The Crimean War
For weeks the pilgrims had been coming to Jerusalem for the Easter festival. They came from every corner of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, from Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Anatolia, the Greek peninsula, but most of all from Russia, travelling by sea to the port of Jaffa where they hired camels or donkeys. By Good Friday, on 10 April 1846, there were 20,000 pilgrims in Jerusalem. They rented any dwelling they could find or slept in family groups beneath the stars. To pay for their long journey nearly all of them had brought some merchandise, a handmade crucifix or ornament, strings of beads or pieces of embroidery, which they sold to European tourists at the holy shrines. The square before the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the focus of their pilgrimage, was a busy marketplace, with colourful displays of fruit and vegetables competing for space with pilgrims' wares and the smelly hides of goats and oxen left out in the sun by the tanneries behind the church. Beggars, too, collected here. They frightened strangers into giving alms by threatening to touch them with their leprous hands. Wealthy tourists had to be protected by their Turkish guides, who hit the beggars with heavy sticks to clear a path to the church doors.
In 1846 Easter fell on the same date in the Latin and Greek Orthodox calendars, so the holy shrines were much more crowded than usual, and the mood was very tense. The two religious communities had long been arguing about who should have first right to carry out their Good Friday rituals on the altar of Calvary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the spot where the cross of Jesus was supposed to have been inserted in the rock. During recent years the rivalry between the Latins and the Greeks had reached such fever pitch that Mehmet Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Jerusalem, had been forced toposition soldiers inside and outside the church to preserve order. But even this had not prevented fights from breaking out.
On this Good Friday the Latin priests arrived with their white linen altar-cloth to find that the Greeks had got there first with their silk embroidered cloth. The Catholics demanded to see the Greeks' firman, their decree from the Sultan in Constantinople, empowering them to place their silk cloth on the altar first. The Greeks demanded to see the Latins' firman allowing them to remove it. A fight broke out between the priests, who were quickly joined by monks and pilgrims on either side. Soon the whole church was a battlefield. The rival groups of worshippers fought not only with their fists, but with crucifixes, candlesticks, chalices, lamps and incense-burners, and even bits of wood which they tore from the sacred shrines. The fighting continued with knives and pistols smuggled into the Holy Sepulchre by worshippers of either side. By the time the church was cleared by Mehmet Pasha's guards, more than forty people lay dead on the floor.1
'See here what is done in the name of religion!' wrote the English social commentator Harriet Martineau, who travelled to the Holy Lands of Palestine and Syria in 1846.
This Jerusalem is the most sacred place in the world, except Mekkeh, to the Mohammedan: and to the Christian and the Jew, it is the most sacred place in the world. What are they doing in this sanctuary of their common Father, as they all declare it to be? Here are the Mohammedans eager to kill any Jew or Christian who may enter the Mosque of Omar. There are the Greeks and Latin Christians hating each other, and ready to kill any Jew or Mohammedan who may enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. And here are the Jews, pleading against their enemies, in the vengeful language of their ancient prophets.2
The rivalry between the Christian Churches was intensified by the rapid growth in the number of pilgrims to Palestine in the nineteenth century. Railways and steamships made mass travel possible, opening up the region to tour-groups of Catholics from France and Italy and to the devout middle classes of Europe and America. The various Churches vied with one another for influence. They set up missions to support their pilgrims, competed over purchases of land, endowed bishoprics and monasteries, and established schools to convert the Orthodox Arabs(mainly Syrian and Lebanese), the largest but least educated Christian community in the Holy Lands.
'Within the last two years considerable presents have been sent to Jerusalem to decorate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Russian, French, Neapolitan and Sardinian governments,' reported William Young, the British consul in Palestine and Syria, to Lord Palmerston at the Foreign Office in 1839.
There are many symptoms of increasing jealousy and inimical feeling among the churches. The petty quarrels that have always existed between the Latin, Greek and Armenian convents were of little moment so long as their differences were settled from time to time by the one giving a larger bribe to the Turkish authorities than the other. But that day passes by, for these countries are now no longer closed against European intrigue in church matters.3
Between 1842 and 1847 there was a flurry of activity in Jerusalem: the Anglicans founded a bishopric; the Austrians set up a Franciscan printing press; the French established a consulate in Jerusalem and pumped money into schools and churches for the Catholics; Pope Pius IX re-established a resident Latin patriarch, the first since the Crusades of the twelfth century; the Greek patriarch returned from Constantinople to tighten his hold on the Orthodox; and the Russians sent an ecclesiastical mission, which led to the foundation of a Russian compound with a hostel, hospital, chapel, school and marketplace to support the large and growing number of Russian pilgrims.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church sent more pilgrims to Jerusalem than any other branch of the Christian faith. Every year up to 15,000 Russian pilgrims would arrive in Jerusalem for the Easter festival, some even making the long trek on foot across Russia and the Caucasus, through Anatolia and Syria. For the Russians, the holy shrines of Palestine were objects of intense and passionate devotion: to make a pilgrimage to them was the highest possible expression of their faith.
