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. In this new essay, the author argues that Nicholas I, obsessed with superpower ideas and suffering from the Napoleon complex, brought Russia to the outbreak of the fatal Crimean War of 1853–56.



Superpower Mission

Our last article talked about the lexicon of the Russian idea. We can use any vocabulary we want, but the chronology of the Russian idea has not yet reached its conclusion. And we have to follow its dictation. As the reader recalls, when we left our autocrat, Czar Nicholas I, he was emboldened and overjoyed by Mikhail Pogodin’s scenario of the perennial Russian mission “to destroy the barbaric Turkish rule in Europe.” And he was ready to act immediately. The czar, as you know, was not a fan of diplomatic protocol, and that’s why he initially decided to end the affair with one blow, presenting Turkey—and Europe—with a fait accompli.

In February of 1853, Nicholas ordered Admiral Vladimir Kornilov to prepare a fleet to land troops in the Bosporus Strait. The czar’s instructions read, “If the fleet is able at that time to pick up 16,000 people with thirty-two field guns and two hundred Cossacks, then this, along with its unexpected appearance, will be sufficient not only to seize the Bosporus, but also Constantinople. And if we increase the number of troops, our chances of luck will improve.

This force majeure conceived by Nicholas likely caused quite a stir in his circles. Russian diplomats remembered very well the Manifesto of March 14, 1848, for which they had to apologize, and the repetition of scandal was deemed undesirable. The czar was dissuaded. They agreed to make the Turkish sultan an offer he could not accept under any circumstances. In their offices, they began to rummage through old archives, looking for a suitable proposition. And imagine this: they found a yellowed copy of the Russian–Turkish Kuchuk Kainarji treaty of 1774, from Catherine II’s time, which detailed some carefully specified situations in which the sultan had allowed Russia to stand up for its Christian subjects in Moldavia and Valakhiya. In the same treaty, Russia had guaranteed the independence of Crimea; however it annexed the peninsula in 1783. Following this harsh violation, the treaty was considered invalid.

For three generations, this treaty collected dust in the archives. It was not mentioned in any subsequent Russian–Turkish treaties—and there were a lot of them. Turkey had always (as indeed had Russia, before the early 1850s) considered it purely symbolic. But that was before, when Russian czars, including Nicholas, stood by the sultan, protecting him as they would any legitimate sovereign from his rebellious subjects, including the Orthodox. It was a different story in 1853, when the Sublime Porte suddenly turned into a “barbarous dominion.” In short, the sultan was reminded that the emperor of Russia considered himself personally responsible for the welfare of his Christian subjects—in all situations and without exception—and this time, not only in Moldavia and Valakhiya, but across the Balkans to the Adriatic Sea. The Russian czar, in other words, offered himself as the Turkish sultan’s coruler.

Imagine, for comparison, what people in St. Petersburg would say if the sultan demanded the right to represent personally his Kazan, Crimean, and Caucasian co-religionists in Russia. International diplomacy had no such precedent, at least since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The czar’s demand was such an obvious violation of the existing world order that it was speculated in European capitals that the czar had either gone mad and was living in a different reality, or he was clumsily provoking a war. Recalling the half-mad Manifesto of March 14, 1848, Europe prepared for the worst. And for good reason, because such a provocation was the essence of Pogodin’s plan. He wrote, “Compared to the Turks, we are in the more favorable position. We can say, ‘You refuse to promise us real protection for your Christians, so now we demand the release of the Slavs’— and let war resolve our dispute.”

This provocation was unprecedented in more ways than one. First, following the Napoleonic Wars, Russia was a permanent member of the “Concert of Europe,” or the “Great Powers,” the collective rulers of Europe. In practice, this meant that in any critical situation in which the fate of a particular state hung in the balance, the Concert made all the decisions. And then, suddenly, it was revealed that Russia had a special, individual mission, which it intended to carry out by itself, without the consent and participation of the Concert. Worse, this mission was nothing more than the dismemberment of another great power. At the time, no one was permitted such arbitrariness.

