20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. The current essay is published in two parts. In the first part, the author argues that Czar Nicholas I brought Russia to the outbreak of the fatal Crimean War of 1853–56. Part two explains why this war is portrayed as a “conspiracy against Russia” in Russian history textbooks.



The Tyutchevs’ Version

After the enthronement of Stalinism in the USSR, the most popular interpretation of the Crimean War became the Tyutchev family’s version, proposed in the middle of the nineteenth century. It went like this: Russia’s primordial mission “to wrest a Christian nation from the power of the infamous Islam,” led to the outcome that Europe “pounced on us like mad” (in the words of Anna Tyutchev). As a result, Fyodor Tyutchev said, “We are in a fight with all of Europe that joined forces against us in a common union. ‘Union,’ however, is an incorrect expression; the real word is conspiracy. In history, there are no examples of such hideousness, conspired and accomplished on such a perfect scale.” As the documents cited in the first part of this essay show, there is no truth in the Tyutchevs’ version of the Crimean War. I’ll try to prove it point by point.

First, as we recall, a rescript of Russia’s national education minister, published “according to the supreme will” in 1847, instructed Russia to forget about foreign Slavdom, as it had “finished its historical existence.” Is it believable then, that Czar Nicholas I would have started a war (or rather a crusade!) for the sake of Slavs who, according to him, “no longer existed?” Is it not more logical to assume that the cause of the war was the 1848 fiasco and Mikhail Pogodin’s seductive scenario of Europe’s repartition?

Second, in a letter to Gustav Colb, the editor of Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung, Fyodor Tyutchev for some reason referred to the 1813 coalition against Napoleon not as a conspiracy against France, nor even as a “hideousness,” but quite the opposite: “the glorious European war against the tyrant.” How on earth, in 1853, had a similar coalition turned, according to Tyutchev, from a “glorious war” into a “hideousness”?

Third, in December of 1853, by giving an order to Russian Admiral Pavel Nakhimov to sink the Turkish fleet at Sinop, Nicholas I “sunk,” you might say, London’s anti-war government, effectively creating the Anglo-French coalition with his own hands. Is it then logical to blame Europe for that?

Fourth, in February 1854, when Napoleon III offered to end the matter peacefully if Nicholas I withdrew his army from the Danubian principalities, the czar refused. Had he complied, it would have been enough to stop the “conspiracy.” So, who initiated this “hideousness”—Europe or Russia?

Finally, the most obvious (and even naïve) question: Who started all of this? Who—Russia or Europe—was going to dismember the Ottoman Empire that stretched from Egypt to the Balkans and included almost the entire Middle East? And who provoked Nicholas, enticing him with the prospect of unprecedented expansion of the Russian empire? Whose poetry is this:

Seven inland seas and seven great rivers,
From the Nile to the Neva, from the Elbe to China,
From the Volga to the Euphrates, from the Ganges to the Danube
Is this the Russian kingdom?

Another point to keep in mind is that Nicholas I was not really up for all these temptations in 1854. He had already realized that he had miscalculated: he could not move forward because of fierce Turkish resistance; yet retreat meant losing face during a crusade in a public atmosphere of patriotic hysteria that he himself had created in the country. The situation had gotten out of his control. Could he hope to regain control when for the Slavophiles, as Boris Chicherin pointed out, “it was a holy war,” and they were expecting “the final victory of the new young nation over the decrepit Western world”? Could the czar do it when Mikhail Pogodin, reflecting the mood of the overexcited public, exhorted Europe: “Leave us alone to solve our historic dispute with Mohammad; the dispute we have with him is holy, not human”?

How could Nicholas retreat, following the proposal of this “decrepit world”? And how must the Slavophiles’ gibberish have sounded to European ears? The fiasco of the March 14, 1848, Manifesto was repeating before their eyes (remember, “Reason, people, and conquer. God is with us!”). The only difference was that this time, Nicholas, having already unleashed the war in Europe, trapped himself. Eventually he did retreat, when Austria intervened and threatened to strike the flank of the advancing Russian army. But it was equivalent to suicide for the Russian czar. And then he died. Thus why I call this provocation the czar’s last mistake.

Pogodin’s open cynicism only exacerbated the horror of this mistake. Unlike the ecstatic Slavophiles, he did not try to hide his belief that “It is our fortune, not our woe, if the performance of our sacred duty will be accompanied by material benefits, and if our political power will increase alongside our victories over Mohammed.” “What do you want from us?” he responded, when the Europeans called upon Russia to use common sense, “That we should let go of the lawful catch when our labors and feats are about to be rewarded? That, fearing your threats, we humbly give up the holy cause to your hucksters?” (italics mine).


The Revenge of the Russian Idea

Historian Vadim Kozhinov praised this explosive mixture of “the holy cause” and “the lawful catch” in Soviet times, reviving the Tyutchevs’ version of the Crimean War as “a conspiracy against Russia.” But Kozhinov was an outspoken nationalist, a supporter of imperial ambitions (like Alexander Dugin, an ideologist of the Eurasian empire, today), and a troubadour of the Black Hundreds. You cannot expect much from him.

