Empire, Russian and the Middle East

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Empire, Russian and the Middle East

The beginning of imperialism and colonialism in western European nations has often been described as a time when rising national powers began to journey to distant lands in search of new sources of trade and capital beyond their immediate grasp. The ultimate goal, implicitly or explicitly, was to build closer ties to the Far East, with its vast markets and valuable products. This was not how Russia began its own road to empire. Russia's move in this direction began with its expansion into the steppe south of its original domains: a frontier unlike those faced by other Europeans. Given Russia's traditional lack of borders and low levels of social cohesion, the steppe presented a robust challenge to Russian sedentary cultural patterns, which developed from an economic system founded upon peasant, communal village agriculture. Because the Russians began their encounters with the Middle East in the steppe, this region linked them to the Middle East in many ways and determined how they later treated it.

Russia's expansion into the steppe occurred in two distinct phases. Its patterns of territorial expansion in an initial period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries more closely resembled patterns of nation building in medieval Europe than the growth of world empires during the early modern era. By the eighteenth century, Russians had shifted their approach to adopting the imperialist strategies of their European rivals to extend direct colonial control over vast areas to their south and east.

While much of the commercial, social, and political impetus of this later rise to empire on Russia's part can be observed clearly in its drive eastward across Central Asia toward the Pacific Ocean, Russian dreams of establishing a presence in the Middle East were first guided by ideological and only later by pragmatic concerns. Its desire to serve as the main guardian of Orthodox Christian tradition shaped how it became involved in the Middle East, particularly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. To a greater or lesser degree, the dream of retaking Constantinople always lingered in the minds of various tsars. In a more concrete fashion, Russo-Turkish conflicts that ensued over the following four centuries continued to be motivated by Russia's attempt to protect and establish its own authority over Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule. This took place in parallel with longstanding Russian efforts to convert Muslims and others in Central Asia to Christianity as they were brought under the tsar's authority: a project pursued for centuries with varying levels of enthusiasm by different rulers.

After the eighteenth century, the ideological and spiritual goals of protecting Orthodox Christians and their holy sites as well as attracting converts to the faith were augmented and overshadowed by Russia's growing strategic and geopolitical ambition to be recognized as a great power. To further both their strategic and ideological goals, the Russians nurtured the nationalist movements of fellow Orthodox Christians in the Balkans through Pan-Slavism. In addition, they saw the Middle East as an arena in which to assert the growing naval and military power that they had begun to develop following the reforms of Peter I ("The Great") (r. 1682–1725). The Russians' greater global focus during this period, in turn, caused western European powers to react by aiding and propping up the Ottomans, particularly during the nineteenth century, in order to prevent the Russians from acquiring too much power in Eurasia. Thus, Russian imperial agendas in the Middle East during the nineteenth century came to be defined by a complex mixture of different impulses. Russia sought to expand its commercial and geopolitical reach to equal or surpass the imperial projects of other European powers of that time, but the pursuit of this goal continued to be shaped by the enduring spiritual and ideological components of how Russia defined itself as a nation. Russia's view of its mission as a successor to the Byzantine Empire always had a profound influence on how it perceived its true role in the world, particularly in the biblical lands of the Middle East. Until the Bolshevik Revolution and the imposition of an entirely new governing paradigm, it was a thread that linked the earliest and latest involvement of Russia with the Middle East during the tsarist era.


Russia's existence as an independent nation arose out of the confederation of various Slavic principalities dominated by merchant oligarchies that flourished in Kiev, Novgorod, and Moscow beginning in the tenth century. These trading principalities were always linked on trade routes to more powerful states farther east and south such as the Khazars in Central Asia and the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople, so the eastward focus of their merchants and traders coincided with their emergence as independent political entities. For a while, they came together into a loosely unified polity known as the Rus, dominated first by Kiev and later by Novgorod and Moscow, but all of these cities perceived trade east and south as an important component of their prosperity.

By the early thirteenth century, these principalities had been broken up into warring factions, which made them easy prey for the Mongol armies rapidly expanding and conquering westward from Central Asia. The Mongols exploited the Russians' internal divisions and were soon able to conquer them. Many component city-states of the Rus were made vassals of the Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde, and Muscovy clearly began to emerge as a leading one in the early fifteenth century with the decline of Golden Horde power. Russia fairly quickly developed as a nation from being a power subject to Muslim overlords, to being their equals, to ruling them as it grew into an empire that expanded continually eastward. Although historians have spent decades trying to get beyond the concept that Russia became a nation partly because it "threw off the Tatar yoke," this stereotypical view remained an important component of how contemporary Russians perceived their own empire's development, regardless of how inaccurate it is.


