Containing Balkan nationalism : imperial Russia and Ottoman Christians, 1856-1914

CONTAINING BALKAN NATIONALISM
  • Book Title:
 Containing Balkan Nationalism
  • Book Author:
Denis Vovchenko
  • Total Pages
361
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CONTAINING BALKAN NATIONALISM – Book Sample

Introduction – CONTAINING BALKAN NATIONALISM

The balkans had long fascinated the political imagination of Russian commentators of all ideological stripes. Reporting on the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913 for a Kiev newspaper, Leon Trotsky wrote, “The effects of the war demonstrate only too clearly to the Balkan nations and first of all to Serbia that they can exist only in a permanent economic and political federation.”1  

Unlike Trotsky, most Russian scholars and journalists who were interested in the Balkans tended to be on the right wing of the political spectrum. They saw Russia as part and parcel of a Balkan federation—a vision rooted in a long history of messianic imperialism.

Several months before the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, Fyodor Dostoevsky justified Russia’s right to take possession of Constantinople “as the leader, protector, and guardian of Orthodox Christianity—the role it was des- tined to play since Ivan III who had elevated the double-headed eagle of Tsargrad over Russia’s ancient symbols.” Only that kind of claim would be acceptable to both Balkan Slavs and Greeks, divided by ethnicity but united in faith.2

A future union of Russia and Balkan Christians was not always imagined on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Some advocated including Turkey into a Balkan federation. Still, the words of Trotsky and Dostoevsky capture the many tensions that developed in contemporary views on Russian cultural identity and foreign policy at the turn of the twentieth century.

 Secular nationalism was violently redrawing the map of Europe throughout the 1800s: Italy and Germany became unified and the new nation-states of Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, Rumania, and Bulgaria emerged from the slow breakup of the  Ottoman Empire.

The debates about the significance of Russia’s connec- tion to the Balkans reflected and to some extent even shaped the efforts of Russian, Ottoman, Greek, Bulgarian, and Serbian statesmen and prelates to adapt the newly politicized concept of ethnicity to existing religious and dy- nastic structures.

The Bulgarian Church Question was one of those issues facing the po- litical and religious leaders in Eastern Europe. My book focuses on the con- sequences of the Bulgarian movement for independence of their national church from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople between 1856 and 1914.

The story goes back to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks had com- pleted their conquest of the Christian Balkan kingdoms and the Byzantine Empire with the storming of Constantinople.

By the early 1500s, they had conquered the Arab Muslim states and taken control of what is today the Middle East. With their capital in Constantinople, the Ottomans chose the Patriarch of that city as the head of all Orthodox Christian churches in their domains.

As the only official mediator between the Orthodox Christians and the Ottoman government, he was thus responsible for collecting taxes, ad- ministering justice, and maintaining schools and charities.

 The Patriarchate of Constantinople used its position to absorb the previously autonomous Bulgarian and Serbian churches and to acquire great influence over the elec- tions of chief prelates in ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch.3

Already in the 1500s, ethnic Greeks or Hellenized locals had occupied key positions in all Ottoman dioceses and introduced Greek as the language of liturgy and instruction at urban schools.4  

Some middle-class non-Greek Christians, especially lower-level clerics, increasingly resented this domina- tion and their discontent crystallized in the mid-1800s with a new ideology of nationalism, which explicitly gave political significance to cultural distinc- tions.5

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the idea of national sover- eignty challenged the rule of divinely ordained kings. All that was solid was melting in the air in the 1800s despite the best efforts of conservative and legitimist monarchs of the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance and the Concert of Europe to maintain the status quo.6

In the Ottoman Empire, nationalism first developed among the Christians, who unlike the Muslims had maintained closer contacts with Europe.

From 1821 to 1830, the Greeks rebelled against the Ottoman sultan and created a tiny but ambitious national kingdom in parts of mainland Greece. It then sought to expand its influence in the Ottoman Balkans and the Middle East through the ethnically Greek leadership of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.7  

This aggressive irredentist policy further politicized the ethnic divisions within Orthodox Christian communities. In reaction, prosperous Bulgarian merchant and craft guilds in Constantinople and Philippoupolis (modern Plovdiv) became the core of an emerging Bulgarian nationalist movement directed against the Patriarchate of Constantinople.8

The movement violated the principles of the Orthodox Church because it rejected precise territorial boundaries and aimed at incorporating all Slavic- speaking Christians into its future church, thereby tearing apart mixed Greek- Bulgarian-Serbian communities.

 Independent church status meant legal and cultural autonomy within the Islamic structure of the Ottoman Empire, which recognized religious minorities rather than ethnic ones. With that in mind, Bulgarian nationalist leaders appealed to the Ottoman government di- rectly but also attempted to enlist the support of the European Great Powers.9

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