Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia from 1682 to 1725, initiated the forced Westernization of his country. After touring Europe in an attempt to gain first hand knowledge of the reasons for European military superiority, he paid Western experts to return to Russia to revamp its army and navy, he forced his courtiers to adopt Western style clothing and manners, and initiated far-reaching religious and civil reforms. He initiated the Great Northern War (1700-1721) to achieve Baltic supremacy, and relocated the Russian capital to the new city of St. Petersburg once his objective had been reached. When his plans to modernize Russia were threatened by his own son Alexei, Peter had him executed.
For all this, Russia remained relatively isolated from Europe and its rulers aspired to the still greater trade and military advantages that would accrue by taking control of the Black Sea and the Hellespont. Access to the Mediterranean, they believed, would catapult Russia to a new level of wealth and influence. Only the decaying Muslim Ottoman Empire stood in the way.
Thus in 1768, Catherine the Great, a former Empress-consort who had displayed her calculating character in obtaining the deposition of her husband and proclamation of herself as Empress, began the next phase of Russian aggrandisement. Signalling Russia’s achievement of a new level of power, Catherine ordered the circumnavigation of Europe by a number of squadrons of Russia’s Baltic fleet in 1770. The shock to Western Europe’s powers can only have been exceeded by that of the Turks, who were soundly defeated at the Battle Chesma, the results of which were mirrored on land at the Battle of Kagul in the same year.
Allegory of Catherine the Great’s Victory over the Turks, by Stephano Torelli
The war and the Treaty of Kuchuk-Karnarji of 1774 were a terrible blow to Ottoman prestige, and a major milestone in the ongoing ascendancy of the European world over Islamic civilization. The Ottomans were forced to cede the region surrounding the Crimea and the tributary state of the Tatar Khanate was rendered a Russian dependency. Russia obtained freedom of trade and navigation in the Ottoman Empire and a protectorate over Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire as well. Heartened by this progress, the Russians would attack again soon, and through the next Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) obtain even greater control over the Black Sea and continued their march towards the Balkans.
The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 was the first of two key events that gave the “Eastern Question” a new dimension. It brought the potential importance of the Middle East to the attention of the British Empire, then the world’s imperial superpower. England had recently defeated France in the Seven Years’ War, securing control over both North America and India. To its leaders, Russia’s advance in the Eastern Mediterranean was unwelcome. Soon it would be accompanied by advances in Persia and central Asia that might well threaten Britain’s interests. Russia may have been a traditional ally of the Britain’s up to this point, but its new ambition would sour relations between the two powers.
Only Napoleon could temporarily bring the two nations to ignore their emergining differences and cooperate again. However, it was also Napoleon who convinced the British beyond any doubt of the importance of the Middle East to its imperial scheme, and set Great Britain on a path that would lead it to over a century of Middle Eastern entanglements, from which America’s leadership could learn a great deal.
More on Napoleon’s fateful impact on the Middle East to come in the next edition of Middle East Milestones, exclusively for Powell History Mailing List members. Join here! For more information on the upcoming Powell History course for adults, The Islamist Entanglement, check here.