Russians were concerned about their fellow Orthodox Christians living under the rule of the Ottoman Empire's sultans. Peter the Great (who reigned until 1725) wanted the Turks to guarantee Orthodox rights at the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified, and he demanded access for all Russians to the holy lands.
Catherine the Great (whose reign began in 1762) achieved more of what Peter had wanted. In the war of 1768-74 she sent Russia's Baltic fleet into the Mediterranean and defeated the Turkish fleet, resulting in the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. With that treaty the Turks granted Russia permission to build an Orthodox church in Constantinople (today Istanbul), and Russians saw this as acceptance of Russia's right to represent Orthodox Christians still ruled by the Turks.
In 1783, Empress Catherine took advantage of her military superiority over the Turks and annexed all of Crimea. The Turks felt humiliated at having lost to the Christians what they thought of as Muslim territory. And some at the court of the Ottoman sultan, Abdülhamid I, feared that the Russians would use the Crimea as a military base against them.
Russian authorities attempted to persuade Crimea's notables (beys and mirzas) to serve Catherine's government, offering to convert them to Christianity and to elevate them to noble status. But the notables continued their allegiance to the Ottoman sultan.
In 1787 Russia and the Turks went to war against each other again, the Turks attempting to regain losses suffered in the war of 1768-74. From the Crimea, Tatars fled to the Ottoman Empire away from the Russians, whom they feared. They were running also from Russia's punitive taxation, from Russia's policy of forced labor and from the intimidations of Cossack squads. By 1800, nearly one-third of a Tatar population of around 100,000 had entered the Ottoman Empire, with another 10,000 Tatars leaving during the war between Russia and Turkey in 1806-12 during the Napoleonic wars. (Josef Stalin uprooted and exiled the remaining Crimean Tatars to Siberia and Kazakhstan in 1944.)
Replacing the Tatars were Russian settlers and their fellow Orthodox Christians from Turkish-ruled territories: Greeks, Armenians and Bulgarians. The Russians viewed the Crimea as holy Christian territory. According to legend, in the Crimea the Grand Prince of Kiev, Vladimir had conquered the Greek town of Chersonesus and there he had been baptized, bringing Christianity to the Russians. It was a place of pilgrimage for those Russians who wanted to connect with the cradle of Slavic Christianity.
Copyright © 2009-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.