What a strange education I had, or so I think now on looking back. When I was a lad in New Zealand there were still people referring to England (or Britain) as ‘Home’. My first primary school headmaster used to visit classes occasionally to brandish a leather strap he referred to as his ‘medicine’, and get us kids piping ‘Rule Britannia’ in our reedy little antipodean voices. Having pupils memorise chunks of poetry was a popular pedagogical technique. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ added to our sense of belonging to an empire on which the sun was still struggling to set, defended by men, any one of whom was worth ten or twenty of any other race on earth, and capable, when the chips were down, of staggering out into an Antarctic blizzard uttering a self-sacrificing epigram in ringing tones.
|British lion defends Ottoman ‘turkey’ against
imperialist Russian bear
Well, there was one line in that immortal poem suggesting that ‘someone had blundered’, but most of it was clearly written to perpetuate the myth of men committed to facing, if necessary, overwhelming odds, and fighting or dying in defence of Empire. I have checked again and found one reference to the opposition – ‘Cossack and Russian’ – but no explanation of what those noble Light Brigade horsemen actually hoped to gain by charging into ‘the mouth of Hell’, other than death and/or glory.
In fact, the famous charge was little more than a futile sideshow in the Battle of Balaklava, the first major engagement in the Crimean War (1853-56). One might even think the whole war itself was a pretty questionable venture. I have no special reason to love Russians, but I have some sympathy for their plight, locked up in the largest, coldest most inhospitable and inaccessible land mass in the world. As the state of Russia (centred on Moscow) expanded from 1500 CE, one of its main driving forces was the need for access to warm water ports for shipping, trade and military purposes – and sandy beaches for summer holidays. Check your atlas. What would you have done if you were a Peter or a Catherine with Great ambitions?
For the Russians, it was pretty obvious that they had to have access to the Black Sea and if possible, a direct route to the Aegean or the Mediterranean. This involved fighting and conquering, or otherwise neutralising whoever was in the way – mostly Muslim Crimean Tatars, Ottomans and Circassians. An important tool in the Russians’ box of strategies was the Orthodox Christian religion which they used to enlist the support of allies, justify expansion and clear out unfriendly resistance.
Expansion as far as the Black Sea was pretty much accomplished during the 18th century, culminating in a victorious war against the Ottomans (1768-74). The Russian government formally annexed Crimea (not just the peninsula in those days) in 1783.
Again, however, a glance at the map will show that even possessing ports on the northern Black Sea coast doesn’t circumvent all your problems from a Russian point-of-view. Your ships still have to negotiate the Istanbul Bosporus and the Dardanelle Straits past the hostile eyes and guns of your resentful Ottoman neighbours. Wouldn’t it be nice to possess Constantinople/Istanbul itself, or drive a corridor through eastern Anatolia, emerging down in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean around the port of Alexandretta/Iskenderun? Of course both of these will involve further wars with those pesky Ottomans – though by now, the middle of the 19th century, they are not the fearsome military power they once were.
Still, you need a pretext for picking a fight, and what better than religion? How can good Christians allow those heathen Turks to control the holy places where Christ suffered and died? And there are Christian communities all through the region, Armenians and Syrian Orthodox for example, clearly in need of protection from the oppression and persecution of their Muslim overlords, never mind that they had all been co-existing in relative peace and harmony for centuries. Well, that protection idea caught on in Europe later, but at this stage, France and especially Britain were not about to let the Russians control the eastern Mediterranean and endanger their interests in that region and further afield in India. Hence the Crimean War. Let’s get over there, was the plan, and help our dear Muslim Ottoman friends defeat those dastardly Cossacks and Russians and keep them bottled up in their frozen wastes.
Well, international treaties and alliances make fragile bonds, and it wasn’t too many years before Britain and France were joining forces to finally erase the Ottoman Empire from the geo-political scene. Previously, however, in the 1850s and 60s, their sympathies lay more with Muslim populations suffering genocide and expulsion as a result of Russian expansion.
EGO | European History Online has this to say: ‘Taking advantage of the favourable anti-Turkish sentiment, the Tzarist army conducted a military offensive against the Ottoman Empire in 1877/1878 which ended with the defeat of the Ottomans in the Balkans and the re-establishment of Russia in the Black Sea. In the Russo-Turkish War, Russian and Bulgarian soldiers and francs-tireurs killed 200,000–300,000 Muslims and about one million people were displaced. After the war, more than half a million Muslim refugees from the Russian Caucasus and the areas south of the Danube, which were under Russian protection, were settled in the Ottoman Empire.’ (Paragraph 3, 2014.03.10)
But who remembers that now? Apart from the Crimean Tatars and the Circassians themselves, that is. As far as I am aware, the XXII Winter Olympic Games in Sochi went off with little disruption despite hopes held by the ex-patriate Circassian community of using the occasion as a stage to draw the world’s attention to the above-mentioned ‘resettlement’. ‘The world’, sadly, for the most part, doesn’t want to know. It’s got enough problems of its own, and anyway it’s hard to know which plaintive cries of genocide to take seriously these days. Add to that the fact that most First World countries have ethnic cleansing skeletons in their own historical closets, and you can see why they are reluctant to risk their glass houses by throwing stones at each other.
Of course there has to be a certain amount of posturing. Our local Istanbul newspaper published pictures of the US destroyer Truxton steaming through the Bosphorus on its way to wave the Stars and Stripes in the Black Sea. President Obama, according to reports, has been having stern words over the phone with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin; and Republican Presidential hopeful, Senator Rand Paul says that ‘if he were President, he would take a harder stance against the Russian President for his actions.’
The sad fact of the matter is that it is extremely unlikely Russia will let Ukraine and Crimea go their own independent way. About as likely as the United States handing Hawaii back to the native Polynesians, or Texas back to Mexico. Probably the best Crimean nationalists can hope for is more conciliatory gestures from Mother Russia along the lines of renaming Stalingrad as Volgograd, recognising that the earlier name had bad associations for locals who remember the mass expulsion of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.