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The Russians shall not have Constantinople: Roman Golicz looks at English attitudes to Russia during the Eastern crisis of 1870-78.

IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH I century English politicians began to question what would happen to the Balkans if and when the Ottoman empire disappeared. For as long as the declining Ottoman empire remained in control of the eastern Mediterranean and the Russian empire restricted itself to expansion into Siberia, Britain's naval pre-eminence was unthreatened. However, in the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-92, Russia increased her Black Sea possessions, established a route to the Caspian Sea and expanded into Central Asia. Britain now feared that further Russo-Turkish conflicts might result in the collapse of the Ottoman empire: control of the Black Sea, the Dardanelles, and the Aegean Sea would then fall to Russia who could block Britain's Mediterranean trade and even threaten British waters.

On April 12th, 1791, a cartoon was published in London entitled 'An Imperial Stride!' depicting Catherine the Great as the Giant Bolster of Cornish legend, only with one foot in Russia and the other in Constantinople. The image recalls the empress's epic tour to the Crimea in 1787 when she entered Kherson through an arch inscribed 'The Way to Constantinople'. As Byzantium, this city had been the heart of the eastern Christian empire. After it fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the metropolitanate of Moscow was raised to a patriarchy, making it the spiritual repository of Byzantium until it could be returned to its historical home. This religio-cultural imperative was not to be underestimated but was officially separate from the political aspirations of Russians to reach Constantinople. How ever, this was not the case with many ultra-nationalists such as the Slavophils, who resented outside interference in Russian affairs, and the Pan-Slavists, who urged a broad political union of all Slav nations; both groups agitated for Russian possession of Constantinople.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) demonstrated that the British navy ruled the waves. But through the nineteenth century this position became less steadfast, and by 1870 Russia possessed the third most powerful q navy in the world, after Britain and France. The Ottoman empire, meanwhile, was being maintained as a barely living political entity by the 'balance of power'. Britain had formulated this nebulous policy during the Congress of Vienna (1815) as a means of maintaining European stability principally by denying to any one of the eight signatory powers advantageous access to 'neutral waters'. But as the century wore on, it was gradually overtaken by a more sell-interested, unilateral stance based on resistance to those who threatened Britain's first ranking position in post-Napoleonic Europe.

Britain therefore rejected as impractical and dangerous a move in 1853 by Tsar Nicholas I for Britain and Russia to dismember Turkey and share the spoils. At the outbreak of the eighth Russo-Turkish ('Crimean') War in 1854 it was not an altruistic sense of a threat to European stability that caused Britain's participation in the conflict against Russia, rather it was the perceived threat of a Russian-engineered destabilisation to British interests in the East.

The ensuing "Treaty of Paris of 1856 demanded rectification of the frontier of Bessarabia 'in order more fully to secure the Freedom of the navigation of the Danube'. These cessions were to be annexed by the principality of Moldavia, which with its neighbour Wallachia was placed under the suzerainty of Turkey under the protection of the six other signatory Powers. More importantly, Article XI "in perpetuity interdicted to the Flag of War' the Black Sea, neutralising it and throwing it open to mercantile vessels of all nations. Thus Constantinople was effectively prevented from becoming a prize worth fighting for, and this was thought to have settled the matter of Russian expansion towards it.

Tsar Alexander II, who had succeeded Nicholas in 1855 and had brought about an early peace, appeared before the world as a liberal autocrat concerned for the welfare of his subjects (lie abolished serfdom in 1861) while encouraging a benign foreign policy. In tact the days of an iron-fisted autocracy in Russia when the Tsar's word was absolute were fast disappearing. Although he did not set up representative political institutions, the Tsar effectively introduced accountability to his ministers through a willingness to abandon some of the absolutist autocracy of his predecessors.

This development was not fully appreciated in Britain. Thus when Prince Alexander Gorchakov, the Tsar's influential minister for foreign affairs, audaciously repudiated the Black Sea neutrality clause of the Treaty of Paris in October 1870; he did so with a degree of independence from the Tsar thought impossible in London. In fact, he undoubtedly formulated and initiated the policy, At Westminster it was pointed out that any unilateral violation of the principal treaty by Russia would constitute a casus belli. English outrage was exacerbated as Britain had only recently refused to consider a legal revision of the Black Sea clauses as Russia's price for its inclusion (at Britain's invitation) in a European congress following Prussia's war against France.