But how was it that in the post-Soviet period, the venerable professor Viktor Ilyin also called Nicholas I’s provocation “the war of imperialist Europe against Russia,” and “the last colonial campaign against Russia”? And how was it that the no-less-venerable professor Vladimir Vinogradov assured the public that “it was not the imaginary Russian aggression against the Ottoman Empire that caused the Crimean War.” If not Russian aggression, then what? Or, as Alexader Bokhanov, a doctor of history, explains (repeating Tyutchev’s version), “Russia’s interest in achieving freedom for the Christian Orthodox contradicted the interests of other powers.”

One cannot help noticing that the “patriotic hysteria” that Nicholas I instigated 150 years ago not only continued in the Soviet era, but can also be observed today. The Russian idea remains what it has always been—a challenge to European civilization, an attempt to forcibly change the world order.

I do not have at hand the writings of the current minister of culture Vladimir Medinski, but I am sure that one can find the same mystification there, too. And one can hardly doubt that it will also be repeated in upcoming Russian history textbooks. One cannot help noticing that the “patriotic hysteria” that Nicholas I instigated 150 years ago not only continued in the Soviet era, but can also be observed today. However neither in Soviet times nor today, I'm afraid, has there been an enfant terrible like Mikhail Pogodin, who could recognize to what extent “the lawful catch was inseparable” from the “holy cause” in Nicholas’s provocation.

Frankly, I don’t have any other explanation for this unexpected permutation of Slavophile passion arising within the alien and godless Soviet environment, save that it is the revenge of the Russian idea. A country that had been morally isolated from Europe in czarist times, and now opposed Europe, the Soviet Union was bound to eventually adhere to a hegemonic idea—albeit this time an idea with a forged communist passport. Perhaps, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, only the Russian Communist Party, led by Gennady Zyuganov, intuitively understood that “communism” had been transformed into the Russian idea under Stalin.

No doubt, the Russian idea has changed since Nicholas’s times, absorbing radical elements of socialism, including the rejection of private property—elements that are applicable to other countries. However, the Russian idea remains what it has always been—a challenge to European civilization, an attempt to forcibly change the world order by putting Russia’s loyalists on the thrones of countries dependent on Russia: Russian grand dukes in pre-revolutionary times; communist proconsuls in the Soviet period.

Guided by the hegemonic idea, Russia was able to assimilate the superficial characteristics of European civilization. Using them, it was even able to join other superpowers at the global Olympus—as shown by the USSR. But because it totally denied its roots, its fundamental basis, the Russian (Soviet) empire was doomed to eventually fall behind and disintegrate. Alas, we have already run ahead of this series and touched upon subjects that will be explored in upcoming essays dedicated to the evolution of the Russian idea in Soviet and post-Soviet times.


The “Fifth Column”

All that is left for me to do in this essay is to disclose in what way, and using which arguments, Soviet historians blamed Europe for the Crimean War. It turns out that there are only two arguments. The first one, as I mentioned, belongs to the Tyutchevs: Russia tried to liberate its oppressed fellow citizens, and Europe responded to its noble effort to restore justice with a “colonial campaign against Russia.” As we saw above, Pogodin has already undermined this argument. Russia’s hypocrisy lay in keeping silent about “the lawful catch” that it was counting on after the “restoration of justice.” The argument did not expand upon the fact that to “restore justice” and “liberate” the Slavs, Russia would need to overturn the existing world order and divide Europe.



The second argument is more complicated. It aims to prove that Europe itself pushed Nicholas into the war against Turkey with the help of a “fifth column” that had deeply infiltrated the Russian leadership. At first glance, this argument might seem like an absurd conspiracy theory. But it was strengthened by an independent, objective investigation of the Crimean War conducted by academician Yevgeny Tarle—the winning card for this argument. The first person to put forward this argument, as far as I know, was the previously mentioned Vadim Kozhinov. As far as conspiracy theories go, it sounded plausible. This argument piqued my interest.

Indeed, how was it that Yevgeny Tarle—a refined intellectual, a historian with God-given talent, a man who cherished his international reputation and who, in the midst of a wild Stalinist campaign against “the rootless cosmopolitans,” dared to ask at his lectures that people not accentuate the last syllable of his last name (it’s pronounced Tar-le, as he was Jewish, and not of French nationality)—how could he be involved in this mystification? Of course, I cannot quite be sure why Tarle approved the second edition of his two-volume book on the Crimean War in 1952, when the country was shaken with the “doctors-killers” and Stalin’s paranoia had reached its peak. I can only suggest that the superficial interpretation of the war provided by Tarle’s book could have proven very helpful to Stalin if the Soviet leader was indeed planning his own “Night of the Long Knives” within his political circle.

The interpretation of the Crimean War set forth in these volumes could serve as independent historical evidence that the entire Crimean affair was not the czar’s fault. The czar was deceived. He had been lied to by his staff for months. If this were true, Nicholas had been a victim of direct betrayal in the Winter Palace(!). This interpretation was very seductive. Especially for Stalin, who always loved to draw historical parallels.

