Crimea as Religious Battlefield

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 459-495:

But it was in the Crimea [even more than the Caucasus] that the religious character of Russia’s southern conquests was most clear. The Crimea has a long and complex religious history. For the Russians, it was a sacred place. According to their chronicles, it was in Khersonesos, the ancient Greek colonial city on the south-western coast of the Crimea, just outside modern Sevastopol, that Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kiev, was baptized in 988, thereby bringing Christianity to Kievan Rus’. But it was also home to Scythians, Romans, Greeks, Goths, Genoese, Jews, Armenians, Mongols and Tatars. Located on a deep historical fault-line separating Christendom from the Muslim world of the Ottomans and the Turkic-speaking tribes, the Crimea was continuously in contention, the site of many wars. Religious shrines and buildings in the Crimea themselves became battlefields of faith, as each new wave of settlement claimed them as their own. In the coastal town of Sudak, for example, there is a St Matthew church. It was originally built as a mosque, but subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by the Greeks as an Orthodox church. It was later converted into a Catholic church by the Genoese, who came to the Crimea in the thirteenth century, and then turned back into a mosque by the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until the Russian annexation, when it was reconverted into an Orthodox church.

The Russian annexation of the Crimea had created 300,000 new imperial subjects, nearly all of them Muslim Tatars and Nogais. The Russians attempted to co-opt the local notables (beys and mirzas) into their administration by offering to convert them to Christianity and elevate them to noble status. But their invitation was ignored. The power of these notables had never been derived from civil service but from their ownership of land and from clan-based politics: as long as they were allowed to keep their land, most of them preferred to keep their standing in the local community rather than serve their new imperial masters. The majority had ties through kin or trade or religion to the Ottoman Empire. Many of them emigrated there following the Russian takeover.

Russian policy towards the Tatar peasants was more brutal. Serfdom was unknown in the Crimea, unlike most of Russia. The freedom of the Tatar peasants was recognized by the new imperial government, which made them into state peasants (a separate legal category from the serfs). But the continued allegiance of the Tatars to the Ottoman caliph, to whom they appealed in their Friday prayers, was a constant provocation to the Russians. It gave them cause to doubt the sincerity of their new subjects’ oath of allegiance to the tsar. Throughout their many wars with the Ottomans in the nineteenth century, the Russians remained terrified of Tatar revolts in the Crimea. They accused Muslim leaders of praying for a Turkish victory and Tatar peasants of hoping for their liberation by the Turks, despite the fact that, for the most part, until the Crimean War, the Muslim population remained loyal to the tsar.

Convinced of Tatar perfidy, the Russians did what they could to get their new subjects to leave. The first mass exodus of Crimean Tatars to Turkey occurred during the Russo-Turkish war of 1787–92. Most of it was the panic flight of peasants frightened of reprisals by the Russians. But the Tatars were also encouraged to depart by a variety of other Russian measures, including the seizure of their land, punitive taxation, forced labour and physical intimidation by Cossack squads. By 1800 nearly one-third of the Crimean Tatar population, about 100,000 people, had emigrated to the Ottoman Empire with another 10,000 leaving in the wake of the Russo-Turkish war of 1806–12. They were replaced by Russian settlers and other Eastern Christians: Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, many of them refugees from the Ottoman Empire who wanted the protection of a Christian state. The exodus of the Crimean Tatars was the start of a gradual retreat of the Muslims from Europe. It was part of a long history of demographic exchange and ethnic conflict between the Ottoman and Orthodox spheres which would last until the Balkan crises of the late twentieth century.

The Christianization of the Crimea was also realized in grand designs for churches, palaces and neoclassical cities that would eradicate all Muslim traces from the physical environment. Catherine envisaged the Crimea as Russia’s southern paradise, a pleasure-garden where the fruits of her enlightened Christian rule could be enjoyed and exhibited to the world beyond the Black Sea. She liked to call the peninsula by its Greek name, Taurida, in preference to Crimea (Krym), its Tatar name: she thought that it linked Russia to the Hellenic civilization of Byzantium. She gave enormous tracts of land to Russia’s nobles to establish magnificent estates along the mountainous southern coast, a coastline to rival the Amalfi in beauty; their classical buildings, Mediterranean gardens and vineyards were supposed to be the carriers of a new Christian civilization in this previously heathen land.

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Filed under migration, nationalism, religion, Russia, Turkey, war

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