The signatories of the 1856 Paris Treaty, had to be cautious in their response to Gorchakov's actions: the fledgling Third Republic in France was in turmoil in the period of the Paris Commune; Prussia had not yet a navy to speak of. To all intents and purposes the Eastern Question had become a specifically Anglo-Russian problem. British interests in the Balkans derived from wider economic pursuits in India via the Eastern Mediterranean. In 1858 the British Government had taken direct control over Indian affairs. Since 1869 the Suez Canal had provided it with a direct route to India. Britain needed to secure the shipping routes which passed through areas, like Suez, that were nominally Turkish.

Gorchakov refused to retract. Rejecting a suggestion by the German Chancellor Bismarck for a Black Sea conference at St Petersburg, the British Prime Minister William Gladstone and Foreign Secretary Lord Granville accepted a London date of March 13th, 1871, for the German proposal where representatives from Britain, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Turkey agreed that no power could repudiate any part of a multilateral treaty" without the full consent of the other signatories. A new article restated the closure of the Dardanelles and the Bosporous to foreign warships hut enabled Turkey to open the Straits in peacetime to warships belonging to those nations with whom it was friendly. In practical terms this included British warships and excluded Russian ones.

Alexander's role in Gorchakov's repudiation remains unclear: he had at least approved it by default. The powerful Pan-Slavist movement in Russia that sought Slavic hegemony throughout Eastern Europe and a return to Constantinople ('Tsargrad') was a force against which the Tsar had to struggle with care. Indeed, Pan-Slavists represented by leading military figures such as General Mikhail Chernaev, and Slavophiles with Fedor Dostoevskii as a figurehead, considered Alexander II a suspicious figure overly concerned with Western matters rather than with the rebuilding of Holy Mother Russia according to their medieval view of a vast Russian empire incorporating all Slavic peoples with Constantinople as their spiritual capital.

Meanwhile, Gorchakov's repudiation was allowed to stand simply because Granville felt that Britain was unable to effect a retraction without the support of the other Powers, which was not forthcoming. The London Conference had been a victory on paper only and could affect future treaties hut not those ratified in the past. Continued Russian expansion into Central Asia towards Afghanistan and then, according to some, into India was one of the more absurd delusions nurtured by English pundits. But Gladstone's administration (1868-74) was wary of embroiling Britain in a war against Russia. Border issues over Afghanistan were hammered out between Gorchakov and Granville to the satisfaction of both, and Russian occupation of the strategic Uzbeg town of Khiva was accepted on the assurance that this would be temporary. When Khiva was formally annexed in October 1873, the British Government remained impassive.

Many Slavophiles were concerned when in July 1873 it was announced that the Tsar's only daughter would marry Queen Victoria's second son, the Duke of Edinburgh. The match had not been engineered as a political union but it was soon perceived potentially as such both in Russia and Britain. Certainly statements made by the British Press and both Houses of Parliament following the announcements of the engagement and the wedding in January 1874 reveal a regressive nostalgia for an era when nations could secure peace through international marriages. The post-marital euphoria, nevertheless, enabled Alexander to undertake a successful state visit to London in May 1874 in a period that seemed to herald a rapprochement. However, within three years of the royal marriage, Anglo-Russian relations were once more on the rocks.

February 1874 saw Benjamin Disraeli in Downing Street. The new prime minister's politics, rooted in an amoral geopolitical attitude, perfectly suited the mentality of a nation approaching the cusp of Victorian imperial grandeur. In Russia, meanwhile, Slavophiles and Pan-Slavists were increasing pressure for Russian expansion towards Constantinople.

