The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, was a bitter humiliation for the Turks. It was the first Muslim territory to be lost to Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier of the Porte reluctantly accepted it. But other politicians at the Sultan’s court saw the loss of the Crimea as a mortal danger to the Ottoman Empire, arguing that the Russians would use it as a military base against Constantinople and Ottoman control of the Balkans, and they pressed for war against Russia. But it was unrealistic for the Turks to fight the Russians on their own, and Turkish hopes of Western intervention were not great: Austria had aligned itself with Russia in anticipation of a future Russian-Austrian partition of the Ottoman Empire; France was too exhausted by its involvement in the American War of Independence to send a fleet to the Black Sea; while the British, deeply wounded by their losses in America, were essentially indifferent (if ‘France means to be quiet about the Turks’, noted Lord Grantham, the Foreign Secretary, ‘why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil’).
Ottoman forbearance broke four years later, in 1787, shortly after Catherine’s provocative procession through her newly conquered Black Sea coastal towns, which came just as the Turks were facing further losses to the Russians in the Caucasus.
Hopeful of a Prussian alliance, the pro-war party at the Porte prevailed, and the Ottomans declared war on Russia, which was then supported by its ally Austria with its own declaration of war against Turkey. At first the Ottomans had some success. On the Danube front, they pushed back the Austrian forces into the Banat. But military help from Prussia never came, and after a long siege the Turks lost their strategic fortress at Ochakov to the Russians, followed by Belgrade and the Danubian principalities to an Austrian counter-offensive, before the Russians took the important Turkish forts in the Danube estuary. The Turks were forced to sue for peace. By the Treaty of Ia
i, in 1792, they regained a nominal control of the Danubian principalities, but ceded the area of Ochakov to Russia, thereby making the Dniester river the new Russo-Turkish boundary. They also declared their formal recognition of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. But in reality they never fully accepted its loss and waited for revenge.
In Russia’s religious war against its Muslim neighbours, the Islamic cultures of the Black Sea area were regarded as a particular danger. Russia’s rulers were afraid of an Islamic axis, a broad coalition of Muslim peoples under Turkish leadership, threatening Russia’s southern borderlands, where the Muslim population was increasing fast, partly as a result of high birth rates, and partly from conversions to Islam by nomadic tribes. It was to consolidate imperial control in these unsettled borderlands that the Russians launched a new part of their southern strategy in the early decades of the nineteenth century: clearing Muslim populations and encouraging Christian settlers to colonize the newly conquered lands.
Bessarabia was conquered by the Russians during the war against Turkey in 1806–12. It was formally ceded by the Turks to Russia through the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812, which also placed the Danubian principalities under the joint sovereignty of Russia and the Ottoman Empire. The new tsarist rulers of Bessarabia expelled the Muslim population, sending thousands of Tatar farmers as prisoners of war to Russia. They resettled the fertile plains of Bessarabia with Moldavians, Wallachians, Bulgarians, Ruthenians and Greeks attracted to the area by tax breaks, exemptions from military service, and by loans to skilled craftsmen from the Russian government. Under pressure to populate the area, which brought Russia to within a few kilometres of the Danube, the local tsarist authorities even turned a blind eye to the runaway Ukrainian and Russian serfs, who arrived in growing numbers in Bessarabia after 1812. There was an active programme of church-building, while the establishment of an eparchy in Kishinev locked the local Church leaders into the Russian (as opposed to the Greek) Orthodox Church.
The Russian conquest of the Caucasus, too, was part of this crusade. To a large extent, it was conceived as a religious war against the Muslim mountain tribes, the Chechens, Ingush, Circassians and Daghestanis, and for the Christianization of the Caucasus. The Muslim tribes were mainly Sunni, fiercely independent of political control by any secular power but aligned by religion to the Ottoman sultan in his capacity as ‘supreme caliph of Islamic law’. Under the command of General Alexander Ermolov, appointed as governor of Georgia in 1816, the Russians fought a savage war of terror, raiding villages, burning houses, destroying crops and clearing the forests, in a vain attempt to subjugate the mountain tribes. The murderous campaign gave rise to an organized resistance movement by the tribes, which soon assumed a religious character of its own.
The main religious influence, known as Muridism, came from the Naqshbandiya (Sufi) sect, which began to flourish in Daghestan in the 1810s and spread from there to Chechnya, where preachers organized the resistance as a jihad (holy war) led by the Imam Ghazi Muhammad, in defence of shariah law and the purity of Islamic faith. Muridism was a powerful mixture of holy and social war against the infidel Russians and the princes who supported them. It brought a new unity to the mountain tribes, previously divided by blood-feuds and vendettas, enabling the imam to introduce taxes and universal military service. The imam’s rule was enforced through the murids (religious disciples), who provided local officials and judges in the rebel villages.
