Russia and the Orthodox Church and the background to the Crimean War


During the struggle by his fellow Orthodox Christians (in Greece and the Balkans) for independence, Tsar Nicholas of Russia joined the fighting on the side of the Greeks. Turkey's Sultan retaliated by closing passage for Russian ships into the Mediterranean. In 1828-1829 Russia won the war against the Turks.

1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Turks ceded to Russia most of the eastern shore of the Black Sea and recognized Russian sovereignty over Georgia and part of Armenia. They also agreed to Russia's occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia while indemnities were being paid (until 1834), and thus providing those states with their first constitutions. It granted autonomy to Serbia, and promised autonomy to Greece. After 1833 the Turks promised to close the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Sea to all foreign warships at Russia's command.

In 1841 the London Straits Convention affirmed Ottoman control over the straits between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It was agreed that no power, and that included Russia, would send warships through the straits in time of peace.

In 1846 a disturbance occurred inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem – the holiest of sites for Christians and therefore a focal point for conflict. To maintain peace there the Muslim governor of Jerusalem had been posting soldiers inside and outside the church. Despite this, fights had been erupting. And on Good Friday a conflict between who was to use the altar first escalated into a brawl. The riot ended with more than forty people dead on the church's floor. In 1847 and 1848 there were more unseemly scuffles between Catholic and Orthodox Christian monks and priests in Jerusalem.

The Ottoman Empire was deeply in debt and dependent on British and French for loans. France's president, Louis Napoleon, championed Roman Catholic control over Christianity's sites in the Holy Land. Turkey's sultan, Abdulmecid I, had been educated in France, and he also favored French control over the Christian sites. Nicholas saw this as a blow to Russia and to Orthodox Christianity.

On April 19, 1853, while waiting for a response, Russia proclaimed the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire. On May 21, the Ottomans rejected the Russian ultimatum.

In July 1853 Nicholas moved his armies into Moldavia and Wallachia, states within Turkey's empire. Futile negotiations between Russia and the Ottomans followed. In Turkey, Sultan Abdulmecid came under pressure from nationalists and religiously concerned Muslims. Religious leaders were raising fears among Muslims that the Russians were going to destroy their mosques and build churches in their place.

Religious leaders met with the Sultan and ventured an ultimatum: either he declare war or abdicate. They got their war. In an enlarged session with his Grand Council, Sultan Abdulmecid gave in. On October 4 he declared war. His offensive along the Danube met with mixed success, but the Ottoman land attack into the Russian Caucasus (the mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea) that October was relatively successful.

November 30, 1853 At the port of Sinop on the Black Sea's southern coast of northern Turkey, the Russians approached a small fleet of Ottoman warships and transports which had chosen to remain at port under the protection of shore batteries. The small fleet was ordered to fight to the last man. The Russians attacked, and the wooden Turkish ships burned. Of the 4,400 Turkish seamen, 3,000 were killed. Then the guns of the Russian ships destroyed the port and its defensive installations.

Much of the British press presented the attack as the "Massacre of Sinope". The attack strengthened the pro-war factions in Britain and France, and provided them with the justification for a war to curb Russian bellicosity. Lord Palmerston temporarily resigned over the affair. Sinop was seen as a just cause for war.
By January 1854, a fleet of British and French warships had passed through the straits and into the Black Sea. In March, Britain, France and Turkey formalized an alliance. At the end of the month, Britain and France declared war on Russia. During the Crimean War which followed, all Russian ships of the line and frigates involved in this battle were lost at Sevastopol.

On April 22, the British navy shelled the Russian port at Odessa on the north-western shore of the Black Sea. In June, British and French warships sailed through the Gulf of Finland and reconnoitered the Russian navy base at the island of Kronstadt, near St Petersburg. In August, 10,000 French troops and 1,000 British besieged and forced the surrender of Russian forts at Bomarsund amid islands in the middle of the Baltic Sea. In August, a squadron of British warships bombarded Kola, near Murmansk, in Russia's far north.