In November 1875, Disraeli purchased all the shares in the Suez Canal owned by the impoverished Khedive of Egypt, and Britain now felt that it had a moral right to consider the canal Anglo-French property. Disraeli also consolidated British prestige through his Royal Titles Bill granting to Queen Victoria the title Empress of India on May 1st, 1876. Regarded by many ill England as preposterous, it was meant to demonstrate to the world in general and Russia in particular that India was a British possession of especial significance whose violation would not be tolerated.

The following day, in the town of Panagyurishte in central Bulgaria, Bulgar Slavs rose against their Turkish overlords, prompting severe reprisals and leaving thousands killed. Gladstone made his position clear in his pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, a denunciation of Turkish misrule fairly representing the Liberal view in September 1876. Disraeli responded equally clearly by denying that the atrocities had occurred, since news of them had reached him not through official diplomatic sources but via the popular press, dismissing them as 'coffee-house babble'.

A wider Balkan revolt against Turkish rule was now feared, destabilising the region. A threatening protest drafted in Berlin on May 12th, 1876, by Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary was delivered to Turkey, demanding an armistice between Turkey and the Balkan insurgents and an agreement to a consular commission set tip to oversee internal reforms. The Berlin Memorandum, as this was known, was also intended as a peace proposal between Turkey and the Balkan insurgents to which Britain was expected to assent without becoming involved. Suspicions of Russia's involvement in anything to do with the political future of Turkey, Disraeli persuaded his Cabinet not to take a 'leap in the dark' by assenting. France and Italy had also been expected to assent without involvement, and Disraeli employed this European anomaly to good effect until both France and Italy finally submitted their assent to the Berlin Memorandum. Now isolated, Disraeli again demonstrated his prioritising of British above European interests. On May 25th, the Mediterranean Squadron, under the overall command of the Duke of Edinburgh, was mobilised and sent to Besika Bay off the Dardanelles, as a precautionary measure.

Further anti-Turkish revolts by Serbia and Montenegro provoked Russian involvement, in the form of Pan-Slavist propaganda and unsanctioned military intervention. On October 4th, Gorchakov accepted a British proposal for an armistice between Turkey and the Balkan insurgents as a prelude to a major conference, but Turkish unwillingness to co-operate resulted in a Russian retraction. Accordingly, Disraeli, who believed that the Russian retraction from a peace conference concealed further military expansion southward, proposed to pre-empt a possible Russian occupation of Constantinople by installing a British presence there in the form of the Mediterranean Squadron. Faced with a conflict he had not sought, Alexander II implemented a six-week armistice with Turkey and accepted Britain's proposal for a conference of ambassadors at Constantinople.

On November 10th, Disraeli delivered a careless speech at the Guild-hall, which was widely interpreted as bellicose while Alexander spoke in Moscow restating Gorchakov's position--that Russia would take independent action against Turkey if the Sultan's intransigence over Britain's proposal for an armistice failed to settle the matter at the proposed conference. But Disraeli's speech had settled one matter already: Alexander wrote to his daughter proclaiming that he would never forgive Disraeli for his speech, converting (as did his daughter) to a belief in upholding and cultivating the principles of Gladstonian Liberalism in Britain. The Duchess of Edinburgh in fact befriended and supported Gladstone after 1877 and had no further contact with Disraeli.

With the consent of all the powers, the Constantinople Conference opened on December 23rd, 1876. 'I do not want war', the Tsar wrote to his daughter, 'and everyone, and especially myself, will be very happy if the conference ... will resolve matters peacefully'. But, as he had feared, Turkish intransigence over Britain's proposal for an armistice made conflict inevitable. The conference collapsed and Russia declared war on Turkey on April 24th, 1877.

Britain announced its neutrality on May 6th, but with the important condition that should Russia threaten her interests in the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal, the Straits or at Constantinople, such violation would result in the automatic abrogation of neutrality. It was also made clear that Britain would not stand aside indefinitely if Russia did not soon propose equitable peace terms to Turkey.

But the war dragged on, belying British military 'experts' who had predicted Russian occupation of Constantinople within nine weeks. Disraeli's Cabinet was much divided over what action to take. Although it was eventually agreed that any occupation of Constantinople by Russia would be temporary, Disraeli informed Queen Victoria that a unanimous Cabinet had agreed that any occupation of Constantinople would be the casus belli for Britain.