In some ways the Russians saw the Holy Lands as an extension of their spiritual motherland. The idea of 'Holy Russia' was not contained by any territorial boundaries; it was an empire of the Orthodox with sacred shrines throughout the lands of Eastern Christianity andwith the Holy Sepulchre as its mother church. 'Palestine', wrote one Russian theologian in the 1840s, 'is our native land, in which we do not recognize ourselves as foreigners.'4 Centuries of pilgrimage had laid the basis of this claim, establishing a link between the Russian Church and the Holy Places (connected with the life of Christ in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth) which many Russians counted more important - the basis of a higher spiritual authority - than the temporal and political sovereignty of the Ottomans in Palestine.
Nothing like this ardour could be found among the Catholics or Protestants, for whom the Holy Places were objects of historical interest and romantic sentiment rather than religious devotion. The travel writer and historian Alexander Kinglake thought that 'the closest likeness of a pilgrim which the Latin Church could supply was often a mere French tourist with a journal and a theory and a plan of writing a book'. European tourists were repelled by the intense passion of the Orthodox pilgrims, whose strange rituals struck them as 'barbaric' and as 'degrading superstitions'. Martineau refused to go to the Holy Sepulchre to see the washing of the pilgrims' feet on Good Friday. 'I could not go to witness mummeries done in the name of Christianity,' she wrote, 'compared with which the lowest fetishism on the banks of an African river would have been inoffensive.' For the same reason, she would not go to the ceremony of the Holy Fire on Easter Saturday, when thousands of Orthodox worshippers squeezed into the Holy Sepulchre to light their torches from the miraculous flames that appeared from the tomb of Christ. Rival groups of Orthodox - Greeks, Bulgarians, Moldavians, Serbians and Russians - would jostle with each other to light their candles first; fights would start; and sometimes worshippers were crushed to death or suffocated in the smoke. Baron Curzon, who witnessed one such scene in 1834, described the ceremony as a 'scene of disorder and profanation' in which the pilgrims, 'almost in a state of nudity, danced about with frantic gestures, yelling and screaming as if they were possessed'.5
It is hardly surprising that a Unitarian such as Martineau or an Anglican like Curzon should have been so hostile to such rituals: demonstrations of religious emotion had long been effaced from the Protestant Church. Like many tourists in the Holy Land, they sensed that they had less in common with the Orthodox pilgrims, whose wildbehaviour seemed barely Christian at all, than with the relatively secular Muslims, whose strict reserve and dignity were more in sympathy with their own private forms of quiet prayer. Attitudes like theirs were to influence the formation of Western policies towards Russia in the diplomatic disputes about the Holy Land which would eventually lead to the Crimean War.
Unaware of and indifferent to the importance of the Holy Lands to Russia's spiritual identity, European commentators saw only a growing Russian menace to the interests of the Western Churches there. In the early 1840s, Young, now the British consul, sent regular reports to the Foreign Office about the steady build-up of 'Russian agents' in Jerusalem - their aim being, in his view, to prepare a 'Russian conquest of the Holy Lands' through sponsored pilgrimage and purchases of land for Orthodox churches and monasteries. This was certainly a time when the Russian ecclesiastical mission was exerting its influence on the Greek, Armenian and Arab Orthodox communities by financing churches, schools and hostels in Palestine and Syria (an activism resisted by the Foreign Ministry in St Petersburg, which rightly feared that such activities might antagonize the Western powers). Young's reports about Russia's conquest plans were increasingly hysterical. 'The pilgrims of Russia have been heard to speak openly of the period being at hand when this country will be under the Russian government,' he wrote to Palmerston in 1840. 'The Russians could in one night during Easter arm 10,000 pilgrims within the walls of Jerusalem. The convents in the city are spacious and, at a trifling expense, might be converted into fortresses.' British fears of this 'Russian plan' accelerated Anglican initiatives, eventually leading to the foundation of the first Anglican church in Jerusalem in 1845.6
But it was the French who were most alarmed by the growing Russian presence in the Holy Lands. According to French Catholics, France had a long historical connection to Palestine going back to the Crusades. In French Catholic opinion, this conferred on France, Europe's 'first Catholic nation', a special mission to protect the faith in the Holy Lands, despite the marked decline of Latin pilgrimage in recent years. 'We have a heritage to conserve there, an interest to defend,' declared the Catholic provincial press. 'Centuries will pass beforethe Russians shed a fraction of the blood that the French spilled in the Crusades for the Holy Places. The Russians took no part in the Crusades ... . The primacy of France among the Christian nations is so well established in the Orient that the Turks call Christian Europe Frankistan, the country of the French.'7
To counteract the growing Russian presence and cement their role as the main protector of the Catholics in Palestine, the French set up a consulate in Jerusalem in 1843 (an outraged Muslim crowd, hostile to the influence of the Western powers, soon tore the godless tricolour from its mast). At Latin services in the Holy Sepulchre and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem the French consul began to appear in full dress uniform with a large train of officials. For the midnight Christmas Mass in Bethlehem he was accompanied by a large force of infantry furnished by Mehmet Pasha but paid for by France.8
Fights between the Latins and the Orthodox were as common at the Church of the Nativity as they were at the Holy Sepulchre. For years they had squabbled about whether Latin monks should have a key to the main church (of which the Greeks were the guardians) so that they could pass through it to the Chapel of the Manger, which belonged to the Catholics; whether they should have a key to the Grotto of the Nativity, an ancient cave beneath the church thought to be the place where Christ was born; and whether they should be allowed to put into the marble floor of the Grotto, on the supposed location of the Nativity, a silver star adorned with the arms of France and inscribed in Latin: 'Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary'. The star had been placed there by the French in the eighteenth century, but had always been resented as a 'badge of conquest' by the Greeks. In 1847 the silver star was stolen; the tools used to wrench it from the marble floor were abandoned at the site. The Latins immediately accused the Greeks of carrying out the crime. Only recently the Greeks had built a wall to prevent the Latin priests from accessing the Grotto, and this had ended in a brawl between the Latin and Greek priests. After the removal of the silver star, the French launched a diplomatic protest to the Porte, the Ottoman government in Constantinople, citing a long-neglected treaty of 1740 which they claimed secured the rights of the Catholics to the Grotto for the upkeep of the silver star. But the Greeks had rival claims based oncustom and concessions by the Porte.9 This small conflict over a church key was in fact the start of a diplomatic crisis over the control of the Holy Places that would have profound consequences.