Did Tarle’s book provide proof for such an interpretation? Without a doubt, it did. The author had found indisputable evidence: a Russian ambassador to London reported that England, ruled by the Tories, who were against the war, would not ally with France. And it was true: the ambassador could not imagine that his sovereign would be so misled by his own unspoken stupidity and complete misunderstanding of how the parliamentary system works that he would undermine a British government despite its sympathies for  Russia. Tarle also found that Russian ambassadors in Prussia and Austria reported that these countries did not intend to interfere in the Russian-Turkish war. And this was also true: in Berlin and Vienna no one could predict that there could be a war for the dismemberment of Turkey’s territory and Europe’s repartition. But you can imagine what an experienced conspiracist could make out of these reports.

And here’s what Tarle did: He suggested that Russian ambassadors deliberately misinformed the czar. And they did it with the blessing and under the direct orders of Chancellor Karl Nesselrode, the Russian emperor’s faithful henchman, who served him for decades (Nesselrode had been in charge of Russia’s foreign policy since 1822). Is it any wonder that Nicholas concluded that he could do with Turkey whatever he wanted? Here’s a quote from Tarle’s book, on which Kozhinov based his conclusions: “And the baron [Phillip] Bruno in London, and [Pyotr] Meyendorff in Vienna and even [Andrei] Budberg in Berlin would follow the instructions of their boss, the chancellor, and sometimes report not what their eyes had seen and what their ears had heard; and Nesselrode would collect this information and bring it to Nicholas.”

Nicholas I was deaf to their reasoning and to reports from the European capitals. He wished to declare to the world that he was going to establish a “new order” in Europe, or the Novus nascitur ordo that Pogodin whispered to him. Indeed he was “as if drunk.”

The first thing a normal person might ask is, how could all these successful career diplomats, and especially their chief, benefit from misinforming the emperor? The only “benefit” they could hope to receive would be shame, disgrace, and, possibly, imprisonment. Why would they do it? Yet for Tarle, the Black Hundred conspiracy theorist, it was quite clear. All these diplomats had non-Russian names, and Nesselrode, Tarle suspected, was a German Jew. For Tarle, no additional proof was needed that the czar had been up against a “fifth column.” Such a conclusion would puzzle a normal person.

I admit that at first, I was puzzled, too. Even the reports Alexander Dugin delivered to the Izborsky Club on the topic of the “fifth column” (of course, based on today’s material) were not helpful. Let me remind you that Dugin came from Pamyat (“Memory”), a People’s National-Patriotic Christian Orthodox organization, which used to be affiliated with the Black Hundred, in the early years of perestroika, and currently works as professor of sociology at Moscow State University and is the leader of the Izborsky Club’s conspiracy wing. Here are his writings: “We are told sometimes that the ‘fifth column’ exists only among the liberals and in the Dissenters’ March, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Moreover, it is a false target. The most serious networks and groups of influence aimed at the desovereignization of Russia are concentrated in Putin’s close circle; it’s people who work with him, who develop strategies for him. That’s where the real conspiracy is.”

In his turn, Kozhinov concluded that Stalin was right. The people closest to the czar, those working by his side, were the real “conspirators.” But the fact is that revision of Stalin’s policy began immediately after his death (just as it had begun immediately after Nicholas’s death). And Dugin is simplifying. Those who were “close” to the czar decided nothing. They would not dare. No one from Nicholas’s close circle would dare, in his lifetime, argue with the czar’s decision to punish Turkey for not accepting Russia’s ultimatum, no matter how ridiculous this decision might have seemed.

Turkey could have been punished without triggering an outburst of indignation and fear in Europe. For example, Russia could have taken Kars and Erzurum away from it, or occupied any part of its territory in Asia. Reputable Russian diplomats carrying Russian names, such as Alexey Orlov and Pavel Kiselev, advised Nicholas to do so. (Admiral Alexander Menshikov got angry with Nicholas for not following their advice and wrote, as we recall, that the emperor was “as if drunk and would not listen to reason.”)

“Reason” would have told him what Russian diplomats with non-Russian names reported from European capitals: no one in Europe would move a finger if Nicholas punished Turkey in Asia. They were reporting the undeniable truth, hoping that Nesselrode and Menshikov could convince Nicholas to refrain from repeating the fiasco of his March 14, 1848, Manifesto and starting a war in Europe. And especially from challenging England by destroying the Turkish fleet in the Port of Sinop. Alas, they didn’t have enough influence. The autocrat was deaf to their reasoning and to reports from the European capitals. He wished to declare to the world that he was going to establish a “new order” in Europe, or the Novus nascitur ordo that Pogodin whispered to him. Indeed he was “as if drunk.”

And Tarle, in his focus on diplomatic documents, left out one major factor from his account of the Crimean events: the czar’s character and, more importantly, his ideological turn after the 1848 debacle that really predestined Russia’s strategy. Tarle made a mistake. Anyway, the arguments of Soviet historians who viewed the Crimean War as a “conspiracy against Russia” are too thin. The same applies to the post-Soviet historians, too.