The Worst Championship Ever

There’s a case to be made that the Crimean War, fought from 1854 to 1856 between the Russians on one side and the Turks, French, and British on the other, is the real First World War – but I’m not so much going to make that case here as regard it from a safe distance while assuming an attitude of thoughtfulness.

Like the First World War, the Crimean War has a “cause”, and then it has a cause. So we ought to set the scene a little, or rather a lot: the Russian relationship with the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century was defined not only by Turkey’s peculiar status at the time, under which everyone else in Europe was basically waiting nervously for it to collapse so they could find out who got which piece[1], but by the long and unpleasant history of the southern Russian frontier.

In the sixteenth century, Ivan IV[2] pushed the borders of the principality of Muscovy (and thus the borders of the nascent Russian Empire) south and southeast, seizing Kazan and Astrakhan from the Tatar khans. In the early eighteenth century, Peter the Great made a few stabs further south, trying to secure ports on the shores of the Black Sea.[3] And as the empire expanded, the Russian attitude towards the Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire grew gradually more protective.

A phrase that got bandied around a lot in a lot of places over the centuries was “Third Rome”. The first Rome was Rome; the second, Byzantium; the third depended on your loyalties. (Benito Mussolini thought it was Rome again.) The Russians thought it was Moscow – the last remaining capital of the legitimate Christian faith.[4] Under Peter the Great, religious authority had been removed from the Patriarch of Moscow and transferred to a government department called the Holy Synod[5], and since then the identification of Russia with Orthodoxy had only increased. Tsar Nicholas I’s Minister of Education, Sergei Uvarov, defined Russian identity as supported by three pillars – Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality – and for a lot of people that was the final word.

Russia had for a long time dreamed of “liberating” their Orthodox brothers in Constantinople (which not incidentally would also involve controlling the Black Sea and the blocked Dardanelles, through which Russia could access the Mediterranean). And as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Slavic peoples in nationalist movements in the Balkans looked to the Slavs of Russia for backup. Nicholas, one of Europe’s jumpier monarchs where the Ottoman collapse was concerned, spent the 1840s talking to anyone who would listen (except France[6]) about plans for carving up Turkey. He had also formed what he called a “Holy Alliance” with the absolute-monarchist states of Austria and Prussia, as a reaction to the distasteful wave of European revolution in 1848 – there’d be no parliaments on Nicholas’ watch, was the idea there.

So by the early 1850s things were about as tense as they could get. Nicholas, whom Western Europe saw as the slave-owning[7] cheerleader for absolutism, kept nudging British diplomats about plans for post-imperial Turkey; the Balkan nationalists kept making eyes at Russia; the conservative Russian intellectuals called the Slavophiles kept suggesting that Russia should help them out, get rid of the annoying Polish Catholics, and while they were at it maybe see if they could take Constantinople. This is (a piece of) the geopolitical situation of 1852, when the Crimean War’s “cause” happened.

In Bethlehem, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire, there is a building called the Church of the Nativity. This church is supposed to have been built on the spot of the manger where Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, and in the church’s innermost chamber, an underground grotto, a silver star marks the precise place where the Savior emerged. Access to this grotto is through a door, the ceremonial key to which was for many years in the possession of Bethlehem’s Greek Orthodox monks. Their Catholic counterparts, who’d been fobbed off with keys to much less interesting rooms, had been seething the whole time. In February of 1852, following some violent demonstrations, the Ottoman government switched teams and gave the key to the Catholics.

Via his ambassador, Nicholas immediately started yelling at the Turks, who, alarmed, changed their minds and returned the key to the Orthodox monks; a few months later, Napoleon III, seeking political support from French Catholics, ominously sailed a very scary-looking battleship right past Constantinople, whereupon the Turks handed the key back to the Catholics. By this time the situation had risen to the level of an international incident, and Nicholas was talking the ear off the British ambassador to St. Petersburg about the evils of the French and the necessity of Russian control of the Holy Places and the plight of the Greek Orthodox in Turkey and also by the way we should really work out a plan for partitioning the Ottoman Empire.

In 1853, as international diplomats converged on Constantinople, Nicholas laid in secret plans for a military strike on Turkey. Then the Russian foreign minister, Count Nesselrode[8], dispatched the diplomat Alexander Menshikov to Constantinople with very specific instructions. Menshikov was first to demand, once again, that the key to the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity be returned to the Greek Orthodox monks. When the Turks agreed to this[9], Menshikov was to add that Russia also demanded complete control over the Orthodox church in Turkey – thus handing over a very large slice of Ottoman internal affairs to Nicholas. If the Turks said no, Menshikov was to retreat to his battleship in the harbor for three days before asking again; if they said no a second time, he was to leave Constantinople, pausing only to inform the Sultan of the Russian troops that would shortly be attacking his northern border. Nicholas did not think the Turks would say no twice. They did. By March of 1854, Russia was at war with Turkey, Britain, and France.

