2006-11-07 00:37:00

Russia won the battle for holy places in the Crimean War

An international conference on the Crimean War is to open in Moscow on Tuesday. Initiated by the Center of Russia’s National Glory, it will be attended by representatives of the state, society and the Church.

The lessons of the Eastern War for today’s Russia, the reasons for which the Soviet scholarship ignored its religious factor in studying it, the importance of working out an objective view of this theme in school and university curricula and a possibility for the new view of the Eastern War to fortify the Russian positions on international arena - all this is treated by Mikhail Yakushev, an orientalist and vice-president of the Center of Russia’s National Glory, in an interview to Interfax-Religion.


- Could you tell us about the aims of the forthcoming international conference on ‘The Crimean (Eastern) War in the Cultural Memory of Peoples in Russia and the World’?

- The conference was in preparation for over half a year by an expert group of scholars, historians and publicists set up by at the Center of National Glory (CNG) and St. Andrew the-First-Called Foundation (AFCF). It will be the culmination of our program called ‘The Crimean War’, which was launched by the two foundations three years ago and planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War. It is aimed to attract the attention of the Russian public who have recently celebrated the Day of People’s Unity to the event which was both tragic and significant in the history of our country. It would not be an exaggeration to describe this war as ‘unknown’ to today’s Russia, since the whole truth about it was not revealed either in the tsarist time or in the Soviet period of the Russian state. The underlying reason and preconditions of that war were known only to a limited circle in the palace, while dispatches from the Russian diplomatic mission in Constantinople, where the interests of the Ottoman, Russian and British empires collided, ‘settled to the bottom’ of the secret Chief Political Archives of the Russian Foreign Ministry to become inaccessible even for the ministry’s executives. Immediately after the war, Emperor Alexander II instructed the new head of the foreign office, A.M.Gorchakov, to ensure that a book be published in the West setting forth Russia’s objective position in the past war. This task had to be undertaken by Baron A.Jomini, a Frenchman by origin. However, the author of A Diplomatic Essay on the 1852-1856 Crimean War did not have enough time to find documents necessary for his work in the foreign office archives. As a result, the book, which came out in 1974 in French, could not influence the already established opinion about the ‘aggressive’ and ‘pushing’ role of Russia in unleashing the Crimean War.

The prime cause of the Crimean War was the problem of holy places in the Palestine. The Soviet scholarship omitted this factor for ideological reasons. Soviet Academician Yevgeny Tarle maintained that the problem of holy places was secondary and irrelevant in the entire tangle of international issues that led to the outbreak of the Crimean (Eastern) War. It is difficult to agree with that. It was not accidental indeed that the Orthodox Arab East called this three-year-long military campaign ‘a war for Palestinian holy places’. After all, in that ‘Greek-Latin dispute’ around the holy places, Petersburg stood for maintaining the status quo in Christian places of veneration, where it was the Jerusalem Orthodox clergy who had the privilege to own and preserve them. Russia, just as France, traditionally patronized Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman sultan, in his letter to the Russian emperor, pledged to protect the rights and privileges of his Orthodox subjects in their dispute with the Catholics and then failed to keep his word, Petersburg put into action all the set of diplomatic and military means to make Porte keep its promise. In that war, however, Russia did not seek any territorial gains. Her role was to protect the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the ‘Mother of all Churches’. Western diplomacy did all it could to present Russia as initiator of the war and the sultan as a ‘victim’ of the aggressive tsarist policy, while appearing before the world public opinion as the saver of ‘the sick man’, that is the Ottoman Empire, from its northern neighbour, that is Russia.

Unfortunately, in the Western historiography, just as in the Soviet scholarship, the problem of holy places did not become a subject for an objective and honest study. Actually, nobody studied it in any serious way. Nevertheless, if this knot of contradictions and problems in relation to holy place is patiently untangled, it will be clear who the real initiator of the conflict in Jerusalem, Constantinople and Europe was. Our task is to cleanse the Crimean war history of myths and stereotypes created for political and ideological reasons. Western historiography does not like to dilate on the fact that it was England, France and Sardinia who were the first to declare war on Russia. The interventionists’ aim was to involve the tsar into the war, aware that he would not refuse protection to Orthodox Christians, and then to accuse him of aggression against the sultan and to ‘come to the padishah’s aid’. It was their warships that shelled the Russian villages of Chapoma and Umba, the Russian cities of Odessa, Sevastopol, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and the Orthodox holy places such as the Solovki Monastery. They looted abandoned churches only to return the loot in the modern time in an attempt to whitewash their militant ancestors. Let us remember that only recently Pope John Paul II apologized to the Orthodox Greeks and Arabs for the crusades his predecessors led to the Holy Land. We should not forget that Old Russia also suffered from them in the 13th century early 40s and that, thanks to the courage and wisdom of the Orthodox Prince Alexander Nevsky and the heroism of the home guard he summoned, the Teutonic Knights were driven away from our land, just as the Saracens had driven them away from the Palestine not long before that.

