Take almost any three centuries in the life of a European country since the Roman Empire and you could easily claim that they were momentous. Nevertheless the 15th to 17th centuries - the period covered by this set - would certainly be described as such by Russia. At its outset there were still numerous small Rus states, mostly under the control (or at least heavy influence) of the neighbouring Mongol states. Muscovy was the most important of these by now, and after the 'stand at the Ugra' the dominance of the Tatars was effectively at an end and Muscovy grew rapidly, gradually taking on the form of a major nation state - Russia.
Since early medieval times the cavalry had been the most important part of Rus armies, drawn from the Prince's retainers, and for a time this continued to be the case during this period. However the rulers, now calling themselves Tsar of all Russia, created a new expanded gentry which served as Russia's cavalry and were the backbone of her armies. The 16th century was the high point of such men, yet times were changing and the Russian army needed to adapt. Infantry became more important again, and during the 17th century newer forms of cavalry such as dragoons were being introduced. It was the twilight of Russian Noble Cavalry, but it had been a glorious age.
Zvezda describe all the figures on the top row and the first figure in the second row as simply 'cavalryman', but each is very different from his neighbour. Most have armour of various forms which were common in Russia and very Eastern in influence, as was much else. Very different from Western armour of the time (indeed the West was losing armour long before Russia followed suit), everything here is very typical of Russia, with the distinctive cuirass types, tall pointed helmets and curved sabres. The first figure wears a large quilted armour and carries a type of lance with a large blade nicely illustrated on the right of the box artwork. Most of the rest of the cavaliers are using sabres, which was indeed the most common weapon, although bows such as that in the hands of one man were still common, again far later than in Western Europe. Most of the figures have a small whip attached to their right wrist - a style of riding taken from the Mongols and well presented here. One man even has a musket hanging my his side, which was an expensive and not particularly common choice but deserves its presence here, as does the pistol tucked into another man's belt.
The remaining three figures represent the specialists we are used to getting from Zvezda. The trumpeter and flag-bearer, both of whom hold very impressive tools of their trade, are not armoured and are armed only with a sabre. They wear fairly typical boyar clothing of a heavy kaftan and cap, the former with lines of lace across the chest and the latter with the usual fur trim. With no uniform the splendour of these men was largely a matter of personal taste and personal wealth, but both these figures are completely authentic. The commander at the end of the row wears some very impressive armour including a very fine fluted helmet. Around his shoulders he has a heavy coat, and he carries a small axe (as a symbol of his authority rather than a serious battle weapon). Once again such men dressed as they pleased, and this figure is as well dressed as any.
There are no particularly outstanding poses in this set, but all are perfectly reasonable. The trumpeter has been achieved thanks to a separate left arm but otherwise the figures come in one piece apart from the lance of the first figure. We were more disappointed with the horse poses, particularly that of the most common animal, which did not seem particularly natural. In terms of saddlery etc these are all correctly done or even rather restrained compared to some actual examples of horse furniture, so on that score at least the horses are OK.
Zvezda remains the standard to beat in terms of quality of production and manufacture, and all these figures are exquisitely done. The subject matter was very highly decorated and calls for a lot of detail, and these figures deliver it comfortably, with no unwanted plastic or flash to remove first. Apart from the trumpeter's left arm the only other separate piece is the commander's coat, which by being separate allows for a much more realistic portrayal and works very well here. However this coat is not optional as the deep collar is part of the figure itself. As usual the pegs on the men's legs need to be cut back to allow placement on the horses, but all parts fit together beautifully with no gluing required anywhere.
As so often Zvezda have claimed a very long time period for their product, and needless to say this rather exaggerates the usable period for these figures. On the whole they are useful for the late 15th century and the whole of the 16th, but those in armour would have dwindled during the 17th century. Nevertheless these are first-rate figures which do about as good a job as could be expected in depicting such a visually diverse subject in only eight poses. The armies of the early Tsars made good use of these men, and now modern modellers can do likewise.