Along with the keys to the church at Bethlehem, the French claimed for the Catholics a right to repair the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, also based on the treaty of 1740. The roof was in urgent need of attention. Most of the lead on one side had been stripped off (the Greeks and the Latins each accusing the other side of having done this). Rain came through the roof and birds flew freely in the church. Under Turkish law, whoever owned the roof of a house was the owner of that house. So the right to carry out the repairs was fiercely disputed by the Latins and the Greeks on the grounds that it would establish them in the eyes of the Turks as the legitimate protectors of the Holy Sepulchre. Against the French, Russia backed the counterclaims of the Orthodox, appealing to the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, signed by the Turks after their defeat by Russia in the war of 1768 - 74. According to the Russians, the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji had given them a right to represent the interests of the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire. This was a long way from the truth. The language of the treaty was ambiguous and easily distorted by translations into various languages (the Russians signed the treaty in Russian and Italian, the Turks in Turkish and Italian, and then it was translated by the Russians into French for diplomatic purposes).10 But Russian pressure on the Porte ensured that the Latins would not get their way. The Turks temporized and fudged the issue with conciliatory noises to both sides.
The conflict deepened in May 1851, when Louis-Napoleon appointed his close friend the Marquis Charles de La Valette as ambassador in the Turkish capital. Two and a half years after his election as President of France, Napoleon was still struggling to assert his power over the National Assembly. To strengthen his position he had made a series of concessions to Catholic opinion: in 1849 French troops had returned the Pope to Rome after he had been forced out of the Vatican by revolutionary crowds; and the Falloux Law of 1850 had opened the way to an increase in the number of Catholic-run schools. The appointment of La Valette was another major concession to clerical opinion. The Marquis was a zealous Catholic, a leading figurein the shadowy 'clerical party' which was widely viewed as pulling the hidden strings of France's foreign policy. The influence of this clerical faction was particularly strong on France's policies towards the Holy Places, where it called for a firm stand against the Orthodox menace. La Valette went well beyond his remit when he took up his position as ambassador. On his way to Constantinople he made an unscheduled stop in Rome to persuade the Pope to support the French claims for the Catholics in the Holy Lands. Installed in Constantinople, he made a point of using aggressive language in his dealings with the Porte - a tactic, he explained, to 'make the Sultan and his ministers recoil and capitulate' to French interests. The Catholic press rallied behind La Valette, especially the influential Journal des débats, whose editor was a close friend of his. La Valette, in turn, fed the press with quotations that inflamed the situation and enraged the Tsar, Nicholas I.11
In August 1851 the French formed a joint commission with the Turks to discuss the issue of religious rights. The commission dragged on inconclusively as the Turks carefully weighed up the competing Greek and Latin claims. Before its work could be completed, La Valette proclaimed that the Latin right was 'clearly established', meaning that there was no need for the negotiations to go on. He talked of France 'being justified in a recourse to extreme measures' to support the Latin right, and boasted of 'her superior naval forces in the Mediterranean' as a means of enforcing French interests.
It is doubtful whether La Valette had the approval of Napoleon for such an explicit threat of war. Napoleon was not particularly interested in religion. He was ignorant about the details of the Holy Lands dispute, and basically defensive in the Middle East. But it is possible and perhaps even likely that Napoleon was happy for La Valette to provoke a crisis with Russia. He was keen to explore anything that would come between the three powers (Britain, Russia, Austria) that had isolated France from the Concert of Europe and subjected it to the 'galling treaties' of the 1815 settlement following the defeat of his uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Louis-Napoleon had reasonable grounds for hoping that a new system of alliances might emerge from the dispute in the Holy Lands: Austria was a Catholic country, and might be persuaded to side with France against Orthodox Russia,while Britain had its own imperial interests to defend against the Russians in the Near East. Whatever lay behind it, La Valette's premeditated act of aggression infuriated the Tsar, who warned the Sultan that any recognition of the Latin claims would violate existing treaties between the Porte and Russia, forcing him to break off diplomatic relations with the Ottomans. This sudden turn of events alerted Britain, which had previously encouraged France to reach a compromise, but now had to prepare for the possibility of war.12
The war would not actually begin for another two years, but when it did the conflagration it unleashed was fuelled by the religious passions that had been building over centuries.
