The war of 1853–56 was a calamitous clash of imperial ambitions. Turkey sustained heavy losses, but without them she might have ceased to exist. David Barchard puts the conflict in context
B etween 1768 and 1878, Russia and Turkey went to war six times as successive waves of Russian military expansion dismembered the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lost Crimea and the northern coast of the Black Sea, then much of the Caucasus, the Danube, and eventually its Balkan possessions. Most 19th-century observers assumed Turkey would ultimately be swallowed up in the Russian Empire, like the Emirates of Central Asia and the Caucasian provinces of Iran, and would disappear from the map and history.
But it never happened. In the middle of the 19th century the Crimean War dealt Russia a blow that set it and its expansionary hopes back many years. And this happened because on this one occasion, unlike all the other wars, Turkey fought not alone but with Britain, France and Piedmont as its allies.
By 1850 Russian hopes of turning Turkey into a protectorate ran high. Had Russia succeeded, it would probably have displaced Britain as the strongest international power. Fear of Russian expansion was almost an obsession among some British policy-makers, including Lord Palmerston and his loyal supporter Sir Stratford Canning, the British ambassador in Constantinople. Canning had spent most of the previous 20 years encouraging reform in Turkey so that it could resist Russia more effectively. The Russians discouraged change, supporting the traditionalists and anti-reformists at the Ottoman court. One Turkish ambassador was told by the Tsar that the Turks should not bother to learn European languages. Canning was also a long-standing friend and (at least in his own eyes) mentor of the principal Turkish statesman and leading reformist, Mustafa Reşit Pasha.
In the first half of 1853 the Russians ratcheted up their demands on Turkey, inexorably trying to chip away its independence. Canning and Mustafa Reşit worked closely to steer events towards a point where Britain would intervene – not an easy task since the British prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, known to his friends as “Athenian Aberdeen”, was essentially pro-Russian. Indeed the Russians had tried to neutralise British opposition by offering them a deal in January 1853 in which the two countries would have partitioned the Ottoman Empire between them, disposing of the possessions of the “sick man of Europe”. Britain refused. Had the partition happened, world history might have been very different, for in 1853, unlike 1919, Turks and Muslims were less demographically dominant in Anatolia than they later became.
By October the Ottoman–Russian confrontation had moved from diplomacy to war, which was declared on October 23. Turkey was still alone, but on November 30 Ottoman ships in port at Sinop were destroyed by the Russians, and Britain and France, fearful of a Turkish collapse, decided to go to war, though it was not formally declared until the end of March the following year. A spate of “Help the Turk” memorabilia appeared on sale in England,
‘Ottoman Lives’, by David Barchard, is due out later this year. He was one of the contributors to the Sadberk Hanım exhibition catalogue, [150th Anniversary of the Crimean War]
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Yevpatoria in Crimea was the home the young Anna Akhmatova, an icon of Russian literature, who fell foul of Stalin
Like many writers, Chekhov made his way to Crimea to nurse his TB in a milder climate. His two houses, now museums, became magnets for artists. One he left to his sister, the other to his wife.
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Philip Mansel on the future Edward VII’s Ottoman expedition
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