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 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. However, 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.

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