More than any other power, the Russian Empire had religion at its heart. The tsarist system organized its subjects through their confessional status; it understood its boundaries and international commitments almost entirely in terms of faith.
In the founding ideology of the tsarist state, which gained new force through Russian nationalism in the nineteeth century, Moscow was the last remaining capital of Othodoxy, the 'Third Rome', following the fall of Constantinople, the centre of Byzantium, to the Turks in 1453. According to this ideology, it was part of Russia's divine mission in the world to liberate the Orthodox from the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and restore Constantinople as the seat of Eastern Christianity. The Russian Empire was conceived as an Orthodox crusade. From the defeat of the Mongol khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the sixteenth century to the conquest of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Siberia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia's imperial identity was practically defined by the conflict between Christian settlers and Tatar nomads on the Eurasian steppe. This religious boundary was always more important than any ethnic one in the definition of the Russian national consciousness: the Russian was Orthodox and the foreigner was of a different faith.
Religion was at the heart of Russia's wars against the Turks, who by the middle of the nineteenth century had 10 million Orthodox subjects (Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Moldavians, Wallachiansand Serbs) in their European territories and something in the region of another 3 to 4 million Christians (Armenians, Georgians and a small number of Abkhazians) in the Caucasus and Anatolia.13
On the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire a defensive line of fortresses stretched from Belgrade in the Balkans to Kars in the Caucasus. This was the line along which all of Turkey's wars with Russia had been fought since the latter half of the seventeenth century (in 1686 - 99, 1710 - 11, 1735 - 9, 1768 - 74, 1787 - 92, 1806 - 12 and 1828 - 9). The Crimean War and the later Russo-Turkish war of 1877 - 8 were no exceptions to the rule. The borderlands defended by these fortresses were religious battlegrounds, the fault-line between Orthodoxy and Islam.
Two regions, in particular, were vital in these Russo-Turkish wars: the Danube delta (encompassing the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia) and the Black Sea northern coast (including the Crimean peninsula). They were to become the two main theatres of the Crimean War.
With its wide rivers and pestilent marshes, the Danube delta was a crucial buffer zone protecting Constantinople from a land attack by the Russians. Danubian food supplies were essential for the Turkish fortresses, as they were for any Russian army attacking the Ottoman capital, so the allegiance of the peasant population was a vital factor in these wars. The Russians appealed to the Orthodox religion of the peasantry in an attempt to get them on their side for a war of liberation against Muslim rule, while the Turks themselves adopted scorched-earth policies. Hunger and disease repeatedly defeated the advancing Russians, as they marched into the Danubian lands whose crops had been destroyed by the retreating Turks. Any attack on the Turkish capital would thus depend on the Russians setting up a sea route - through the Black Sea - to bring supplies to the attacking troops.
But the Black Sea northern coast and the Crimea were also used by the Ottomans as a buffer zone against Russia. Rather than colonize the area, the Ottomans relied on their vassals there, the Turkic-speaking Tatar tribes of the Crimean khanate, to protect the borders of Islam against Christian invaders. Ruled by the Giray dynasty, the direct descendants of Genghiz Khan himself, the Crimean khanate wasthe last surviving outpost of the Golden Horde. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century its army of horsemen had the run of the southern steppes between Russia and the Black Sea coast. Raiding into Muscovy, the Tatars provided a regular supply of Slavic slaves for sale in the sex-markets and rowing-galleys of Constantinople. The tsars of Russia and the kings of Poland paid tribute to the khan to keep his men away.14
From the end of the seventeenth century, when it gained possession of Ukraine, Russia began a century-long struggle to wrench these buffer zones from Ottoman control. The warm-water ports of the Black Sea, so essential for the development of Russian trade and naval power, were the strategic objects in this war, but religious interests were never far behind. Thus, after the defeat of the Ottomans by Russia and its allies in 1699, Peter the Great demanded from the Turks a guarantee of the Greek rights at the Holy Sepulchre and free access for all Russians to the Holy Lands. The struggle for the Danubian principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia) was also in part a religious war. In the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1710 - 11 Peter ordered Russian troops to cross the River Pruth and invade the principalities in the hope of provoking an uprising by their Christian population against the Turks. The uprising did not materialize. But the idea that Russia could appeal to its co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire to undermine the Turks remained at the centre of tsarist policy for the next two hundred years.