It is noteworthy that in 1854 France in the person of Cardinal Sibour, Archbishop of Paris, qualified the Crimean War as religious and even as a ‘crusade’ against Russia and the Eastern Orthodoxy in the Holy Land, waged under the banner of Islam at that. If we compare this conflict to the 11th-13th century crusades to the Holy Land in general, we will see that they have many things in common. In this sense, those campaigns were little different from the Crimean War as the instruments were the same - lies and slander presented as truth. Blessed by archpastors, the thieves’ campaigns were declared to be heroic feats. The information and propaganda machine was activated to brainwash the public who enthusiastically supported the idea of a crusade to the Holy Land ‘for the salvation of the Lord’s Sepulcher from the Saracens’. The same happened in case of the Crimean War. A similar scenario was used in former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and Iraq. And take the wave of Orange Revolutions in the post-Soviet space. Aren’t the crusade features discernable in them?

While for the West the Crimean War or the ‘crusade’ against Russia is a page it wants to turn over as quickly as possible, we should read it as carefully as possible.

- Did Russia achieve the goals she set herself in the Crimean War?

- In other words, you would like to ask whether Russia won or lost that war. The results of the Eastern (Crimean) War are complex and far from unambiguous - the fact sealed in the very structure of the Paris Peace Treaty. To view them out of their totality, ideologically, suppressing or belittling some while exaggerating others is both scientifically wrong and historically unfair, at least with regard to Russia and our ancestors.

In spite of the popular opinion that Russia was officially the defeated party, nowhere in the documents will you find the phrase that ‘Russia lost the war’, neither in the Paris Peace Treaty of March 1856, or in Alexander II’s Manifest of March 31, 1856. This document states that Russia ‘ended the war’. Let us read carefully the text of the imperial manifest. It states, ‘The stubborn bloody struggle that has troubled Europe for almost three years is drawing to an end. It was not instigated by Russia, and before its very beginning, our unforgettable Father, who now sleeps in the Lord, solemnly declared to all His faithful subjects and to all foreign Powers that the only aim of His bids and wishes was to safeguard the rights and to remove the oppression of our Orthodox brothers in the East... The future destiny and the rights of all the Christians in the East have been secured. The sultan has solemnly recognized them, and in consequences of this action of justice, the Ottoman Empire enters into the common union of European States. Russians! Your efforts and sacrifices have not been in vain. The great task has been accomplished, though in other, unforeseen ways...’

If we recognize this complex approach as the outcome of the Eastern (Crimean) War, then we will see that, from the point of view of achieving the goals which Russia set herself in that war and for which she entered into that war - not of her own will but because she was forced to do it by the provocative policy of other European powers - namely, for the goal of preserving and asserting for good the status quo of the holy places in Palestine, Russia actually won that war for Christian holy places! It was not accidental that French Ambassador Bourquenais, having read the provision of the peace treaty, exclaimed, ‘It is not clear who won and who lost this war’. Later this statement was paraphrased to say, ‘The looser did not lose and the winner did not win’.

On the other hand, it should be admitted that politically and militarily that ‘victorious’ war was unsuccessful for Russia. Miscalculations and failures haunted Russia in the field of intelligence and diplomacy, in the struggle for European public opinion before the war. She had an unreformed economy, no railways in strategic directions and no telegraph. The army and navy were backward militarily and technologically; rifled arms were a rarity in the Russian army. Due to all this Russia suffered enormous casualties, and disasters befell her army, admittedly only in the battleground of the Crimea and Sevastopol.

Nevertheless, at the end of the hostilities when Emperor Napoleon III saw that British losses were a lot fewer then those of France, he decided to enter into backstage negotiations with representatives of the recently enthroned Emperor Alexander II to end the war on reciprocal principles. He was also prompted to do that by the military successes of the Russian army during the capture of Kars when this besieged mighty fortress with an Ottoman garrison under the command of Wasif-pasha and British General Williams surrendered to the Russian army. General Muravyov ‘of Kars’, in appreciation of their courageous resistance, allowed the surrendering officers to keep their swords and set free the Turks, the British and even the Poles and Hungarians. To punish the chairman of the Kars Majlis for his indifference towards his own wounded Ottoman soldiers in hospital, General Muravyov ordered the pasha to stay in hospital bed for a week together with his wounded countrymen. The victory at Kars reinforced to a considerable degree the position of Russian diplomats at the peace negotiation in Paris.

Time has defined the role and real historical significance of various aspects of the outcome of that war. Everyone can make his own evaluation. Noteworthy in this respect was the rhetorical question that the French General Consul in Jerusalem, Ms. Ledou, asked Jerusalem Governor Reshad-pasha in 1889, ‘What did we wage the Crimean War for if not to acquire rights over Jerusalem holy places?’ I would like to stress that the negative military and political results of that war were neutralized by Russia 15 years later, by 1871, while its spiritual and religious results have kept for 150 ears and continue to this day. Admittedly, the role that Russia played in the problem of holy places and the price she paid in ‘the war for the holy places of Palestine’ is something that they in the Holy Land do not want to remember for some reason.

It is no less important that historical lessons should be drawn from the past so that mistakes may not be repeated. As is well known, Russia repeatedly protected other countries and nations against external threats on the international arena. In doing so, she would suffer enormous human and material losses. This was the case in the Crimean War and this was the case in World War I and World War II. When blood had to be shed, the external world did not hesitate to turn to Russia for help. Having secured the help, it paid back with cold ingratitude. Another important lesson of history is that we should have realized long ago that the most precious thing that our country has is its unique multinational people and its state unique in size and natural resources, and without a stable and energetic population growth this state can become an object for new ‘crusades’.