Austria seeking advantage for itself threatened to enter the war on the side of the Ottoman Empire, and Russia responded by withdrawing from Wallachia and Moldavia, allowing Austria to move its troops there without confronting them.

September 14, 1854, a British and French force weakened by cholera, with a few thousand Turks, landed thirty miles north of Sevastopol in Crimea. On September 20, at the Alma River, a major battle was fought – a battle that was more like a riot than military maneuvers. Many were lost on both sides, but the Allies held.

On October 25, 1854, a few miles south of Sebastopol at the Battle of Balaclava there was what became known as the "Charge of the Light Brigade." A sloppy thinking captain, Louis Nolan, miscommunicated an order. The order was followed by the leader of a "light brigade." Six hundred British cavalrymen with swords drawn charged against Russian artillery well-defended on a hill. The poet Lord Tennyson wrote,

Someone had blunder'd: Their's not to make reply, Their's not to reason why, Their's but to do and die.
Some of the brigade survived, 118 were killed, 127 wounded and 60 taken prisoner. Four of the dead were trumpeters. Killed also in the action or destroyed afterward were 335 horses. The Russians were not giving up as the British had expected. The British and French had better weapons, their rifles having a range of 1000 yards while the Russians were still using old smooth bore flintlock muskets with a range of only 200 yards and, according to the British, taking little care to shoot straight. But the Russians, it is said, were willing to fight to the death for their faith and for Holy Russia, urged on by the priests who had accompanied them into battle. Having few rail lines, the Russians were using horse drawn supply wagons, inefficient in that much of what was carried was feed for the horses. And during the rains of autumn the hundreds of miles of land they had to cross was mud. In late October 1854, Florence Nightingale left Britain with 38 nurses heading for the Crimea. Already, studying on her own, she had made herself an expert in hospital administration. At the front she organized care for the wounded, cleaned up the care areas and cut mortality rates. It was a beginning for the nursing profession in Europe. The Russians also had come to accept the involvement of female nurses. The winter of 1854-55 was miserable for both the Russians and their enemies in the Crimea. British soldiers are described as having been "clothed in rags, cold, hungry and short of everything." On February 12 1855, Tsar Nicholas was given news of the disastrous Russian defeat at Evpatoria (Yevpatoriya), about forty miles north of Sebastopol. The Tsar is reported to have wept. He stopped wanting to receive any more dispatches from the front. On February 18 he was dead. Some researchers suspect that he had poisoned himself. Wikipedia reports that he caught a chill, refused medical treatment and died of pneumonia. In September, Russia abandoned its battle areas in the Crimea. The son of Nicholas, Alexander II, was ready to make peace, and so too were the Allies. The war – the first to be photographed – came to its formal end at a conference in Paris from late February to late March, 1856. The treaty produced by that conference, signed by Britain, France and Austria, attempted a new international order. The treaty guaranteed Turkey's independence and territorial integrity. It moved Russia back from the mouth of the Danube River, gave Bessarabia on the north-west of the Black Sea to the Ottoman Empire and left "His Majesty the Sultan" with suzerainty over Wallachia and Moldavia. The Black Sea was declared a neutral zone, open to all nations (through the straits) but not to warships, with Russia under instructions not to maintain a navy or coastal fortifications on its Black Sea shores. Russia was obliged to give up its claim of protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire. And an international commission was to assure safe navigation on the Danube River. The Russians are said to have lost 40,000 killed in action and 60,000 to disease. France is said to have lost 20,240 killed in action and 75,375 to disease. Britain's loss was 4,602 killed in action and 17,580 to disease. Figures for the Ottoman Empire are unknown. Tsar Alexander II saw the war as having exposed Russia's backwardness. Russia, he believed, would have to modernize economically and socially if it were to function as a great power. The British interpreted the war as a success, that the Russians had been stopped. And in Britain were some minor cultural changes. During the Crimean War smoking had come into fashion among upperclass men – men who, before the war had looked upon smoking as vulgar while military men of lesser status had been inclined to smoke as a demonstration of their worldliness and daredevil attitude – their manliness. Beards had also come into fashion – all this an imitation of Britain's military men in the Crimea, viewed as "war heroes".

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