The Queen was in accord with her prime minister, five times threatening to abdicate between April 1877 and January 1878 if aggressive measures were not taken, urging 'the importance of the tsar knowing that we will not let him have Constantinople!' News of the fall of Plevna, on the Danube, to Russia after a six-month campaign reached London on December 11th; three days later the Queen visited the prime minister at his private residence, something that she had not done since 1843. 'Some wise persons at home and more abroad ... will see in the trip an event pregnant with portentous meaning', noted The Times.

Also prompted by the fall of Plevna, against considerable Cabinet opposition, on December 13th, Disraeli succeeded in proposing a war credit of 6 million [pounds sterling] and an early recall of Parliament to discuss it, having raised the credit from two to five and then six million. However, his suggestion of a recall on January 7th, had to be extended by ten days in order to appear less belligerent, while the confrontational Queen's Speech that he had written with Victoria's approval would have to be toned down. The 'Dictator of Downing Street' often had to be restrained by those within Iris Cabinet who opposed any action that might precipitate a war with Russia, led by lords Carnarvon (Colonial Secretary), Salisbury (India Secretary), and Derby (Foreign Secretary): on October 5th, 1877, Disraeli had proposed British mediation with exclusively Turkish peace terms to be laid before the Tsar; if he rejected them, Britain should consider itself free to intercede on Turkey's behalf. The Cabinet had rejected this astonishing combination of mediation and threat.

On January 16th, 1878, faced with military defeat, Turkey proposed peace terms at Adrianople. An armistice was arranged for January 31st, but Russian forces nonetheless continued to progress towards Constantinople. On February 9th, The Illustrated London News announced with relief that 'The war between Russia and Turkey is over'; one week later it was forced to admit that this had been premature: 'There is mystery everywhere ... anticipations of today become obsolete on the morrow'.

Disraeli reacted on February 12th by once more ordering the entire Mediterranean Squadron to move from Besika Bay into the Dardanelles, prompting the resignation of two Cabinet colleagues, including Foreign Secretary Lord Derby (who was persuaded to return following certain assurances by Russia and the subsequent withdrawal of half the fleet). With the credit passed on February 7th, part of the remaining fleet entered the Straits and anchored Constantinople. Gorchakov had slated previously that Russia would not attempt a passage through the Straits without British provocation.

Derby believed that sending ships to Constantinople would provide that very' provocation and that this was in breech of the agreement by which no foreign vessel of war was permitted to enter these waters while Turkey (which had not given Disraeli permission to act as he had) was at peace. An armistice, it was argued in return, was not a peace treaty. The stage was set for a stalemate.

Many books and pamphlets had already appeared on the most fiercely debated political issue of the century when in January 1878 George William Hunt provided the music-hall singer The Great Macdermott with a 'War Song'. Its chorus would introduce a neologism into the English language and herald unprecedented public participation in the crisis:
   We don't want to fight, but
   by jingo if we do,
   We've got the ships, we've
   got the men, and got
   the money too;
   We've fought the bear
   before, and while
   we're Britons true,
   The Russians shall not have

It would be impossible to do justice here to the influence of this inspired piece of popular sabre-rattling and what followed at the height of 'Jingomania' (January to April) in 'Jingoborough' (London) and elsewhere. It is sufficient to record that, as the most outspoken Turcophobe and opponent of any action against Russia, Gladstone's windows were smashed and his carriage turned over in the street as gangs of Jingoes roamed the streets with clubs, chains, and switches shouting 'By Jingo!', the 'party anthem of the warmongers' as Herbert Asquith later recalled it. They disrupted Liberal meetings, carried Turkish diplomatic staff through the streets on their shoulders, made public bonfires out of pacific propaganda topped with effigies of Gladstone, and picketed both the Russian embassy and consulate while hurling abuse at their occupants. The Duchess of Edinburgh had had to leave England by an arrangement agreed between Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander, and she did not return for almost two years.