The policy took formal shape in the reign of Catherine the Great (1762 - 96). After their decisive defeat of the Ottomans in the war of 1768 - 74, during which they had reoccupied the principalities, the Russians demanded relatively little from the Turks in terms of territory, before withdrawing from the principalities. The resulting Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji granted them only a small stretch of the Black Sea coastline between the Dnieper and Bug rivers (including the port of Kherson), the Kabarda region of the Causasus, and the Crimean ports of Kerch and Enikale, where the Sea of Azov joins the Black Sea, although the treaty forced the Ottomans to surrender their sovereignty over the Crimean khanate and give independence to the Tatars. The treaty also gave Russian shipping free passage through the Dardanelles, the narrow Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea tothe Mediterranean. But if the Russians did not gain a lot of territory, they gained substantial rights to interfere in Ottoman affairs for the protection of the Orthodox. Kuchuk Kainarji restored the principalities to their former status under Ottoman sovereignty, but the Russians assumed the right of protection over the Orthodox population. The treaty also granted Russia permission to build an Orthodox church in Constantinople - a treaty right the Russians took to mean a broader right to represent the sultan's Orthodox subjects. It allowed the Christian merchants of the Ottoman Empire (Greeks, Armenians, Moldavians and Wallachians) to sail their ships in Turkish waters with a Russian flag, an important concession that allowed the Russians to advance their commercial and religious interests at the same time. These religious claims had some interesting pragmatic ramifications. Since the Russians could not annex the Danubian principalities without incurring the opposition of the great powers, they looked instead to win concessions from the Porte that would turn the principalities into semi-autonomous regions under Russian influence. Shared religious loyalties would, in time, they hoped, lead to alliances with the Moldavians and Wallachians which would weaken Ottoman authority and ensure Russian domination over south-east Europe should the Ottoman Empire collapse.
Encouraged by victory against Turkey, Catherine also pursued a policy of collaboration with the Greeks, whose religious interests she claimed Russia had a treaty right and obligation to protect. Catherine sent military agents into Greece, trained Greek officers in her military schools, invited Greek traders and seamen to settle in her new towns on the Black Sea coast, and encouraged Greeks in their belief that Russia would support their movement for national liberation from the Turks. More than any other Russian ruler, Catherine identified with the Greek cause. Under the growing influence of her most senior military commander, statesman and court favourite Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine even dreamed of re-creating the old Byzantine Empire on the ruins of the Ottoman. The French philosopher Voltaire, with whom the Empress corresponded, addressed her as 'votre majesté impériale de l'église grecque', while Baron Friedrich Grimm, her favourite German correspondent, referred to her as 'l'Impératrice des Grecs'. Catherine conceived this Hellenic empire as a vast Orthodox imperium protectedby Russia, whose Slavonic tongue had once been the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire, according (erroneously) to the first great historian of Russia, Vasily Tatishchev. The Empress gave the name of Constantine - after both the first and the final emperor of Byzantium - to her second grandson. To commemorate his birth in 1779, she had minted special silver coins with the image of the great St Sophia church (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, cruelly converted into a mosque since the Ottoman conquest. Instead of a minaret, the coin showed an Orthodox cross on the cupola of the former Byzantine basilica. To educate her grandson to become the ruler of this resurrected Eastern Empire, the Russian Empress brought nurses from Naxos to teach him Greek, a language which he spoke with great facility as an adult.15
It was always unclear how serious she was about this 'Greek Project'. In the form that it was drawn up by Count Bezborodko, her private secretary and virtual Foreign Minister, in 1780, the project involved nothing less than the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, the division of their Balkan territories between Russia and Austria, and the 're-establishment of the ancient Greek empire' with Constantinople as its capital. Catherine discussed the project with the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1781. They agreed on its desirability in an exchange of letters over the next year. But whether they intended to carry out the plan remains uncertain. Some historians have concluded that the Greek project was no more than a piece of neoclassical iconography, or political theatre, like the 'Potemkin villages', which played no real part in Russia's foreign policy. But even if there was no concrete plan for immediate action, it does at least seem fairly clear that the project formed a part of Catherine's general aims for the Russian Empire as a Black Sea power linked through trade and religion to the Orthodox world of the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem. In the words of Catherine's favourite poet, Gavril Derzhavin, who was also one of Russia's most important statesmen in her reign, the aim of the Greek project was
To advance through a Crusade, To purify the Jordan River, To liberate the Holy Sepulchre, To return Athens to the Athenians,Constantinople - to Constantine And re-establish Japheth's Holy Land.a
'Ode on the Capture of Izmail'
It was certainly more than political theatre when Catherine and Joseph, accompanied by a large international entourage, toured the Black Sea ports. The Empress visited the building sites of new Russian towns and military bases, passing under archways erected by Potemkin in her honour and inscribed with the words 'The Road to Byzantium'.16 Her journey was a statement of intent.
Catherine believed that Russia had to turn towards the south if it was to be a great power. It was not enough for it to export furs and timber through the Baltic ports, as in the days of medieval Muscovy. To compete with the European powers it had to develop trading outlets for the agricultural produce of its fertile southern lands and build up a naval presence in the warm-water ports of the Black Sea from which its ships could gain entry to the Mediterranean. Because of the odd geography of Russia, the Black Sea was crucial, not just to the military defence of the Russian Empire on its southern frontier with the Muslim world, but also to its viability as a power on the European continent. Without the Black Sea, Russia had no access to Europe by the sea, except via the Baltic, which could easily be blocked by the other northern powers in the event of a European conflict (as indeed it would be by the British during the Crimean War).