Secondly, Europe was scared to death of Nicholas’s superpower mission, and the fear of it united Europeans—from the extreme conservative to the extreme revolutionary. Pogodin himself quoted Adolphe Thiers, the famous historian and future president of France, who was in a panic: “Europe will say goodbye to its freedom if Russia ever gets these two Straits [the Turkish-controlled Bosporus and Dardanelles] in their power.” Pogodin, of course, did not quote Karl Marx, but he was in a panic no less than Thiers, whom he hated. “If Russia possesses Turkey,” he wrote, “its strength will almost double, and it will be stronger than the rest of Europe put together. Such an outcome would be an indescribable disaster for the revolution.”


Prelude to War

The protests in Europe convinced Nicholas that he was on the right track. “Our enemies are just waiting,” Pogodin incited him, “so that we will become timid from their threats and abandoned the mission that was intended for us since the founding of our country.” It is obvious that this conceptualization of the Concert—Russia’s former colleagues—as enemies followed directly from Russia’s moral isolation from Europe, about which Pyotr Chaadaev had warned us. Chaadaev’s fear that this isolation might turn into a political confrontation was realized right in front of him. In European eyes, it was not only a mess, but deadly mayhem. And so Europe would (to draw upon Thiers’s dire forecast) “defend its freedom” by protecting Turkey.

The reasons for dialogue were disappearing. St. Petersburg’s high society was going to liberate their Orthodox brethren-in-faith; the czar had claimed his superpower rights; and Europe quaked with fear for its freedom. How could any agreement come from this situation? Meanwhile, events developed rapidly. On February 28, 1853, Russian minister Alexander Menshikov was sent to Istanbul with an ultimatum. Turkey was given eight days to make a decision. On March 1, the High Porte applied to the Concert for mediation. And on March 7, Menshikov departed empty-handed from Istanbul. On June 14, the czar’s manifesto was issued from Peterhof. Russia—and the world—learned that “Having exhausted all our beliefs and, with them, all peaceful measures to meet our just demands, we have recognized that it is necessary to move our troops into the Danube principalities, to show the Porte what its tenacity can lead to.”

The Concert of Europe demanded an international conference without preconditions, believing that to begin negotiations amid Russia’s occupation of Turkish territory (the Danube principalities were protectorates of Turkey), would be, to put it diplomatically, a little premature. The czar was given time to think again. But, as Menshikov later wrote, “The monarch was like a drunk; he would not listen to reason, and was convinced of his omnipotence.” Russian troops not only moved into the principalities, but also crossed the Danube.

And they stumbled into a strong Turkish resistance. The Turks had more rifles and were better shots. After a typical battle, Nicholas was close to despair. “If we waste our troops this way,” he wrote Commanding General Mikhail Gorchakov, “then we will kill their spirit, and no reserves will be enough.” It seemed this might be the one reason that could change his mind: if his troops could not defeat the Turks in the field, how would they stand against European armies, if Europe got seriously angry? He could hardly think he’d be allowed to divide European power unpunished. Presumably, European diplomats reasoned this way. But the czar took the bit between his teeth, bolstered by the fact that his “patriotic” Russian audience was enthusiastic about the war.

“All of Russia loves idea of the war,” Stepan Shevyrev, a conservative Russian historian and an ardent critic of the West, wrote. “There have never before been such wondrous and unanimous enlistments…. War and war, there is no word for peace.” According to Anna Feodorovna Tyutchev, the knowledgeable handmaiden of honor of the wife of the Russian crown prince, “The youth is ripe for the fight. Grand Dukes Mikhail and Nicholas are thrilled.” Moreover, the Tsarevich, the future Alexander II, felt the same. He rejoiced, “The prophecy that foretells the liberation of Constantinople after fifty-four years and the restoration of the St. Sophia Church is being fulfilled.” How was all this supposed to end? Chaadaev was not mistaken when he wrote, “The result will be that one day, Europe’s vanguard will come to the Crimea.”