On February 19th, an accord was reached with Gorchakov whereby no Russian troops would enter Constantinople or Gallipoli in return for Britain not landing troops on either side of the Straits. The protracted stalemate was broken when Russia imposed a Pan-Slavist peace settlement on Turkey at San Stefano on March 3rd, 1878, establishing independence for Montenegro, Serbia, and Romania.

The Treaty also constituted Bulgaria as a tributary principality of Russia; it required a heavy financial indemnity from Turkey; it gave to Russia the right to select a port on the Black Sea; it opened up the Dardanelles and the Bosporous at all times to Russian vessels; it obtained full rights for all Christians remaining under Turkish rule; and it gave Bessarabia to Russia in exchange for the corner of Bulgaria known as Dobruja.

The other European powers were horrified, and Austria-Hungary proposed a complete revision of San Stefano at a full European congress. Disraeli insisted that Britain should be the architect, but Russia rejected his terms on March 25th. War fever erupted once again as Disraeli mobilised the reserves and arranged for the calling up of 7,000 Indian troops to Malta, at which Derby resigned definitively, to be replaced by Lord Salisbury. Hunt wrote a second 'War Song' for Macdermott, and Jingoes in both high and low places sang in their own defence:
   Let the scribblers try their wit by
   penny paragraph,
   And sneer about the "lingoes' in
   hopes to raise a laugh.
   It it's 'Jingo' in love honour then
   'Jingoes' sure are we,
   If it's 'Jingo' to love England then
   'Jingoes' we will be.

The two most highly placed Jingoes in Britain were Disraeli and Victoria. Public criticism of the Queen was not possible, but Disraeli was fair game for his many detractors who found his attitude as unpalatable as it was irresponsible. Graffiti appeared in public, taken from the Book of Genesis: 'Benjamin shall ravin as a wolf, in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil'. His proposed use of Indian troops--thought unconstitutional and tasteless by Gladstone as they were not British subjects per se--prompted a famous rejoinder by Goldwin Smith:
   We don't want
   to fight, but by
   jingo! if
   we do,
   We'll stay at
   home at ease
   and send the
   mild Hindoo!

The Irish politician Thomas O'Connor, observing the crisis in London, stated bluntly: 'It seemed as if the whole of the country had gone mad'. Disraeli 'represented all that was evil, in his mind and character as well as in politics', while Gladstone 'took on the proportions of the noblest of human figures. Disraeli was Beelzebub against an angel of light'.

This was, after all, a war with Russia in all but name. That it did not actually become one in fact was due to Liberal opposition in England, the intervention of Bismarck, and the acquiescence of Alexander II. By April, he and Gorchakov had agreed in principle to a congress in Berlin in June 1878, to be held under tire auspices of Bismarck, and also to the withdrawing of all troops from the vicinity of Constantinople made conditional on Britain withdrawing its warships from the Straits. The madness was at air end.

The Congress of Berlin, which only made formal a number of agreements reached beforehand, was nevertheless seen in Britain as Disraeli's personal triumph. He returned a national hero claiming 'Peace with Honour', or as the Liberal view had it, 'Peace with Honours' after Disreaeli accepted the Order of the Garter from his grateful Queen. In reality he had achieved little other than to help set the stage for future Balkan discontent in a treaty that could not have differed more from San Stefano. But how many in England cared for the plight of a Bosnian or Herzegovinan peasant? It was more important that Disraeli had done what Victorian England most welcomed: acquired more territory for the empire, in tire shape of Cyprus.

This triumph would be short-lived. A deflated public with nothing to shout about or to deflect attention away from domestic problems rewarded Disraeli with electoral defeat in 1880. Gladstone, campaigning on an ethical foreign policy in contrast to that of his rival, was returned to high office with a huge majority, to the relief of the Tsar who announced to his daughter that he could now work with Britain. Nevertheless, institutional Russophobia in British political circles would die a slow death, and it would be two decades before Salisbury became the first English politician to publicly announce that Britain's support of" Turkey against Russia had been the greatest political delusion of the age.

In March 1915, Britain, France and Russia agreed that, in the event of a satisfactory conclusion to the Great War with the full participation of Russia, Constantinople and the Bosporous would be removed from Turkey--now fighting with the Central Powers--and incorporated within the Russian empire.

