20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues the series of articles about Russian nationalism written by the well-known historian Alexander Yanov. The new installment explains how “destructive imperial nationalism” brought Russia to the Crimean War. It resulted in the country’s ignominious surrender, severe national humiliation and total isolation.


Frantz Roubaud. The Siege of Sevastopol (1901-1905).


Fictitious “Mission”

This year marks 160 years since the outbreak of the Crimean War (not everyone knows that it began in 1853 with the Russian occupation of the Danubian principalities, which were then owned by Turkey, and with the famous victory of Admiral Nakhimov, who destroyed the Turkish fleet in the port of Sinop). The pretext for the war was unprecedented in the history of diplomacy since 1648, the year the last interfaith war in Europe ended: Nicholas I asked the Sultan of Turkey to cede sovereignty over Balkan Christians who were congenial to Russians in faith. To appreciate what this really meant, you need to imagine how Russia would have responded if the Sultan had requested that the Crimean and Kazan Tatars related to him by faith be considered his own subjects.

Mikhail Pogodin formulated Nicholas’ war ideology; we have already encountered his ideas in my survey of the history of Russian nationalism published by the Institute of Modern Russia. This ideology sounded something like this: “Compared to the Turks, we are in the most fortunate position. We can tell you that if you refuse to promise us real protection for your Christians, our only demand, we will require the release of the Slavs—and let the war decide our dispute. Our enemies are just waiting for us to lose our nerve and abandon the mission to which we have been dedicated from the time of our country’s founding.”

I do not know how it is now, but in my time, even schoolchildren knew what a disgrace this fictitious “mission” was for Russia and the terrible price she paid for it. History is indeed instructive. Still, I had no intention of writing about the Crimean War now—we have long passed Nicholas’s times. I would not have written about it had not one opinionated blogger interrupted me when I mentioned the Crimean War, responding in this way: Who does not know that the war was a conspiracy of the West against Russia, and that the Turks, the French, and the British attacked us for no apparent reason?

My first thought was: For pity’s sake, where did this young and apparently highly educated young man find all this nonsense in 2013? Then I got frustrated: my memory is like a sieve; I myself mentioned the professional historians of our post-Soviet period in my trilogy, and it is exactly this nonsense with which these historians indoctrinate their students. Here are a few examples.

V.V. Ilyin describes the Crimean War as “an imperialist Europe’s war against Russia,” its “last colonial campaign against Russia.” At the time, A. N. Sakharov guessed the military intent of British politicians: “Russia must be dismembered.” The late V. V. Kozhinov sympathetically quoted Tyutchev’s words about the Crimean War as a “conspiracy against Russia of all profane and unholy peoples.” V. N. Vinogradov wrote, “The real cause of the war was by no means Russia’s imaginary aggression against the Ottoman Empire.” A. N. Bohanov explains that “Russia’s interests, which sought to protect the rights of the Orthodox peoples . . . contradicted the interests of other powers.” I do not have at hand the works of the current Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinski, but I do not doubt for a minute that he interprets the Crimean War in the same terms.

In the wake of the great victory of 1812, Nicholas had lost sight of the fact that he had managed to ruin Russia’s image afterwards. Tyutchev said to him that Europe perceived Russia as “the ogre of the nineteenth century.”

That’s how the temptation to take up the subject developed: Is it worth it, I asked myself, to take a chance and interrupt the chronological course of the set of lectures to challenge this historical chorus, consciously deceiving the youth? Someone should do it. I wrote in “The Last Dispute” what a shame it was for me—remembering Georgy Petrovich Fedotov, the noble knight of freedom in the first Russian emigration—to observe the solemn reburial of the remains of his antagonist, the singer of the “national dictatorship,” Ivan Ilyin, in the Novodevichev Cemetery.

And it was a shame, not just because in these celebrations no one remembered Fedotov, as if he had not existed, but because of something else: they were silent—and their silence was an outright lie—about Ilyin’s pro-Hitler sympathies, about his impassioned pleas not to look at Hitler with the “Jews’ eyes,” and, most importantly, about how his admiration for Nazism was linked to his preaching on behalf of a national dictatorship in post-Bolshevik Russia. Lying corrupts; it is a crime against the national memory. But isn’t a lie about the Crimean War the same crime? It would not be right if I, after rebuking my countrymen, kept silent about such a clear, triumphant lie. Here, however, is the reality.


