Czars, Emperors, and Russia in the Crimea

Franz Roubaud's panoramic painting: The Siege of Sevastopol

SAN JOSE, March 30, 2014 —Vladmir Putin’s recent military occupation and subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula was condemned by the United Nations General Assembly last Thursday. The international body passed a measure declaring that the recent mid-March referendum in Crimea that led to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula’s “has no validity.”

Given that Putin said, “The breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” one can wonder if Putin is planning to restore the old Soviet Empire after its humiliating demise. It is important to look further back in European history to get a handle on Russia in the Crimea. Amazingly, 160 years ago on March 28, 1854, Russia and the West entered into a serious confrontation over the region as France and Britain declared war against Russia when the czar had annexed two provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

This Russian foray into the Balkans came when Czar Nicholas I, decided to occupy and annex the two Ottoman provinces of Moldavia and Walachia (modern-day Romania) in July of 1853. Such a drastic action basically occurred for two reasons. First, Russia had traditionally received recognition from the Ottoman Empire (Muslim government) that the Czar was the special guardian of the Eastern Orthodox Christians in Moldavia and Wallachia as well as the protector of the relics and Christian locations in the Holy Land. However, this control of Christian access and the relics in the Holy Land was ostensibly the reason for the occupation, but it seemed a pretext for Nicholas I who was following traditional Russian policy to maintain a protectorate over the Orthodox Christian population of the Balkans.

In such historical light, how could Putin view his actions as wrong?

Roman Catholic France under Napoleon III (Loius-Napoleon Bonaparte – nephew of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) also wanted control of the Christian access and the relics in the Holy Land, and after much lobbying and negotiation by French diplomats at the Ottoman court, the Sultan, Abdulmecid I, reversed previous arrangements for Eastern Orthodox control, and awarded the responsibility to France. This reversal of position prompted the Russians to protest that the new agreement with France violated the Treaty of Kaynarca, which ended the Russo-Turkish War (1768 – 1774). During that war, the Russian army had occupied the same two provinces along the Danube, but had returned the territories under this treaty in exchange for their right to protect the Christian relics and sites in the Holy Land.

The Russian ambassador reminded the Ottoman government of this, and again secured the agreement of the Sultan to allow Eastern Orthodox Russia such control. However, Napoleon III, not to be deterred, sent a powerful gun-laden ship to the Black Sea to remind the Sultan of how important their agreement was to him. The Sultan again reversed the recent agreement with the Russians. Subsequently, the Russians left their troops in the Danubian Principalities. By October, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia and proceeded to attack. Napoleon III took note of the Turk’s military response. Unsurprisingly, he saw an opportunity, and persuaded Britain to join France in declaring war on Russia on March 28, 1854. This was the official start of the Crimean War, often referred to in Russia as the Eastern War.

Napoleon III had the distinction of being the first President of France to be elected to a three year term by a popular vote on December 20, 1848. However, since the Constitution of the Second Republic restricted him from seeking a second term, he sought a constitutional amendment that would allow him to succeed himself. He toured the country to elicit popular support, and despite support of many in the Assembly, the vote to change the law fell just short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution. So, Louis-Napoleon got around the issue of term limits by organizing a coup, and a few weeks before he was to step down, Louis Bonaparte initiated the coup. Ultimately he claimed the throne as Emperor Napoleon III on December 2, 1852, which just happened to be the forty-eighth anniversary of his uncle’s coronation as Emperor Napoleon I.

Did he plan to get even for his uncle’s humiliation in Napoleon’s failed domination of Russia?

There was certainly something in the blood of the Bonaparte family that inspired despotism, but for his own reasons, the British Prime Minister did not entirely trust the motives of Napoleon III. Also, because he had usually been sympathetic to Russian policy, he was really not in favor of Britain’s involvement with the “Eastern Question.” However, many in Lord Aberdeen’s administration were divided over foreign policy in relation to the French under Napoleon III. Loius-Napoleon had lived in England during various periods of exile, and had made friends with many British politicians. Despite Lord Aberdeen’s reluctance for Britain to enter into the Crimean War, he relented to pressure from within his cabinet and from the public, and Britain sided with France to declare war. It ultimately led to the downfall of his government.

At the other end of Europe, Nicholas I had seriously misjudged the reaction of Britain and France and the other European powers as he believed they would not would mind Russia simply grabbing up a couple of Ottoman provinces. He was mistaken. Russia was essentially isolated in their aggression as Austria offered no support as the czar had anticipated, and Napoleon III quickly dispatched a fleet to the Dardanelles, where it was joined later by another fleet sent by Great Britain. The British, like the French were hopeful of maintaining a balance of power in Europe, and viewed the Ottoman Empire, no matter how weak, as a foil to the Czar’s expansionist efforts. When the Ottomans declared war, the major European powers attempted to pursue diplomatic measures to resolve the conflict.

