Monday, 29 March 2021

Catherine the Great, the Greek Plan and the fate of Constantinople


After the Russo-Turkish War (1768-74) which ended with Russia, at the expense of the Ottoman empire, significantly expanding its territory and influence southwards towards Crimea and the Black Sea, Catherine the Great invited Greeks to colonise the newly conquered regions, which became known as New Russia.

Having humiliated the Turks, the next stage in Russian imperial ambitions was to complete the dissolution of the Turkish empire by dividing it between the Russian and Habsburg empires and restoring a Byzantine state boasting Constantinople as its capital.

The latter would be a Greek-dominated country led by a Romanov emperor – Catherine’s grandson, Constantine, fulfilling the prophecy that the reviver of the Byzantine empire would have the same name as the first Roman ruler of the City – i.e. Constantine the Great – and its last Roman ruler – i.e. Constantine Palaiologos – and who would make sure his realm was subservient to Moscow and served Russian interests.

The first test for this ‘Greek Plan’ was the Orlov Revolt (1780-81), in which Russia inspired, with men, materiel and money, a rebellion among Greeks in the Ottoman-occupied Peloponnese and Crete that aimed at establishing an independent Greek state loyal to Moscow. But the revolt was half-baked, Russian aid too meagre, and the Greeks were left to fend for themselves, suffering, as a result of the suppression of the uprising, massacres not just in the areas where the revolt had erupted but anywhere Greeks resided in the Ottoman empire.

Nevertheless, with the ultimate defeat of the Ottomans in the wider Russo-Turkish war, the Greek Plan survived and crystallised in the 1780s. Cities founded or re-founded on territory taken from the Ottomans in the Crimea and New Russia were given Greek names – Kherson, Yevpatoria, Mariupol, Stavropol, Odessa, Sevastopol, etc – in preparation for the region’s new Greek inhabitants and the state they were going to form. Greeks – escaping Turkish reprisals for the Orlov revolt – began new lives in Russia, many becoming important merchants and high-ranking diplomatic and military figures in Russian imperial service.

Another chance for the Russians to realise Catherine’s Greek Plan came about with the Russo-Turkish War (1787-92), when the Turks sought to reverse losses in the Black Sea a decade earlier. Again, the Turks were humiliated but the Russians never pressed their advantage to take Constantinople and were content with further Pontic concessions.

As European politics became dominated by the French revolution and the grandiose schemes of Napoleon Bonaparte for European hegemony, Russia turned its attention away from the disintegrating Ottoman empire and became more embroiled in the continental theatre.

By the time the Eastern Question reared its head again, the Greeks – now inspired as much by the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions – were less inclined to see autocratic Russia as their saviour. Moreover, by the 1840s, Britain and France were no longer prepared to allow Russia a free hand in precipitating the collapse of the Ottoman empire and taking over its remnants and went to war on behalf of the Ottomans to prevent further Russian expansion towards the Mediterranean.

While the defeat of Russia in the Crimean War (1853-56) provided respite to the Ottoman empire, its demise remained inevitable, except now, with an independent Greek state established in 1830 and the Megali Idea coming to dominate Greek irredentist thinking, Greece and Russia found themselves in competition for territories to be taken from Turkey, with Constantinople being the prize bone of contention.

Indeed, as the Ottoman empire entered its death throes in the Great War and Constantinople seemingly up for grabs again, Russia vetoed Greek participation in the British-led Gallipoli campaign, which aimed to knock Turkey out of the war by capturing its capital, in case Greece got its hands on the City before Russia.

Gallipoli turned into a disaster for the allies while Russia’s internal fissures widened under the strains of the war with revolution and civil war being the result. Thus, at the end of the Great War, Russia was in no position to press its perennial claims against the Turks and indeed, after the Bolsheviks emerged as rulers of Russia, the communists wasted no time in abandoning aspirations to Turkish territory and partnering with Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists, who they regarded as kindred spirits in fighting Western imperialism. As such, the Russian communists provided the Turkish nationalists with gold and weapons to overturn the Treaty of Sevres and thwart Greek and Armenian gains in Thrace, Asia Minor, Transcaucasia and the Black Sea and the turning of Constantinople into a Franco-British protectorate.