A Holy War

First of all, the protection of the Balkan Slavs, which induced Nicholas to publish a manifesto in support of a crusade against Turkey in 1853, was not his priority even in the decade before the war. Nor was it a priority for Russian Czars for centuries of Turkish rule in the Balkans. I have already quoted then–Minister of Education S. S. Uvarov’s rescript that showed a complete indifference to, not to say disgust for, the same Slavs back in 1840. Schoolteachers and university professors exhorted students that the Slavs “should not excite in us any sympathy. They are on themselves, and we are on our own. We arranged our state without them, and they have not had time to create anything and have now completed their historical existence.”


Admiral of the Russian Imperial Navy Pavel Nakhimov (left); writer Sergei Aksakov.


That seems to be enough to ensure that no such “mission, designated to us with the founding of our country,” had ever existed before, and this was a chimera, “a tradition invented on the fly,” as British historians say (which did not, however, prevent it from becoming a long-running myth, surviving over a century and a half and still pretty rooted, as we have seen, in the twenty-first century). The Czar, however, believed in this mission. Why he believed has been explained in previous essays in detail. And so the manifesto for the crusade was born. Of course, diplomats hinted to the Czar that the Crusades had ended in the early Middle Ages, and that, for the last 200 years, no one had engaged in religious wars that aimed to dismember a neighboring country. But this was the same Czar who proclaimed to the whole world five years before: “People, imply and submit. God is with us!” Would he listen to a few diplomats?

They, however, insisted, quoting Palmerston’s declaration that “the British government is committed to resist by hedge or by stile any Russian attempt to dismember the Turkish Empire.” And they reminded him too that Nakhimov’s Sinop triumph was a Pyrrhic victory: it led to the downfall of the government of Lord Aberdeen in London, which had been friendly to Russia. England ensured the safety of the Turks’ ports, but Nakhimov turned this guarantee in a meaningless piece of paper. Aberdeen complained to the Russian ambassador: “I ​​am accused of cowardice that I have betrayed Britain for Russia, and now I do not dare to appear in the street.” Indeed, Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria and an antiwar activist, was booed in the street.

This is a dangerous situation, the diplomats said. If England intervened and, God forbid, France, with its steamers, joined them, they would quickly turn Nakhimov’s victory into the funeral of the Russian fleet. After all, this fleet was still wind-driven in the eighteenth century. If the fleet received an order under threat of destruction to stay at anchor in Sevastopol, it would have to stand. So wasn’t it wiser to postpone Pogodin’s “mission” until a better time? Nicholas’s answer was this: “And in 1854 Russia will be able to show itself the same as it was in 1812!” Do we fear them? Have we not beaten Napoleon? No, their threats “will not stop me. I will go forward on my way, as my beliefs dictate to me. I will insist on it, to the last ruble in the treasury and to the last man in the country.” Alexander Menshikov, a man close to the Czar, complained afterwards: “After the Hungarian campaign, the sovereign was like a blind drunk; he didn’t listen to any reason and was convinced of his omnipotence.”

Contrary to the post-Soviet historians’ insinuations, the context of the Crimean conflict cannot support any doubts that Russia was the aggressor toward Turkey and that Europe only defended the Ottoman Empire from the dismemberment that threatened it.

And the trusting country, unsophisticated in diplomatic intricacies, exulted over the fatal error of its sovereign, who literally provoked European intervention. The country was sure that Nakhimov’s victory would “take in sail John Bull’s pride” (as Brits were contemptuously called in St. Petersburg). “Nakhimov did well; he is a true Russian hero,” S. T. Aksakov wrote to Pogodin. The recipient of this letter, of course, was thrilled also: “For us the greatest moment has come; we haven’t had it since the days of Poltava and Borodino.” And S. P. Shevyrev wrote: “All Russians sympathize with the war; such wondrous and unanimous recruitments have never happened before.”

Slavophiles, though in the opposition, were overjoyed. According to B. N. Chicherin, “it was a holy war for them, the final clash between the East and the West, which would lead to the victory of a new, young country over the old, decrepit world.” Nor did Tyutchev let us down, writing:

Get up, the Russ, our time is here!
Stand up for the life of Christ!
Is it the time, we bless ourselves,
And strike the bell in Czarigrad?

How this holy war against the “decrepit” Europe had to end was also explained by the same Tyutchev—and also in verses. As we will see, his description of what Russia’s postwar borders would be can compete perhaps only with the Russian Slavophiles’ writings about Russia’s future gains on the brink of World War II. In both cases, the affair ended badly. But let us let Tyutchev’s plans speak for themselves:

Seven internal seas and seven great rivers,
From the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to China,
From the Volga to the Euphrates and from the Ganges to the Danube—
That’s the Russian realm . . .

