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Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The Russian Dream of Constantinople

In 1914, it was clear that the demise of the Ottoman Empire was imminent. For Tsar Nicholas II and his government, the top priority was to take control of Constantinople in the name of Orthodox Christianity. The Russians were also intent on taking control of the straits which connected the Russian Black Sea ports to the Mediterranean. 

After the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Russia saw itself as the new Roman Empire and the guardian of Orthodox Christianity. Constantinople became a Russian dream—the city was venerated in Russia as the Orthodox Holy Land and the center of Russian power. In 1472, Ivan III (Ivan the Great) married Sophia Palaiologina, the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine Palaiologos, and assumed the Byzantine double headed eagle as Russia’s symbol. 

Peter the Great annexed several territories from the Ottomans between 1685 and 1711. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea and Kabardia in 1787. She wanted to march to Constantinople but she was stopped by the British, French, and other European nations that were opposed to Russian possession of Constantinople. During Catherine’s victory procession in Crimea in 1787, a triumphal arch declared, “This is the way to Constantinople.” 

Russia was at war with the Ottomans throughout the nineteenth century. The Russians helped the Greek revolutionaries to free their country from Ottoman Rule in 1829. In 1828 and then 1829, the Russians were on the verge of taking Constantinople, but both bids failed due to military miscalculations. In the Russo-Turkish engagement of 1877 and 1878, Russia played a critical role in freeing Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. But Russia’s movement towards Constantinople was thwarted by the European powers, mainly Britain and France. 

In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II was convinced that he would achieve the five hundred year old Russian dream of occupying Constantinople for Orthodox faith. The Russian Council of Ministers met in February 1914 to discuss the conquest of Constantinople and the straits. They decided that the most opportune time for taking possession of these territories would be the European war which was then looming large. In April 1914, Nicholas II approved the recommendations of his cabinet. He ordered the creation of a force which would occupy Constantinople and the straits. 

The leaders of the Ottoman Empire knew about the threat that they faced from Russia. But this time, they could not rely on the British and the French to be their savior. Those two powers were now bound to Russia by a mutual defense treaty. The problem was that the Ottomans lacked the military strength to defend Constantinople and the straits. They needed to find a European power that would come to their aid in case of a Russian attack. With Britain and France on the Russian side, Germany was the only option left for the Ottomans. 

On 22 July 1914, Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War, proposed an Ottoman-German alliance to the German ambassador in Constantinople. Initially the Ottoman proposal was rejected, but with the intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German government accepted the Ottoman proposal on August 1, four days after the First World War had begun. In 1918, the German side lost the war. The Ottoman Empire was broken up in November 1922. But Constantinople was safe from the Russians, because there was a Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917. 

If the government of Tsar Nicholas II had not been overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution, then the Russians would have realized their five hundred year old dream of occupying Constantinople. The possession of Constantinople would have made Russia the center of Orthodox faith, and a sea power. Reflecting on the Bolshevik Revolution years later, Winston Churchill said: “The German leaders turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia.”

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