The plan to develop Russia as a southern power had begun in earnest in 1776, when Catherine placed Potemkin in charge of New Russia (Novorossiia), the sparsely populated territories newly conquered from the Ottomans on the Black Sea's northern coastline, and ordered him to colonize the area. She granted enormous tracts of land to her nobility and invited European colonists (Germans, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Serbs) to settle on the steppelands as agriculturalists. New cities were established there - Ekaterinoslav, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa - many of them built in the French and Italian rococo style. Potemkin personally oversaw the construction of Ekaterinoslav (meaning 'Catherine's Glory') as a Graeco-Romanfantasy to symbolize the classical inheritance that he and the supporters of the Greek project had envisaged for Russia. He dreamed up grandiose neoclassical structures, most of which were never built, such as shops 'built in a semicircle like the Propylaeum or threshold of Athens', a governor's house in the 'Greek and Roman style', law courts in the shape of 'ancient basilicas', and a cathedral, 'a kind of imitation of St Paul's outside the walls of Rome', as he explained in a letter to Catherine. It was, he said, 'a sign of the transformation of this land by your care, from a barren steppe to an ample garden, and from the wilderness of animals to a home welcoming people from all lands'.17
Odessa was the jewel in Russia's southern crown. Its architectural beauty owed a great deal to the Duc de Richelieu, a refugee from the French Revolution, who for many years served as the city's governor. But its importance as a port was the work of the Greeks, who were first encouraged to settle in the town by Catherine. Thanks to the freedom of movement afforded Russian shipping by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, Odessa soon became a major player in the Black Sea and Mediterranean trade, to a large degree supplanting the domination of the French.
Russia's incorporation of the Crimea followed a different course. As part of the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, the Crimean khanate had been made independent of the Ottomans, although the Sultan had retained a nominal religious authority in his role as caliph. Despite their signature on the treaty, the Ottomans had been reluctant to accept the independence of the Crimea, fearing it would soon be swallowed up by the Russians, like the rest of the Black Sea coast. They held on to the powerful fortress of Ochakov at the mouth of the Dnieper river from which to attack the Russians if they intervened in the peninsula. But they had little defence against Russia's policy of political and religious infiltration.
Three years after the signing of the treaty, agin Giray was elected khan. Educated in Venice and semi-Westernized, he was Russia's preferred candidate (as the head of a Crimean delegation to St Petersburg, he had impressed Catherine with his 'sweet character' and handsome looks). agin was supported by the Crimea's sizeable Christian population (Greek, Georgian and Armenian traders) and by many of theNogai nomads on the mainland steppe, who had always been fiercely independent of the Ottoman khanate and owed their allegiance to agin as Commander of the Nogai Horde. agin, however, was unacceptable to the Ottomans, who sent a fleet with their own khan to replace him and encouraged the Crimean Tatars to rise up against agin as an 'infidel'. agin fled, but soon returned to carry out a slaughter of the rebellious Tatars that appalled even the Russians. In response, and encouraged by the Ottomans, the Tatars began a religious war of retribution against the Christians of the Crimea, prompting Russia to organize the latter's hurried exodus (30,000 Christians were moved to Taganrog, Mariupol and other towns on the Black Sea coast, where most of them became homeless).
The departure of the Christians seriously weakened the Crimean economy. agin became even more dependent on the Russians, who began to pressure him to accept annexation. Anxious to secure the Crimea before the rest of Europe could react, Potemkin prepared for a quick war against the Turks, while procuring agin's abdication in return for a magnificent pension. With the Khan removed to St Petersburg, the Tatars were persuaded to submit to Catherine. Throughout the Crimea there were stage-managed ceremonies where the Tatars gathered with their mullahs to swear an oath on the Koran to the Orthodox Empress a thousand kilometres away. Potemkin was determined that the annexation should at least appear to be the will of the people.
The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, was a bitter humiliation for the Turks. It was the first Muslim territory to be lost to Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier of the Porte reluctantly accepted it. But other politicians at the Sultan's court saw the loss of the Crimea as a mortal danger to the Ottoman Empire, arguing that the Russians would use it as a military base against Constantinople and Ottoman control of the Balkans, and they pressed for war against Russia. But it was unrealistic for the Turks to fight the Russians on their own, and Turkish hopes of Western intervention were not great: Austria had aligned itself with Russia in anticipation of a future Russian - Austrian partition of the Ottoman Empire; France was too exhausted by its involvement in the American War of Independence to send a fleet to the Black Sea; while the British, deeply wounded by their losses in America, were essentially indifferent (if'France means to be quiet about the Turks', noted Lord Grantham, the Foreign Secretary, 'why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil').18
Ottoman forbearance broke four years later, in 1787, shortly after Catherine's provocative procession through her newly conquered Black Sea coastal towns, which came just as the Turks were facing further losses to the Russians in the Caucasus.b Hopeful of a Prussian alliance, the pro-war party at the Porte prevailed, and the Ottomans declared war on Russia, which was then supported by its ally Austria with its own declaration of war against Turkey. At first the Ottomans had some success. On the Danube front, they pushed back the Austrian forces into the Banat. But military help from Prussia never came, and after a long siege the Turks lost their strategic fortress at Ochakov to the Russians, followed by Belgrade and the Danubian principalities to an Austrian counter-offensive, before the Russians took the important Turkish forts in the Danube estuary. The Turks were forced to sue for peace. By the Treaty of Iai, in 1792, they regained a nominal control of the Danubian principalities, but ceded the area of Ochakov to Russia, thereby making the Dniester river the new Russo-Turkish boundary. They also declared their formal recognition of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. But in reality they never fully accepted its loss and waited for revenge.