The more religious the resistance grew, the more the Russian invasion’s religious character intensified. The Christianization of the Caucasus became one of the primary goals, as the Russians rejected any compromise with the rebel movement’s Muslim leadership. ‘A complete rapprochement between them and us can be expected only when the Cross is set up on the mountains and in the valleys, and when churches of Christ the Saviour have replaced the mosques,’ declared an official Russian document. ‘Until then, force of arms is the true bastion of our rule in the Caucasus.’ The Russians destroyed mosques and imposed restrictions on Muslim practices – the greatest outcry being caused by the prohibition of the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. In many areas, the destruction of Muslim settlements was connected to a Russian policy of what today would be known as ‘ethnic cleansing’, the forced resettlement of mountain tribes and the reallocation of their land to Christian settlers. In the Kuban and the northern Caucasus, Muslim tribes were replaced by Slavic settlers, mainly Russian or Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks. In parts of the southern Caucasus, the Christian Georgians and Armenians sided with the Russian invasion and took a share of the spoils. During the conquest of the Ganja khanate (Elizavetopol), for example, Georgians joined the invading Russian army as auxiliaries; they were then encouraged by the Russians to move into the occupied territory and take over lands abandoned by the Muslims after a campaign of religious persecution had encouraged them to move away. The province of Erivan, which roughly corresponds to modern Armenia, had a largely Turkish-Muslim population until the Russo-Turkish war of 1828–9, during which the Russians expelled around 26,000 Muslims from the area. Over the next decade they moved in almost twice that number of Armenians.
But it was in the Crimea that the religious character of Russia’s southern conquests was most clear. The Crimea has a long and complex religious history. For the Russians, it was a sacred place. According to their chronicles, it was in Khersonesos, the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of the Crimea, just outside modern Sevastopol, that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’. But it was also home to Scythians, Romans, Greeks, Goths, Genoese, Jews, Armenians, Mongols and Tatars. Located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world of the Ottomans and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Crimea was continuously in contention, the site of many wars. Religious shrines and buildings in the Crimea themselves became battlefields of faith, as each new wave of settlement claimed them as their own. In the coastal town of Sudak, for example, there is a St Matthew church. It was originally built as a mosque, but subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by the Greeks as an Orthodox church. It was later converted into a Catholic church by the Genoese, who came to the Crimea in the thirteenth century, and then turned back into a mosque by the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until the Russian annexation, when it was reconverted into an Orthodox church.
The Russian annexation of the Crimea had created 300,000 new imperial subjects, nearly all of them Muslim Tatars and Nogais. The Russians attempted to co-opt the local notables (beys and mirzas) into their administration by offering to convert them to Christianity and elevate them to noble status. But their invitation was ignored. The power of these notables had never been derived from civil service but from their ownership of land and from clan-based politics: as long as they were allowed to keep their land, most of them preferred to keep their standing in the local community rather than serve their new imperial masters. The majority had ties through kin or trade or religion to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them emigrated there following the Russian takeover.
Russian policy towards the Tatar peasants was more brutal. Serfdom was unknown in the Crimea, unlike most of Russia. The freedom of the Tatar peasants was recognized by the new imperial government, which made them into state peasants (a separate legal category from the serfs). But the continued allegiance of the Tatars to the Ottoman caliph, to whom they appealed in their Friday prayers, was a constant provocation to the Russians. It gave them cause to doubt the sincerity of their new subjects’ oath of allegiance to the tsar. Throughout their many wars with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century, the Russians remained terrified of Tatar revolts in the Crimea. They accused Muslim leaders of praying for a Turkish victory and Tatar peasants of hoping for their liberation by the Turks, despite the fact that, for the most part, until the Crimean War, the Muslim population remained loyal to the tsar.
Convinced of Tatar perfidy, the Russians did what they could to get their new subjects to leave. The first mass exodus of Crimean Tatars to Turkey occurred during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787–92. Most of it was the panic flight of peasants frightened of reprisals by the Russians. But the Tatars were also encouraged to depart by a variety of other Russian measures, including the seizure of their land, punitive taxation, forced labour and physical intimidation by Cossack squads. By 1800 nearly one-third of the Crimean Tatar population, about 100,000 people, had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire with another 10,000 leaving in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806–12. They were replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, many of them refugees from the Ottoman Empire who wanted the protection of a Christian state. The exodus of the Crimean Tatars was the start of a gradual retreat of the Muslims from Europe. It was part of a long history of demographic exchange and ethnic conflict between the Ottoman and Orthodox spheres which would last until the Balkan crises of the late twentieth century.
The Christianization of the Crimea was also realized in grand designs for churches, palaces and neoclassical cities that would eradicate all Muslim traces from the physical environment. Catherine envisaged the Crimea as Russia’s southern paradise, a pleasure-garden where the fruits of her enlightened Christian rule could be enjoyed and exhibited to the world beyond the Black Sea. She liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (
), its Tatar name: she thought that it linked Russia to the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium. She gave enormous tracts of land to Russia’s nobles to establish magnificent estates along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the carriers of a new Christian civilization in this previously heathen land.
Urban planning reinforced this Russian domination of the Crimea: ancient Tatar towns like Bakhchiserai, the capital of the former khanate, were downgraded or abandoned completely; ethnically mixed cities such as Theodosia or Simferopol, the Russian administrative capital, were gradually reordered by the imperial state, with the centre of the city shifted from the old Tatar quarter to new areas where Russian churches and official buildings were erected; and new towns like Sevastopol, the Russian naval base, were built entirely in the neoclassical style.