–What a leap, from “John Bull’s” Sinop provocation and the occupation of the Danubian principalities to a holy war and such ambitious plans for expansion! Is it this that post-Soviet historians call “the imaginary aggression”? Who attacked whom? Who was going where to break up whom? Who declared whom a “decrepit world”? Who was on a mission to conquer?


The other side of the shield

In the wake of the great victory of 1812, Nicholas had lost sight of the fact that he had managed to ruin Russia’s image afterwards. Meanwhile, even his own image-makers talked to him about this problem. Tyutchev said to him that Europe perceived Russia as “the ogre of the nineteenth century.” As we may recall, Pogodin also said: “Other countries hate Russia and see it as the main obstacle to their development and prosperity.” However, Nicholas, if he had a chance to talk to us now, certainly would notice that there has been no time in history when a superpower has not been blamed for all sins‚—both its own and those of others. Did not Russia announce that Napoleon was the Antichrist? Do not Russians call Americans “Pindos” today? And my, was Russia a superpower in 1853!


Auguste Blanchard. Treaty of Paris of 1856 (1901).


It is therefore important to find neutral voices who were not loyal to the regime, but to Russia. I think I have found a few. Alexander Nikitenko, a censor, academician, and one of the most perceptive observers of the St. Petersburg life of Nicholas, was very upset by the Crimean tragedy, although not even for a minute did he consider it a “colonial campaign in Europe against Russia.” On August 30, 1854, he wrote in his diary: “We didn’t fight the war for two years—we had one for thirty years, supporting millions of troops, and continually threatening Europe.” And again, on January 16, 1856: “Nicholas did not weigh all the consequences of being hostile to Europe. . . . So far we have portrayed ourselves in Europe only as one huge fist.”

The famous Crimean War historian Sergey Soloviev also cast the situation thus: “While the thunder was rumbling over our Nebuchadnezzar, we were in a grave situation. On the one hand, our patriotic feeling was terribly offended by the humiliation of Russia; on the other, we were convinced that only an unhappy war could stop further decay. We were tormented by the news of failures, knowing that the opposite news would have led us to awe.” As we can see, there was no hint of a “conspiracy against Russia” or of the disastrous war as a mission of liberation. The London-based Westminster Review supported these assessments: “Nicholas sought dictatorship over the European States.”

It is important to note one more thing: until the last minute, Napoleon III tried to prevent the European war because of Turkey. On February 4, 1854, when passions were already red-hot, in a personal letter to the Czar, he promised that in the case of the evacuation of Russian troops from the Danubian principalities, the allies would pull out of the Black Sea—and the conflict would then be worked out. Nesselrode informed the French emperor that His Majesty did not bother to answer him.

In summary, we note that, contrary to the post-Soviet historians’ insinuations, the context of the Crimean conflict cannot support any doubts that Russia was the aggressor toward Turkey and that Europe only defended the Ottoman Empire from the dismemberment that threatened it. There is another question that the reader must then consider: Did Russia challenge Europe, deliberately provoking it to intervene in the conflict?


The cost of error

If we agree with A. V. Nikitenko that “the biggest mistake of Nicholas’s reign [was] that it all was a mistake,” it is reasonable to raise the question of what this error cost Russia. Let’s weigh the results. On one pan of the scale, we have 128,000 young lives senselessly slaughtered in the Crimea, Russia’s ignominious surrender and severe national humiliation (the nation was forbidden to keep a navy in the Black Sea), financial bankruptcy, and territorial losses. That’s not even including the 183,000 who died of disease on the way to the theater of military operations, without ever seeing the enemy.

And the defeat of Pushkin’s (the Decembrists’) generation—perhaps the most intellectually gifted generation in Russian history—goes on the same pan of the scale. As a result of this defeat, peasant slavery was extended for nearly half a century, and the archaic “sacred” autocracy lingered for nearly a century. And on top of this, we must add the total isolation of Russia, which “did not have friends any more,” as Commander of the Crimean Army Prince Gorchakov stated during a special meeting held on January 3, 1856. We must all agree that this is an exorbitant weight.

And what about the other pan of the scale? The Golden Age of Russian literature? Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Gogol, Chaadayev, Belinsky, Herzen, Soloviev? But all the great and eternal art they created was in spite of, not because of, the imperial nationalism that Nicholas lived and breathed.

So did Russia need this destructive imperial nationalism?

Nicholas didn’t find the answer to this fateful question before the bar of history. And that’s why he, a man who was phenomenally healthy physically and never had any illness, died suddenly. The post-Nicholas Russia could find no answer to this question either, as we have seen, and as a result, it died. Soviet Russia could not find an answer either. And it died. So, as it turns out, have post-Soviet historians found the answer?