In Russia's religious war against its Muslim neighbours, the Islamic cultures of the Black Sea area were regarded as a particular danger. Russia's rulers were afraid of an Islamic axis, a broad coalition of Muslim peoples under Turkish leadership, threatening Russia's southern borderlands, where the Muslim population was increasing fast, partly as a result of high birth rates, and partly from conversions to Islam by nomadic tribes. It was to consolidate imperial control in these unsettled borderlands that the Russians launched a new part oftheir southern strategy in the early decades of the nineteenth century: clearing Muslim populations and encouraging Christian settlers to colonize the newly conquered lands.
Bessarabia was conquered by the Russians during the war against Turkey in 1806 - 12. It was formally ceded by the Turks to Russia through the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812, which also placed the Danubian principalities under the joint sovereignty of Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The new tsarist rulers of Bessarabia expelled the Muslim population, sending thousands of Tatar farmers as prisoners of war to Russia. They resettled the fertile plains of Bessarabia with Moldavians, Wallachians, Bulgarians, Ruthenians and Greeks attracted to the area by tax breaks, exemptions from military service, and by loans to skilled craftsmen from the Russian government. Under pressure to populate the area, which brought Russia to within a few kilometres of the Danube, the local tsarist authorities even turned a blind eye to the runaway Ukrainian and Russian serfs, who arrived in growing numbers in Bessarabia after 1812. There was an active programme of church-building, while the establishment of an eparchy in Kishinev locked the local Church leaders into the Russian (as opposed to the Greek) Orthodox Church.19
The Russian conquest of the Caucasus, too, was part of this crusade. To a large extent, it was conceived as a religious war against the Muslim mountain tribes, the Chechens, Ingush, Circassians and Daghestanis, and for the Christianization of the Caucasus. The Muslim tribes were mainly Sunni, fiercely independent of political control by any secular power but aligned by religion to the Ottoman sultan in his capacity as 'supreme caliph of Islamic law'. Under the command of General Alexander Ermolov, appointed as governor of Georgia in 1816, the Russians fought a savage war of terror, raiding villages, burning houses, destroying crops and clearing the forests, in a vain attempt to subjugate the mountain tribes. The murderous campaign gave rise to an organized resistance movement by the tribes, which soon assumed a religious character of its own.
The main religious influence, known as Muridism, came from the Naqshbandiya (Sufi) sect, which began to flourish in Daghestan in the 1810s and spread from there to Chechnya, where preachers organized the resistance as a jihad (holy war) led by the Imam GhaziMuhammad, in defence of shariah law and the purity of Islamic faith. Muridism was a powerful mixture of holy and social war against the infidel Russians and the princes who supported them. It brought a new unity to the mountain tribes, previously divided by blood-feuds and vendettas, enabling the imam to introduce taxes and universal military service. The imam's rule was enforced through the murids (religious disciples), who provided local officials and judges in the rebel villages.