The first phase of Russia's relations with the Middle East in this period began with the attempts of Ivan III ("The Great") (r. 1462–1505) to secure Russia's status as a separate, autonomous nation. Ivan engaged in complex diplomacy with various Muslim rulers in the steppe to consolidate his power, entering into alliances in the 1480s with the Crimean khan Mengli Giray, the khan of Kazan, and the Nogais against their nominal overlords: the khans of the Golden Horde. In this earliest phase, as Russia behaved like the assertive vassal of a master whose control was waning, it negotiated small-scale agreements with rivals of similar stature and military power to bolster its standing in internecine disputes, but without radically altering the status quo.

This state of affairs defined a status quo for a considerable period of time until Ivan IV ("The Terrible") (r. 1533–1584) commenced a program of extending Russian control much farther south than where it had previously reached. He conquered Kazan in 1552 and established Russian control over the Volga region, opening large parts of the steppe to Russian colonization and settlement. This influx of Russian and other settlers and colonists pushed the Crimean khans closer to the Ottomans, whose vassals they had formally become in the late fifteenth century.

After Ivan's demise, his forceful advance of Russian power in the south was undercut by a prolonged series of internal struggles and succession crises in the early seventeenth century, mitigated only partially by the establishment of the Romanov dynasty on the throne. Throughout this period, the Russians made tentative forays into the Crimea but were rebuffed by the Ottomans and did not pursue these campaigns due to an awareness of their own military weakness. Between 1637 and 1642, a group of Don Cossacks held the Ottoman fortress of Azov and only relinquished it after Tsar Mikhail Romanov persuaded them to surrender, following an Ottoman threat to kill their Orthodox subjects as retribution. At this time, in spite of such Russian advances and successes, the Ottomans still held the advantage in the evolving balance of power.

After a series of three attacks on the Crimea, in 1687, 1689, and 1695, Peter I, who took the throne in earnest in 1689, assembled a naval force that enabled him to defeat the Ottomans in 1696 fairly decisively and to secure Azov. This success helped launch Peter's modernization program and it changed how Russia viewed the Middle East.


Despite this first Russian success at Azov, the Ottomans succeeded in retaking it a few years later—a situation which was then reversed permanently by the Russians in the late 1730s. In 1721 Peter I had himself formally proclaimed "Emperor of All Russias." This event coincided with a new era in Russian relations with the Middle East, in which the region became an increasingly attractive imperial prize to be seized ("imperial" because an emperor now ruled Russia). The first evidence of change occurred in the early 1720s, when Russia seized control of the northern half of the west coast of the Caspian Sea down into Azerbaijan. This foray was made possible by the collapse of the ruling Safavid dynasty of Iran after their Afghan subjects invaded that country. Although the Russians were forced only a few years later to relinquish much of what they had conquered, this incursion helped set the Russian agenda for further territorial acquisition, which became more reminiscent of the way in which other European powers were acquiring colonies at this time.

In the wake of Peter's modernization and expansion programs, the idea became more widespread that Russia should extend its territorial control southward and consolidate its rule over the Black Sea to provide an appropriate outlet for its growing military power and maritime commercial needs. At a more idealized level, the pressure to establish this control caused certain Russian nobles to begin openly advocating the liberation of Constantinople from the Ottomans as well. During the 1780s, Catherine the Great's favorite courtier, Prince Grigorii Potemkin, repeatedly spoke of making it the new Russian capital.

A series of Russian-Ottoman military conflicts in the eighteenth century marked successive phases of Russia's project to secure control over the northern Black Sea region. This was reflected in documents such as the 1774 Ottoman-Russian treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, in which the Ottoman sultan was allowed to continue to claim the title of "caliph" over the Crimean Muslims only as a face-saving gesture, as he had lost political control of that region. The spiritual allegiance of the Crimeans to the sultan was decoupled from the political allegiance owed to the tsar in a way that paralleled the expansion of the tsar's rights to oversee the affairs of the sultan's Orthodox subjects. Various clauses in this treaty allowed Russia to build a church in Istanbul and have jurisdiction over it as well as the right to "make representations" to the Ottoman sultan, presumably on behalf of his Orthodox subjects, although this was not specified in the document. Regardless of the details of the agreement, Russia used it over the next few decades to assert its right to protect all Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule.