Slapping “John Bull”

Then Nicholas, desperate for a loud victory capable of overshadowing news of the low-intensity conflict on the Danube, committed an unpardonable folly: without consulting his diplomats, he issued an order to start a war on the Black sea. He ordered this despite England’s warnings that it guaranteed the safety of Turkish ports. On November 18, Russian Admiral Pavel Nakhimov entered the Sinop port—and sank the Turkish fleet that was harbored there. The “patriotic” Russian audience was wild with joy over the victory at Sinop. Naively, they were sure that this victory would “diminish the arrogance of John Boole” (as the British were contemptuously called in Russia).

“Nakhimov is a fine fellow,” Pogodin wrote in a letter to writer Sergei Asakov, “the true Russian hero.” The addressee was ecstatic: “The greatest and most solemn moment has come for us; we have maybe not had such since the days of Poltava and Borodino.” Patriotic poems appeared—they were uncountable. The poet Fyodor Tyutchev, of course, also commented:

Russia, arise! The moment is too close!
Stand up for the sake of Christ’s life!
Isn’t it the time, crossing ourselves,
To strike the bell in Constantinople?

In reality, it was the beginning of the end. Nakhimov’s victory caused the Tory antiwar government in London to resign. “I am accused of cowardice,” George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen and the former Prime Minister, complained to the Russian ambassador, “that I betrayed England for Russia. I cannot fight anymore; I don’t dare to appear on the street.” Indeed, Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria and also an antiwar activist, was booed on the street. Two days after Sinop, Henry John Temple,3rd Viscount Palmerston, who was far less scrupulous toward the Russians, came to power in London. And two weeks later, the unthinkable Treaty of Sinop was signed between England and France. It’s safe to say that everything that transpired between Russia and Europe—the death of the Russian fleet, the landing of allied troops in the Crimea, the assault on Sevastopol, Russia’s capitulation, and the “shameful peace”—all happened because Nicholas had the stupidity to slap “John Bull”—and the “patriotic” public applauded in rapture.

Anyway, when, in January 1854, the Anglo-French squadron entered the Black Sea, its commander ordered the Russian military to not dare raise anchor, under the threat of destruction. And they did not dare. The eighteenth-century Russian sailboats could not fight the allies’ armored ships. Even the most stalwart “patriot” should have known that Nakhimov’s November triumph could end no other way; but that didn’t stop the czar from giving that fateful order to his admiral. Menshikov was right: Nicholas was “as if drunk” in 1854. And yet somehow he still managed to scare and provoke Europe.

Even then, it was not too late to prevent a war with Europe. On February 4, 1854, in a personal letter to the czar, Napoleon III promised that the allied fleet would immediately leave the Black Sea and the incident would be considered over if Russia signed an armistice with Turkey and evacuated its troops from the Danube principalities. France clearly did not want to fight for Turkey. Nicholas replied mockingly that “Russia will be able to prove that it is the same in 1854 as it was in 1812.” And you will have, they said, the Cossacks in Paris again. And when the cabinets of London and Paris officially demanded the removal of Russian troops from the principalities by April 30, Russian Empire diplomat Karl Nesselrode arrogantly declared that His Majesty did not consider it necessary to answer them.


The Intrigue

As you can see, there is no doubt who instigated Czar Nicholas I’s last error, known to posterity as the Crimean War. All is obvious, everything is transparent, and all the documents are on the table. And nobody disputes it; after all, how could you? Russia’s unexpected and aggressive turn, which was a result of its moral isolation from Europe under Nicholas, also seems indisputable: the possibility of this isolation escalating into a political confrontation was predicted by Chaadaev. In my own terms, this means that in “the destruction of the Turkish barbaric rule in Europe,” in other words, in the redistribution of Europe, Russia had finally found an adequate way to realize its Napoleon complex. You can challenge my terms, but you cannot dispute the facts.

But—and this is the incomparable intrigue of this story—the conservative sector of pre-revolutionary Russian historiography and, more interestingly, the Soviet historiography that followed it, categorically insisted that the Crimean War was provoked by Europe. They adopted, in other words, Fyodor Tyutchev’s version of events: that from start to end, the Crimean War was a European conspiracy against Russia. The common thread between this fantastic version and the reality is, unfortunately, what we will come to understand in part two of this essay…