Orthodox Russia vs Muslim Ottomans

Religion had always been important in Imperial Russia. As early as the ‎seventeenth century, Russian expansion, even the Russian empire itself were perceived by Russian statesmen and ‎historians as the Orthodox Crusade (as opposed to the famous series of Crusades in the middle ages).‎

The rapid dizzying expansion of the Russian empire encouraged the Russians to proclaim Moscow (their own Holy city) as ‎the Third Rome (after Rome & Constantinople)‎. Incorporation of the Orthodox Christian faith into the Russian identity was State and Church sponsored.‎

Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118), whose call for help ignited the Crusades.

Religious fervor and zeal for protecting the Holy lands and Christian pilgrims from Muslim ‎aggression were a significant factor in vitalizing the Christian kingdoms into building armies and sending ‎campaigns to the Middle East.‎ The same tactics were sought once again in Imperial Russia. This time, not just for restoring the Holy lands into the Christian fold, but to ‎resurrect the Byzantine Empire as well.

The Russians missed the first series of crusades in the Holy Lands (1095 – 1291); the Kievan Rus’ started embracing Christianity, in the Byzantine Orthodox faith, in the 11th century A.D. So, the Russians embarked on their own ‎crusade, starting the early 18th century.‎

The early Russo-Turkish skirmishes and wars were a combination of direct confrontations and proxy wars. ‎In Ukraine and around the Black Sea, the Tatar Khanate of Crimea (1441 – 1783) did the Ottoman Sultan’s bidding for a long time. However, with the increasingly powerful and brutal Russian intervention, the Ottoman entered the fray of a long series of wars… and ‎lost spectacularly. The first devastating blow to the Ottoman prestige came with the 1768-1774 war. A war vital in two ‎aspects: it proved to weary Europe that the Russian Empire was indeed the behemoth they feared it was, and the Ottomans were no longer so.‎

The Greek Plan. The Sick Man of Europe. Russian Specter

The European powers had reconciled after the tumultuous Napoleonic wars at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. A principle of “Balance of Powers” was implemented, and “Concert of Europe” was embraced by all European monarchs. Every territorial expansion and annexation were to be agreed upon by the five signatories (Britain, Russia, Austria, Prussia, and France) to the body of treaties. Though no representative of the Ottoman Sultan attended the Congress, it was understood that no annexation or invasion of the Ottoman lands was to be undertaken by any European power without the consent of other co-signatories. It was a resolution for peace after a quarter century of French revolutionary havoc.

Then the Greek revolt happened, a Russian patronized and funded insurrection. However, the Ottoman doubled down on the rebels and defeated them savagely, all the while committing a series of vicious atrocities against the Greek people.

Russia beseeched the European powers to join forces and help the Greeks, but the rest of the European powers were justified in their fear of Russian intentions. After all, it was the intent of Empress Catherine II (Empress of Russia 1762 – 1796) to recreate the Byzantine Empire, via her ambitious Greek plan, establishing a Greek state of Orthodox Christians, occupying the same territorial and political space as that of the old Byzantine Empire. A country under the implicit Russian control, politically and spiritually.

Sultan Mahmud II

The European governments ignored the Russian calls, but European volunteers, inspired by religious and romantic revolutionary spirit flocked to Greece to join forces with the rebels. With the Ottoman control over the Greek dominion struggling, the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II, asked for help from his powerful governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha. On hopes of advancing his own benefits, the Pasha of Egypt sent his eldest son, Ibrahim, an inspired military commander, disciplined and vicious in his own right. The Egyptian forces, under Ibrahim, quashed the Greek rebellion completely, committing farther atrocities in the wake of their suppression, killing thousands, burning villages and intending to ship thousands of Greeks to Egypt as slaves.

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European Royalty Drops on Queen Victoria in Middle of the Night. June 1, 1844

Before the advent of modern transportation, it was rare for a monarch to cross his country’s borders, even to other friendly nations. Before steamships and railways, it was impractical and hazardous for a king to leave the safety of his palace. Most royalties had their travels around the world, well before their ascension to the throne, to enrich their education, broaden their perspective, and cultivate basic manners and skills for their future job as sovereigns of their own countries.

Russian Tsar Nicholas I

Nicholas I, the Russian Tsar (1825 – 1855) was no different. He embarked on worldly trips before ascending to the throne, one of the dearests to his heart was his visit in 1816, when he was 20 years old, to Britain. Not only did he love the company of the British aristocracy and enjoy their social life, but he was also popular with the ladies.

However, it wasn’t his admiration of the British aristocracy and the British tradition that made him decide on another trip in 1844, when he was a veteran monarch, with almost twenty years of rule. Nothing short of a significant diplomatic endeavor could have justified his arduous, dangerous journey. Moving out of Russia was dangerous, even moving freely in the motherland was risky, considering the Tsar’s oppressive rule, and most importantly, his brutal suppression of the Polish revolt in 1831. Owing to its occupation of a large swath of Poland, Imperial Russia had the greatest share of Polish rebels, but they were under check by the Tsarist machinations. It was the Polish expats that the Tsar had to fear the most. Sprawled across all over Europe, the Polish revolutionaries vied for Russian noble blood. News of the Tsar traveling across Europe would entice more than a few rebels to assassinate the brutal monarch who was enslaving their people.

Nicholas I of Russia, however, felt that his diplomatic journey was justified; he was willing to take the risk.

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