The end of the eighteenth century also witnessed continual Russian attempts to secure control over lands east and west of the Black Sea through the recruiting of local Orthodox Christian rulers to become either implicitly or explicitly their vassals. In Bessarabia and the Danubian Principalities in the Balkans, as well as in Georgia and Armenia in the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century, this strategy was used quite effectively to extend the range of Russian power and influence, at the same time that the Russians were achieving success more and more frequently in combat against the Ottomans.

Russia and the Ottoman Empire were also both profoundly affected by the increasingly global rivalries of the major European powers at this time. Russia suffered the great physical calamity of Napoleon's invasion, while the psychological shock of his brief but momentous occupation of Egypt (1798–1801), swiftly followed by the rising influence of European capitalism on Middle Eastern economies, had a substantial impact on the Ottoman Empire. During the rise of European manufacturing in the Industrial Revolution, the Ottomans were bound by the constraints of various capitulations agreements, which enabled an influx of European goods to dominate their markets in ways that more and more favored European economies instead of their own. Both the Russians and the Ottomans were thrust into reactive modes by the dramatic events that followed on the French Revolution during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. However, the Russians, then ruled by Tsar Nicholas I, were also able to capitalize on Ottoman insecurities, and thus to soften their previously confrontational stance toward the Ottomans. By the 1820s the Ottoman Empire appeared to Russia as preferable to many of its alternatives, despite ostensible Russian support for anti-Ottoman liberation movements led by their Orthodox brethren, such as the Greek War of Independence.

One alternative to Ottoman power that the Russians helped check, for example, was Muhammad Ali, the ostensible Ottoman governor of Egypt who by the early 1830s threatened to displace the Ottomans altogether. This prompted the Russians, in an uncommon gesture, to send troops to help the Ottomans defend themselves against him. As a result of this intervention and the preoccupation of the major European powers with the Belgian and French revolutions of 1830, the Ottomans and Russians signed the Treaty of Hünkar İskelesi in 1833 as a military alliance, to which the main contribution by the Ottomans was their agreement to keep the Bosphorus and Dardanelles demilitarized. The British and French were able to soon have this replaced by the 1841 London Straits Convention, which satisfied the Russians but brought the other Great Powers into this diplomatic process more closely.

Farther east, Russia had taken the opportunity afforded by the rise of the new Qajar dynasty in Iran (which came to power at the end of the eighteenth century) to secure control over Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. This control was formally ceded to Russia by the 1813 Gulistan Treaty with Iran, which also gave Russian merchants freer access to Iranian markets than they had ever previously enjoyed, and thus marked the beginning of the steady growth of European commercial activity in Iran throughout the nineteenth century. Although the Iranians rose up against the Russians in the 1820s under Abbas Mirza, they were again defeated and made to sign the 1828 Turkmanchai Treaty in which they were forced to offer Russia even more concessions than in the previous agreement.

Although these treaties enabled Russia to secure formal political control over the Caucasus region, this did not mean the end of local resistance to their assumption of power. For almost three decades from the 1820s until the late 1850s, Russian authority there was stymied by an extended guerilla war in Chechnya and the mountainous region of Daghestan in the northern Caucasus. It was conducted by a coalition of various mountain tribesmen united under Imam Shamil, who led them in numerous campaigns there, considered stages in a religious struggle to establish Sharia (Islamic Holy Law) in areas that had been freed from Russian control.

Through connections across the Caspian and along the major inland trade routes, though, Russia was able to establish a growing presence in Iran after 1828, in particular through its connections with Iranian Armenians: a minority community that had functioned as an important conduit of trade and influence between Russia and Iran for many centuries. In the Ottoman Empire, the role of Russia as the ultimate protector of Orthodox Christians, formally established in 1774 according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, intensified its growing rivalry with France, itself long considered the protector of all Catholics in Ottoman lands. This competition, combined with mishandled great-power diplomacy and the sudden death in 1855 of Tsar Nicholas I, who had pursued a more conciliatory policy toward the Ottomans, became a major factor in precipitating the Crimean War.

