Compare & Contrast – Russia, Ottoman Empire 1450-1750 Essay
Though it may sound heartless and selfish, the needs and aims of countries usually are the primary factor controlling their foreign relations. During the period of the czars, from 1547 to 1917, Russia’s need for land and modernization shaped its relationships with Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire, causing Russia’s leaders to respect and imitate Western Europe while competing with the European powers to fill the power vacuum of the failing Ottoman Empire. Russia emerged as a significant power during the 1500s through war.
It fought its neighbors and expanded its territory aimlessly.
Ivan the Terrible’s expansion brought him into contact with both Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Aiming to gain a port and outlet to the Baltic, Ivan fought a long war against Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and Livonia. To the south, he was partially successful in his first war against the Muslim Tatars in 1568, who were nominally under the protection and rule of the Ottomans and received some Ottoman aid during the war.
Besides the political fact that both the western European countries and the Ottoman Empire were hostile, potential threats, there was little to separate them in the Russians’ minds from a religious standpoint.
The Russians were firmly Orthodox, and Ivan the Terrible had claimed, through a Byzantine ancestor, inheritance of the title of Czar. The Islamic Ottomans and the Catholic Europeans were both viewed antagonistically. Corruption and power-hungriness in the church hierarchy, which had contributed to the schism between Eastern and Western churches in the first place, kept away the brotherly love that should have existed between groups that both called Christ Lord. The political elites were disinclined to let religion bar them from any self-benefiting action in any case; but religion certainly influenced the ordinary citizens.
Ivan the Terrible’s strong, dictatorial rule ended in 1584 and was followed by political chaos in Russia. Order was restored when Michael Romanov became a czar. His son Peter succeeded him, and the reforms Peter introduced would spark a great change in Russia’s attitude to Western Europe. Peter recognized that his country was falling behind the European countries in knowledge, technology, trade, and governing ability. Using his absolute power as a czar, he brought in foreign advisers to help him modernize, westernize and educate his people.
Peter had a great respect for Europe, and his reforms had a lasting influence in Russia, though there was of course opposition from the more conservative nobles. Peter’s respect did not translate into friendship with Western Europe. These countries were his competitors, his rivals, and one could say that by modernizing Peter was really trying to beat them at their own game. He fought a long war against Sweden and with victory finally gained possession of ports on the Baltic that opened the way for greater trade with Western Europe.
Meanwhile, Peter continued Russia’s attempts to expand at the Ottoman Empire’s expense. His short war in 1710-11 was a failure, though, and nearly resulted in his own capture. In spite of this loss, it was obvious to Peter and the rest of Europe that the Ottoman Empire was in an irreversible decline. The Ottomans were quite a contrast to Europe: outdated in technology and military methods, politically unstable, and scarcely able to control their far-flung empire. It was left to Peter’s successor, Catherine II, to take advantage of this.
She waged the first major Russo-Turkish war from 1768 to 1774, and its conclusion with the Treaty of Kucuk Kainarji gave Russia the northern shore of the Black Sea – and a much-coveted outlet for trade. Russia also gained, through this treaty, vague powers of protection for the Christian citizens in the Ottoman Empire. This power Russia would use to push for the Ottoman Empire’s collapse from within, by encouraging rebellion in areas like Hungary and Greece. The French Revolution and the rise to power of Napoleon caused startling changes in Russia’s foreign relations.
Napoleon challenged British power in the Middle East and Asia with his invasion of Egypt in 1798. The appearance of this threat, and the danger that it could topple the Ottoman Empire, forced the Russians to form an unlikely alliance with the Turks and the British. Once Napoleon was chased back to France, though, Russia and the Ottomans reverted to their hostile relationship. Only by making significant territorial concessions was Czar Alexander I able to sign a peace treaty with the Turks before Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.
After a severe and costly war, Napoleon, defeated in part by the frigid Russian winter, was driven back with great loss. Russia joined with England and Austria in a coalition to finally defeat and depose Napoleon. At this point Russia had become an important European power. Over the next century Russian attitudes toward Europe and the Ottoman Empire would remain basically the same; against the opposition of the British and French, Russia would battle back for greater influence over the Turks and territorial gains from them in the Balkans and Black Sea area.
One war in 1828-1829 gave Russia substantial territorial gains in the Black Sea. Twenty-four years later, a dispute between Orthodox and Catholic rights to holy sites in Ottoman territory provided the catalyst for the Crimean War, where Britain and France defeated the Russians in the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, and thus secured a respite from Russian expansion for the Turks. In the buildup to World War I, the Germans would court Ottoman favor, and they would replace France and England as the Turks’ supporter against Russia when war broke out.
As the German threat emerged, France and England turned from enemies into friends for Russia, with mutual defense agreements formed in 1904 and 1907, respectively. In the war, they would fight together. Meanwhile, over the past century the influence of Western Europe had been increasing among the Russian nobles and influential people. While Alexander I and his successors did continue to introduce reforms and westernize the country, these reforms were selective. They consisted of the material modernization that could make Russia more powerful and the social modernization that could benefit Russia’s nobles.
But the czars kept out ideological modernization: France’s “liberty, equality, fraternity” or England’s idea of constitutional rights were rejected, and the czars kept the serfs in their miserable position of slavery. But these, and even more revolutionary ideas made their way into Russia nonetheless. Among the nobles, ideas like socialism and anarchism from Europe generated interest and gradually gained support, though these ideas were still the subject of great controversy in Western Europe itself.
Some of these ideas from Western Europe would eventually fuel the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and Russia’s transformation into a communist state, marking the end of a long period in Russia’s foreign relations. This period was defined by two goals: expansion and modernization. To expand, Russia waged nearly continual territorial wars with its neighbor to the south, the Ottoman Empire. To modernize, Russia copied the technology and customs of Western Europe.
However receptive of Western Europe’s ideas, Russia remained a competitor for power with the individual European nations throughout the period of the czars, most notably competing with England and France to fill the power vacuum left as the Ottoman Empire decayed. For the most part, it was Russia’s policies and desires that dictated its relationships with other countries, since they had no designs on Russian territory. The sole exceptions were the Polish interference during the Time of Troubles between Ivan the Terrible and Michael Romanov, and the threat of Napoleon and France in the early 1800s.
The latter did significantly alter Russia’s foreign relations, even leading to a temporary alliance with the Turks. But overall, Russia was the leader in its relationships with other nations. Though wresting land from the Turks was not easy, the Russians did not look at the Ottoman Empire as a serious rival, the way they perceived Western Europe. The Turks didn’t have the strength to launch a seriously dangerous offensive campaign against Russia like France’s Napoleon did in 1812.
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