The more religious the resistance grew, the more the Russian invasion's religious character intensified. The Christianization of the Caucasus became one of the primary goals, as the Russians rejected any compromise with the rebel movement's Muslim leadership. 'A complete rapprochement between them and us can be expected only when the Cross is set up on the mountains and in the valleys, and when churches of Christ the Saviour have replaced the mosques,' declared an official Russian document. 'Until then, force of arms is the true bastion of our rule in the Caucasus.' The Russians destroyed mosques and imposed restrictions on Muslim practices - the greatest outcry being caused by the prohibition of the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. In many areas, the destruction of Muslim settlements was connected to a Russian policy of what today would be known as 'ethnic cleansing', the forced resettlement of mountain tribes and the reallocation of their land to Christian settlers. In the Kuban and the northern Caucasus, Muslim tribes were replaced by Slavic settlers, mainly Russian or Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks. In parts of the southern Caucasus, the Christian Georgians and Armenians sided with the Russian invasion and took a share of the spoils. During the conquest of the Ganja khanate (Elizavetopol), for example, Georgians joined the invading Russian army as auxiliaries; they were then encouraged by the Russians to move into the occupied territory and take over lands abandoned by the Muslims after a campaign of religious persecution had encouraged them to move away. The province of Erivan, which roughly corresponds to modern Armenia, had a largely Turkish-Muslim population until the Russo-Turkish war of 1828 - 9, during which the Russians expelled around 26,000 Muslims from the area. Over the next decade they moved in almost twice that number of Armenians.20
But it was in the Crimea that the religious character of Russia's southern conquests was most clear. The Crimea has a long and complex religious history. For the Russians, it was a sacred place. According to their chronicles, it was in Khersonesos, the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of the Crimea, just outside modern Sevastopol, that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus'. But it was also home to Scythians, Romans, Greeks, Goths, Genoese, Jews, Armenians, Mongols and Tatars. Located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world of the Ottomans and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Crimea was continuously in contention, the site of many wars. Religious shrines and buildings in the Crimea themselves became battlefields of faith, as each new wave of settlement claimed them as their own. In the coastal town of Sudak, for example, there is a St Matthew church. It was originally built as a mosque, but subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by the Greeks as an Orthodox church. It was later converted into a Catholic church by the Genoese, who came to the Crimea in the thirteenth century, and then turned back into a mosque by the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until the Russian annexation, when it was reconverted into an Orthodox church.21
The Russian annexation of the Crimea had created 300,000 new imperial subjects, nearly all of them Muslim Tatars and Nogais. The Russians attempted to co-opt the local notables (beys and mirzas) into their administration by offering to convert them to Christianity and elevate them to noble status. But their invitation was ignored. The power of these notables had never been derived from civil service but from their ownership of land and from clan-based politics: as long as they were allowed to keep their land, most of them preferred to keep their standing in the local community rather than serve their new imperial masters. The majority had ties through kin or trade or religion to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them emigrated there following the Russian takeover.
Russian policy towards the Tatar peasants was more brutal. Serfdom was unknown in the Crimea, unlike most of Russia. The freedom of the Tatar peasants was recognized by the new imperial government, which made them into state peasants (a separate legal categoryfrom the serfs). But the continued allegiance of the Tatars to the Ottoman caliph, to whom they appealed in their Friday prayers, was a constant provocation to the Russians. It gave them cause to doubt the sincerity of their new subjects' oath of allegiance to the tsar. Throughout their many wars with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century, the Russians remained terrified of Tatar revolts in the Crimea. They accused Muslim leaders of praying for a Turkish victory and Tatar peasants of hoping for their liberation by the Turks, despite the fact that, for the most part, until the Crimean War, the Muslim population remained loyal to the tsar.
Convinced of Tatar perfidy, the Russians did what they could to get their new subjects to leave. The first mass exodus of Crimean Tatars to Turkey occurred during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787 - 92. Most of it was the panic flight of peasants frightened of reprisals by the Russians. But the Tatars were also encouraged to depart by a variety of other Russian measures, including the seizure of their land, punitive taxation, forced labour and physical intimidation by Cossack squads. By 1800 nearly one-third of the Crimean Tatar population, about 100,000 people, had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire with another 10,000 leaving in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806 - 12. They were replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, many of them refugees from the Ottoman Empire who wanted the protection of a Christian state. The exodus of the Crimean Tatars was the start of a gradual retreat of the Muslims from Europe. It was part of a long history of demographic exchange and ethnic conflict between the Ottoman and Orthodox spheres which would last until the Balkan crises of the late twentieth century.22
The Christianization of the Crimea was also realized in grand designs for churches, palaces and neoclassical cities that would eradicate all Muslim traces from the physical environment. Catherine envisaged the Crimea as Russia's southern paradise, a pleasure-garden where the fruits of her enlightened Christian rule could be enjoyed and exhibited to the world beyond the Black Sea. She liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name: she thought that it linked Russia to the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium. She gave enormous tracts of land to Russia'snobles to establish magnificent estates along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the carriers of a new Christian civilization in this previously heathen land.
Urban planning reinforced this Russian domination of the Crimea: ancient Tatar towns like Bakhchiserai, the capital of the former khanate, were downgraded or abandoned completely; ethnically mixed cities such as Theodosia or Simferopol, the Russian administrative capital, were gradually reordered by the imperial state, with the centre of the city shifted from the old Tatar quarter to new areas where Russian churches and official buildings were erected; and new towns like Sevastopol, the Russian naval base, were built entirely in the neoclassical style.23
Church-building in the newly conquered colony was relatively slow, and mosques continued to dominate the skyline in many towns and villages. But in the early nineteenth century there was an intense focus on the discovery of ancient Christian archaeological remains, Byzantine ruins, ascetic cave-churches and monasteries. It was all part of a deliberate effort to reclaim the Crimea as a sacred Christian site, a Russian Mount Athos, a place of pilgrimage for those who wanted to make a connection to the cradle of Slavic Christianity.24
The most important holy site was, of course, the ruin of Khersonesos, excavated by the imperial administration in 1827, where a church of St Vladimir was later built to mark the notional spot where the Grand Prince had converted Kievan Rus' to Christianity. It was one of those symbolic ironies of history that this sacred shrine was only a few metres from the place where the French forces landed and set up their camp during the Crimean War.
Copyright © 2010 by Orlando Figes