The four Great Powers, consisting of Austria, Britain, France, and Prussia, met in Vienna and put together a peace proposal they believed would appeal to both parties. Unfortunately, the best laid plans can often unravel, and the peace process ran into some snags. Nicholas I approved of the peace terms, but the Sultan rejected the wording as being too vague and felt the construction of the peace agreement was open to differing interpretations. The Europeans countered with amendments to the peace proposal in order to appease Abdulmecid I, but the Russians turned uncooperative. Ultimately, the British and French decided negotiations were futile, while the Austrians and Prussians still had hope in negotiations.

Down in the war zone, however, the Russians had dispatched their own warships, and on November 30, 1853, they destroyed an entire fleet of Ottoman ships while they were in port in Anatolia. This destruction of the Ottoman ships provided the French and the British with the “proof” they sought to conclude that the negotiations were worthless. After Nicholas I ignored a joint Anglo-French ultimatum to withdraw from the Ottoman provinces along the Danube River, the French and British governments took up the cause of the Ottoman Empire and formally declared war against Russia on March 28, 1854. In this conflict, Russia found no strong allies except the nations of Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro to assist in the fight, but only managed to send a total of about 3,000 troops.

This war is seldom studied in the United States, and is almost one of those forgotten wars in history. However, the Crimean War was the first major war that was covered by newspaper correspondents and recorded by photography. It was also the first major war in which women served as military nurses. It was the British Army, under the British Secretary of War, Sir Sidney Herbert, who deployed female nurses under the direct supervision of Florence Nightingale. For many in Britain, it is also the war that is remembered for the humiliating defeat of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava. It was also the war that ended the political career of the British Prime Minister, George Hamilton-Gordon, or Lord Aberdeen (4th Earl of Aberdeen), and contributed to the death of Czar Nicholas I.

The British and French governments felt threatened when Russia occupied the Ottoman provinces because they did not want the Russian Black Sea fleet controlling Mediterranean waters. It is one of the reasons both nations had quickly dispatched ships to the area. A series of ironies began as the Russians evacuated Wallachia and Moldavia by late July of 1854. Being a reversal of what caused the war with the Ottomans in the first place, withdrawal from these territories could have signaled that appropriate diplomacy might have then ended the war. But despite Lord Aberdeen’s reluctance to authorize further British participation, the media had stirred up war fever in both Britain and France by this time, and politicians became reluctant to resist popular sentiments. Ultimately, the Opposition Leader in the British House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, began attacking Aberdeen for mismanaging the war, and a vote of “no confidence” forced Aberdeen to resign in January 1855. He retired from politics.

Even more Ironic, Czar Nicholas I who had initiated the entire conflict became overtaxed physically and mentally, and this war cost him his life. He had tried to provide direct leadership to the Russian army during the Crimean War, but supposedly caught a chill, refused medical treatment, and died of pneumonia on March 2, 1855. On the death of his father, Alexander II became czar, and less than a year later, he took Russia out of the war on January 15, 1856. The Treaty of Paris, which concluded the war on March 30, 1856, was quite unfavorable to Russia. The peace treaty restored contested territories to the Ottoman Empire, removed Russia’s naval fleet on the Black Sea, but Russia retained control of the towns and ports of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula.

While overshadowed by the two world wars, the Crimean War shifted the balance of power in Europe as it marked the demise of the old Concert of Europe, the balance of power of the nations of Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia, that had taken control of Europe from the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which dated back to the defeat of Napoleon I. It generated distrust and restructured alliances that shaped Europe as it moved down a path to the Great War.

A Frenchman, the Marquis de Custine, observed in his book Empire of the Czar: A Journey Through Eternal Russia regarding Nicholas I that, “If the Emperor, has no more of mercy in his heart than he reveals in his policies, then I pity Russia; if, on the other hand, his true sentiments are really superior to his acts, then I pity the Emperor.”

Such wisdom may also apply to Emperor Putin.


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Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member at West Valley College in California. He currently writes a column on US history and one on American freedom for the Communities Digital News, as well as writing for other online publications. During the 2016 presidential primaries, he worked as the leader of a network of writers, bloggers, and editors who promoted the candidacy of Dr. Ben Carson. He founded the “We the People” Network of writers and the Citizen Sentinels Project to pro-actively promote the values and principles established at the founding of the United States, and to discover and support more morally centered citizen-candidates who sincerely seek election as public servants, not politicians.