These two possessions (Constantinople and the Bosporous) over which so much Anglo-Russian tension had been generated for so long would now be made over to Russia as a gift with hardly a raised eyebrow in Britain. However, Russia's inability to participate at Gallipoli and Lenin's early peace terms that contravened the London Agreement of September 1914, by which no member of the 'triple entente' was permitted to reach separate peace terms with tire Central Powers, rendered this agreement null and void. Future revolutionary administrations in Russia would not raise the matter; by 1917 the quasi-mystical return to 'Tsar-grad' had no more meaning for them than the vanished tsars themselves.

Treaties and Conferences 1871-1918

1871: March 13th, London Conference.

1873: October 15th, Khiva annexed by Russia.

1875: July 1st, uprising of Christians in Herzegovina.

1876: May 1st, uprising of Bulgar Slavs crushed by Turks. May 11th-12th, 'Berlin Memorandum' of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary proposing armistice between Turkey and insurgents. Rejected by Disraeli (May 16th).

July 1st, Serbia declares war on Turkey.

July 2nd, Montenegro declares war on Turkey.

September 5th: Gladstone publishes Bulgarian Horrors pamphlet.

December 23rd, Start of Conference of Constantinople.

1877: January 20th, Turkey rejects proposals for internal reform and extensive Balkan provisions. The Conference dissolves.

April 24th, Russia declares war on Turkey.

May 16th, Romania declares war on Turkey.

June 30th, Mediterranean Fleet sent to Besika Bay.

December 14th, Serbia restates previous declaration of war against Turkey.

1878: January 23rd, Disraeli orders fleet to Dardanelles.

January 31st, a defeated Turkey agrees to armistice at Adrianople.

February 8th, British fleet enters Turkish waters. Russia warns Britain that entry into the Straits would precipitate Russian occupation of Constantinople. British fleet anchors in front of Constantinople. Russia does not carry out its threat.

February 24th, demonstrations against Russia in Hyde Park end in violence.

March 3rd, Russia arranges unilateral victorious Pan-Slavist peace treaty with Turkey at San Stefano.

March 25th, Russia rejects British proposals to lay San Stefano before a European congress.

March 27th, Disraeli mobilises the Reserves and calls up 7,000 Indian troops to Malta. War with Russia widely anticipated.

June 12th-July 12th, Congress of Berlin.

1880: April 22nd, Disraeli resigns as leader of the Conservatives after a huge Liberal majority based on Gladstone's pacific and moral judgement during the recent Eastern crisis.

1885-86: considerable Anglo-Russian tension over the unification of Bulgaria. Further fears of Russian expansion towards Constantinople and also British India.

1914: August 2nd, secret treaty between Turkey and Germany securingTurkish neutrality in the forth coming war. September 5th, London Agreement by which no member of the 'Triple entente' (Britain, France, and Russia) may reach separate peace treaties with the Central Powers.

November 4th, Britain declares war on Turkey after German/Turkish attack on Russian warships.

November 5th, France declares war on Turkey.

1915: March 14th, Russia, Britain, and France agree to a return of Constantinople and the Bosporous to Russia in the event of victory with full co-operation of Russia.

1918: March 3rd, Bolshevik-German peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk requested by Lenin renders 1915 agreement null and void. When the matter is raised with him, Lenin declares that the 'New Russia' is no longer concerned with Constantinople.


James Arthur Ransome Marriott, The Eastern Question: An Historical Study in European Diplomacy (Oxford, 1917); Robert William Seton-Watson, Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Eastern Question: A Study in Diplomacy and Party Politics (Macmillan & Co, 1935); Richard Millman, Britain and the Eastern Question 1875-1878 (Oxford, 1979); John Charmley, Splendid Isolation? Britain and the Balance of Power 1874-1914 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1999); Trevor Royle, Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1834-1856 (Little, Brown and Company, 1999).

Roman Golicz is an independent researcher.
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Author:Golicz, Roman
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Date:Sep 1, 2003
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