From one perspective, the Crimean War seems to have arisen due to an unfortunate coincidence of diplomatic and political miscalculations, but it was also brought on by more elemental internal conflicts in Russia itself. The nation was divided by different perceptions of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, in France and Europe respectively: For some, they were inspiring and exciting, for others, terrifying and chaotic. It also vacillated in its attitude toward the Ottomans; on the one hand, they were longstanding adversaries, ultimately to be removed from their illegitimate occupation of the Holy Places of Orthodox Christendom; on the other hand, they seemed far preferable to so many other possible rulers of the Middle East. From the Ottoman perspective, France's attempt to leverage its status in the Middle East as the main guardian of Catholic interests in their lands to promote its own global standing had increased suspicions, which paradoxically were not alleviated when France and Britain sided with the Ottomans in the Crimea against Russia.

In military and political terms, the British and the French made the fateful choice to come to the aid of the Ottomans at this time as their global strategy began to include the containment of Russian ambitions as an important goal. The 1856 Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War also formally ended the Russians' ability to claim even an implicit status as sole protectors of the Ottoman Orthodox population, because its text explicitly placed this population under the care of a consortium of European powers. The agreement also set out to ease tensions on the Black Sea, by calling for its complete demilitarization. Russian attitudes about their empire's presence and expansion in the Middle East continued to be defined by their longstanding ideological and religious views, though, as much as by commercial, geopolitical, and military considerations. As Russia's traditional role in the Ottoman Empire shifted, a new ideological force in Russia, Pan-Slavism, which became popular in the early 1870s, began to have an impact on its Ottoman policy. With regard to Russia itself, Pan-Slavism promoted a return to traditional values in contrast to the earlier modernizing reform movements of the mid-nineteenth century; at the same time, it caused the growth of popular Russian sentiment in favor of liberating "Slavic brothers" from their Ottoman rulers. This sentiment fueled a nationalist fervor that was a potent force in causing the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. This war, which had also been brought on by a constitutional crisis that had set the Ottoman sultan at odds with his newly created parliament, was only resolved at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. There, a Balkan map was drawn up that froze battle lines for a few decades, during which time tensions continuously rose behind artificially constructed barriers in Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia Herzegovina. From the Ottoman perspective, the losses imposed by the Congress of Berlin were devastating in terms of territory and people: Roughly a third of the Empire's territory and a fifth of its population were lost, and a terrible refugee problem ensued.

Farther east, Russia and Britain engaged in proxy struggles in Afghanistan to define the frontiers of their vast imperial projects. This finally settled down with the imposition of stable rule in Afghanistan under Amir Abd al-Rahman and the establishment in the 1890s of the Durand Line, which secured the westernmost frontiers of British India and established Afghanistan as a buffer state between Russia and the subcontinent. In the Caucasus meanwhile, the stabilization of Russian control over the region following the Crimean War also created an important conduit for modernization in the Middle East. Tiflis, the capital of Georgia and the center of Russian administration in the Caucasus, became an outpost of European culture and intellectual life there. Despite strict tsarist censorship, Persian and Turkish books and newspapers printed there became widely circulated in Iran and the Ottoman Empire.

More importantly, Azerbaijan under Russian control became one of the main sites of the birth of the modern petroleum industry. The first modern oil well was drilled near Baku in 1848 and the first refinery constructed there in 1859. When private companies were allowed to participate in its oil business in 1872, Baku rapidly grew from a provincial outpost into a wealthy and sophisticated city. European investors, including the Nobel brothers and the Rothschilds, entered the market. By the end of the nineteenth century, Azerbaijan was producing more than half of the world's oil supply. It became the site of labor troubles in December 1904, when a general strike among the oil workers there broke out, led by the young Bolshevik Georgian leader Joseph Stalin. Among Russian dissidents, this uprising helped create the revolutionary atmosphere that led to the St. Petersburg riots and massacre of "Bloody Sunday" in January 1905.