Like almost everything major that’s ever happened, then, the Crimean War was the result of a lot of little things tipping certain ways – the British government’s reluctance to deal firmly with Nicholas over the question of the Ottomans; Nicholas’ belief that his Holy Alliance with Austria and Prussia gave him a bargaining chip and a pair of powerful allies should it come to war (it didn’t); the centuries-old attitudes of the Russian government and people towards their own place in the world and in the Orthodox Church. Like the First World War, it was the result of an old and bewilderingly complicated structure of loyalties, alliances, and philosophies, set alight by a minor spark, that as it burned itself out set fire to a big chunk of the world[10] – and like the First World War, it saw the debut of a lot of extremely nasty military technologies that had heretofore remained theoretical. (The siege of Sevastopol, dispatches from which incidentally made the literary name of one Count Lev Tolstoy, saw what can rather grimly be termed the mainstream debut of trench warfare.) But unlike the First World War, it didn’t solve the Eastern Question, nor did it put an end to the standard European style of warfare and diplomacy. So the war of 1914, which was one of our planet’s worst tragedies not only because of the toll it took but because it was essentially a giant and unchecked accident[11], retains by dint of statistics and ultimate effect the dubious honor of its title. But it does not go unchallenged.

Royle, Trevor. Crimea: The Great Crimean War 1854-1856 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000).

Platonov, Sergei, ed. and tr. Joseph L. Wieczynski. Ivan the Terrible (Academic International Press, 1986).

1. The pithiest and most famous summation of this situation actually belongs to Russia’s Nicholas I, who several times referred to the Ottoman Empire as un homme malade[a] – a sick man.

a. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian aristocrats and politicians spoke French, because it was quite literally the lingua franca. This practice took a little hit in the late 18c and early 19c when, respectively, the French abandoned their good Christian absolutist monarchy for the godless abomination of representative democracy, and when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and caused Moscow to be burnt to the ground. During this time there was a lot of ostentatious, political Russian-speaking at the nicer parties, but French finally remained dominant, partly because the Russians at these parties generally didn’t speak very good Russian.

2. This is Ivan Groznii, or Ivan the Terrible, although the word “terrible”, which these days tends to be interpreted as a moral judgement, is not such a good translation anymore. “Dread” is a little better. The thrust of groznii is that Ivan was a scary guy, someone to be feared and respected; his appelation thus applies to both his popular first period, characterized by conquest and unification, and his less popular second period, characterized by his splitting the country into two separate and supposedly coexisting states and ordering the murder of basically everyone in the second one.

3. Peter the Great was into boats. A lot of people would have found boats a frustrating thing to be into in early 18th-century Russia, which did not really have any boats; Peter the Great’s response to this dilemma was to go to Europe in disguise[a], apprentice himself to shipbuilders, sail some borrowed British ships, come home, build an entire navy as quickly as possible, and tell everyone to call him Captain.

a. This fooled pretty much no one, because Peter was six-foot-eight.

4. To the Russians, this meant the Eastern Orthodox church. The Western and Eastern Churches split gradually, beginning with the Emperor Constantine’s establishment of a sort of underpope in Byzantium/Constantinople in 381 and reaching an aesthetically pleasing head in 1054, when the Roman and Byzantine popes excommunicated each other. Following the fall of Constantinople to the Islamic Ottomans, Orthodox Christians looked to Moscow as the last bastion of faith. This happened even though when it came to religious freedom the Ottomans were pretty laid-back, as imperialists go.

5. Peter did this essentially so that he wouldn’t have to worry about what God thought. A clue to exactly what Peter thought of the Orthodox Church can be found in his establishing, as a young man, something called the Vastly Extravagant, Supremely Absurd, Omni-Intoxicated Synod, which performed perverted versions of Orthodox ceremonies and consisted of Peter’s drinking buddies.

6. Nicholas did not like France for a number of reasons. First there were the Napoleonic Wars, in which a tremendous number of Russians had died and France had briefly occupied Moscow; second there was the revolution of 1848, in which the Orleans monarchy, successor to the Bourbon monarchy which Russia’s Alexander I had restored to the French throne after defeating Napoleon, was swept away; third there was the military dictatorship (the “Second Empire”) Napoleon’s cousin Napoleon II had formed in the rubble. By the time Napoleon III was in charge of France, a petulant Nicholas was making the international diplomatic community very uncomfortable by calling him “dear friend” instead of “my brother” and refusing to use the III.

7. The Russian serfs were not emancipated until 1861, by Nicholas’ successor Alexander II.

8. Nesselrode was German. Many of the Russian political elite, including the tsars themselves, were mostly or entirely German. The Slavophiles and conservative Russian nationalists were not happy about this.

9. Which they certainly would, partly because of their weak political and military situation, partly because the British ambassador, attempting to prevent war, urged them to, and partly because, being Muslim, they didn’t actually give a shit.

10. Crimean, or Crimean-related, campaigns took place in the Baltic and the Pacific.

11. The book to read, as everyone, including John F. Kennedy, will tell you, is Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which spends an entire 500 pages explaning how World War I started, elegantly suggesting a phantom volume of unimaginable size that explains how it continued.


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