 13,1854, when a state of siege was declared in Sevastopol, till August 27,1855, the day of the final assault on the city, were entitled to receive this medal. The last date of the city's defence shown on the medal is August 28, the day when the Russian troops had to retreat to a new line of defence, and not August 27.
The ukase on the institution of the medal expressly stated the right of women "who served at hospitals or rendered prominent services during the defence of Sevastopol" to this medal. The nurses who worked in the Crimea during the war were given a special award. All of them received silver medals with the inscription "Crimea - 1854 - 1855 - 1856", and famous Dasha Sevastopolskaya was awarded a gold medal.
Many women - the wives and sisters of the sailors who were fighting in defence of Sevastopol - brought water to the bastions and carried ammunition to the firing positions in their arms when the enemy fire prevented the troops from delivering it in carts. For these heroic deeds, some of them were put forward by Admiral Nakhimov himself for decoration with the silver medal "For Devotion" or with an even higher award - the military medal "For Gallantry" on St George's ribbon.
Another Russian medal, made in three varieties of metal, was instituted for participation in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, during which Turkish domination over the Balkans came to an end. All the participants in the heroic defence of Shipka and Bayazet and in the assault on the Turkish fortress Kars were awarded silver medals. The servicemen who had taken part in all the other battles were given light bronze medals. And, lastly, those who had been in the zone of military operations in line of duty but who had not directly participated in action received dark bronze medals. Bulgarian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Romanian awards were also instituted to commemorate the liberation of the Balkans from the Turkish yoke. They were given to quite a number of the servicemen of the Russian army, which played a decisive role in delivering the Balkan peoples from.foreign oppression.
Whereas the war with Turkey which Russia waged in 1877-1878 brought freedom to the peoples of the Balkan Peninsula, the war with Japan in 1904-1905 was conducted solely in the interests of the Russian ruling circles. Yet during that war the Russian soldiers and sailors once again displayed fortitude, courage and military skill. On January 27, 1904, a Japanese squadron consisting of 14 warships made a sudden attack on two Russian men-of-war - the cruiser Varyag and the gunboat Koreyets. The Russian sailors accepted an unequal battle and sank one enemy warship and damaged another two ships. However, the Russian ships also suffered heavy damage and casualties. The crews of the Varyag and the Koreyets sank their ships rather than let them fall into the hands of the enemy.
As a reward for that battle, all of the personnel of the Russian ships that took part in the fight were given medals on a special ribbon of the colours of St Andrew's flag - the flag of the Russian na-vy. The obverse of the medal shows St George's cross framed in a wreath and bears the inscription "For the Battle Fought by the Varyag and the Koreyets on January 27,1904 - Chemulpo." Shown on its reverse are the Varyag and the Koreyets on the roadstead at Chemulpo, ready to offer battle to the Japanese squadron. It is not accidental that St George's cross is to be seen on the medal for the sea fight at Chemulpo. Besides the medal, all the officers who had participated in the battle were awarded the Order of St George and all the sailors, St George's cross.
Another of the few glorious pages in the Russo-Japanese War was the heroic defence of Port Arthur in 1904, which at first was not marked by a Russian decoration. The people of France, who admired the defenders of Port Arthur for their fortitude, raised a subscription and minted French medals for the heroes. This medal, however, had the name of General Stessel shown on it among other inscriptions. The general, who had been in command of the Port Arthur garrison, disgracefully surrendered the fortress although it was still strong enough to offer resistance. The name of Stessel, who was court-martialled for the surrender, gave grounds to the tsarist government to ban the wearing of this medal. As for a Russian distinction for the participants in the defence of Port Arthur, it was only instituted by the time of the 10th anniversary of the events.