Mongol armies conquer the loose confederation of Slavic principalities led by the ruling-class merchants of Kiev, Novgorod, and Moscow
Ivan III brokers agreements with Muslim rulers in the steppe, hastening the decline of their common ruler, the khans of the Golden Horde
Ivan IV overruns Kazan, opening the Volga region to Russian colonization
Peter I defeats Ottoman forces at the fortress of Azov, expanding Russia's empire to the south
Russia continues to extend southward, gaining control of the Caspian Sea's northwest coast, though loses the territory two years later
The Ottoman-Russian Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca is signed, giving Russia political control of the Crimea, and introduces Russia's claim to be the protector of all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire
Late 1700s:
Russia tries to consolidate power in the Black Sea region by convincing fellow Orthodox Christian rulers to fall under the Russian Empire
Iran and Russia enter the Treaty of Gulistan, giving Russia control of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and opening up Iran to Russian influence
Russia and the Ottomans reach a military alliance by signing the Treaty of Hünkar İskelesi
In Russian-controlled Azerbaijan, the first modern oil well was drilled, attracting foreign investment in the region
The Crimean War begins with the Ottoman Empire declaring war on Russia. France and Great Britain side with the Ottomans, hoping to gain influence in the region and balance Russia's growing power
The Treaty of Paris ends the Crimean War
The Russo-Turkish War begins, inspired by PanSlavic ideas, with Russia looking to free fellow Slavs from Ottoman rule
The Congress of Berlin settles the Russo-Turkish War, with the Ottoman Empire shrinking by one-third and new boundaries set in the Balkans, creating the states of Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia-Herzegovina
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, leads to the outbreak of World War I, with Russia joining sides with French and British forces against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and the Ottoman Empire
The Bolshevik Revolution ends the Russian Empire

Although Russians always dominated business and government in the Caucasus during the late 1800s, some Azerbaijanis and Armenians became important leaders in various aspects of industrial production there, such as transporting oil on the Caspian Sea. Young intellectuals in the region were influenced by developments in Russia and created political parties that in turn had influence among their Iranian and Ottoman counterparts, helping to inspire the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906 as well as the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire. Following the uprisings of 1904–1905, the Russian viceroy of the Caucasus, Count Vorontsov-Dashkov, forcefully suppressed political dissent, but a small cohort of revolutionary activists continued to engage in political activity there and preserved connections with their comrades in the Middle East during the period leading up to World War I.

This era also saw the development of robust mercantile and intellectual connections between Russian-controlled Muslim areas of Central Asia and Iran and the Ottoman Empire. Because of improvements in transportation and communication, substantially larger numbers of hajj pilgrims from these Russian-ruled areas were traveling through the Ottoman Empire and connecting their own Muslim cultures with the larger Muslim trends in the outside world.

The tenuous peace in the Balkans that had been created by the Congress of Berlin began to unravel in the beginning of the twentieth century in various little wars. These small conflicts produced ethnic tensions that led up to Franz Ferdinand's assassination, the spark credited with setting off World War I in June 1914. This war, which caused the end of the Russian Empire following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, completely redefined Russia's relations with the Middle East. Communist Russia's ostensible goal now became the "liberation of the working class." After a short hiatus, however, longstanding imperial goals of consolidating and sustaining control of colonial populations reappeared. This led to the creation of a number of ethnically Muslim "Soviet Socialist Republics," which ostensibly functioned as autonomous constituent units of the larger Soviet Union, but were under the firm control of the central Soviet state and supported its political and social agendas.


It would be accurate to observe that Russia did finally begin to act like an imperial power to some extent in the Middle East, but only considerably after other European powers had done so and only in certain ways. Along its southern frontier, the area where its territorial expansion required the most military activity, its conquests were not regarded as colonizing enterprises until centuries after they had begun, with the result that the Russia colonial impact in places like Crimea has only been felt strongly during the past century and a half.

The Middle East proper remained only an elusive goal of conquest for Russia and served as more of an emotional rallying point in its role as the original home of Christianity and the site of Constantinople. This emotional appeal began with Russia's attempt to assert its status as the main guardian of Eastern Orthodoxy, but evolved to include Pan-Slavism as Russians supported the nationalist dreams of Slavic populations under Ottoman rule. The Russian presence in the Middle East never developed, though, as European merchant interests had evolved there, primarily as a means to secure economic dominance. Although the Russians constantly traded with the Middle East, their relations with it were never defined by economic interests to the extent that those of other European powers were during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

see also Anglo-Russian Rivalry in the Middle East; Central Asia, European Presence in.


Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: 120 Years of Russian Rule. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989.

Goffman, Daniel. The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Inalcik, Halil, Suraiya Faroqhi, Bruce McGowan, Donald Quataert, and Șevket Pamuk. An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, 1300–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Itzkowitz, Norman, and Max Mote, eds. and trans. Mubadele: An Ottoman-Russian Exchange of Ambassadors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Khodarkovsky, Michael. Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500–1800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.

Moss, Walter. A History of Russia. 2 vols. New York: McGrawHill, 1997.

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