The Russian Review/Volume 1/February 1916/Constantinople—the "Latch-Key to Russia"

Constantinople—the "Latch-Key to Russia."

By L. Pavlov.

It was one hundred and eight years ago, that Alexander I., in discussing with Napoleon the conditions of a treaty, formulated clearly for the first time the real importance of Constantinople for Russia, when he called it the "Latch-key to Russia". But Napoleon was shrewd enough to look far ahead, and he then expressed his conviction that Constantinople in the hands of Russia would spell "l'empire du monde", a world empire, for the Tsar.

Napoleon was powerful enough at that time to put an end to all discussions of this matter, and the question was dropped then, as it had been several times before.

The importance of Constantinople was realized by the Russian statesmen long before the time of Alexander. Peter the Great found Turkey one of the most powerful countries in Europe, fully able to defy him and to refuse his request to grant Russia freedom of navigation on the Black Sea. Peter's struggle with Turkey was not successful, and his failure to force Turkey to grant Russia the freedom of the Black Sea was one of the reasons that compelled him to attempt the Baltic Sea.

Catherine took up the problem with a greater degree of success. She waged two wars upon Turkey, the second of which left Russia in possession of Crimea and reduced the Porte to the condition of a second-class power, compelled to seek its safety in the wranglings of the other European nations. The annexation of Crimea gave Russia a footing on the Black Sea. And in order to make these new possessions more secure, the powerful naval fortress of Sebastopol was constructed. It is interesting to note that the gates of Sebastopol bore the inscription, "The Road to Constantinople."

It was only in 1798 that a Russian fleet appeared for the first time under the walls of Constantinople. But it was a friendly visit, for Turkey had agreed to permit the Russian fleet free passage through the Straits in order to enable Russia to fight Napoleon more effectively.

Neither Paul I., nor his son, Alexander I., brought Russia any nearer to a realization of her purpose. Although Alexander waged a six-year war against Turkey, he obtained no advantages, and the war naturally came to an end in 1812, when Napoleon began his invasion of Russia.

In 1828, in the reign of Nicholas I., a new war against Turkey was begun. The war was entirely successful, and the Adrianople treaty of peace gave Russia free passage for her commercial ships through the Straits. This success led Nicholas to adopt a very bold plan of placing the weakened Turkey in a position of partial vassalage to Russia.

The state of affairs in the other European countries was favorable to a successful carrying out of this plan. France was busy with her July Revolution. England was already in the throes of the Reform Bill agitation. Thus, Russia considered herself free to seize the first suitable opportunity. In January 1833 this opportunity presented itself. The Egyptian Pasha mutinied, and the Sultan begged Russia for aid. A Russian fleet was immediately sent to the Bosphorus and 5000 marines were landed in Turkey.

In April of the same year, Count Orloff was sent to Constantinople. He was entrusted with extraordinary powers, and three months after he had landed he signed the famous Unkiar-Iskelessi Treaty, which virtually established a Russian protectorate over Turkey. The treaty contained six provisions, whereby a defensive league was formed between the two Empires, and a secret provision, in accordance with which Turkey was to refuse passage through the Straits to the fleet of any nation with which Russia would find herself in the state of war. The Russian warships were to be permitted to pass through the Straits into the Mediterranean.

The Treaty was to be in force for the period of eight years, but it lasted only until 1839. In that year, the Egyptian Pasha mutinied again. England and France immediately expressed their desire to take part in protecting Turkey. Austria also joined the league, with the obvious purpose of aiding to destroy the Russian protectorate over Turkey. The league succeeded in this, and the treaty of July 15, 1840, amended on July 13, 1841, virtually abrogated the treaty of 1833.

In accordance with the new treaty, England, France, Russia, and Austria assumed a joint protectorate over Turkey, and Russia's hope of achieving her purpose peacefully was shattered.

In 1848 came the great European Revolution. France was no longer to be considered, and Nicholas decided that the time was ripe for a definite understanding with England. He was already dreaming even of a division of the "spheres of influence." But England was suspicious of Russia and distrusted her. The Anglo-French coalition, consummated largely by Napoleon III., brought matters to a head, and a European War became inevitable. In 1854 an Anglo-French squadron entered the Straits, just as a much more powerful squadron, flying the same two flags, entered them sixty years later. Only, the first time, the Allies came to save Turkey from the encroachments of the "northern giant."

The treaty of Paris, signed after the termination of the Crimean War, brought Russia back to the position she was in before 1833. The Straits were once more closed to Russia, and she was deprived of her right of keeping a navy in the Black Sea. The powers signatory to the treaty again pledged themselves to preserve the territorial integrity of Turkey. As an English newspaper of that time characterized the results of the Crimean War, in so far as they affected the control of the Straits, "the pendulum swung to the left, then to the right, and again came to a dead stop."

In 1870, Alexander II. decided to remove the disgraceful restrictions upon the Russian freedom of the Black Sea. Again conditions in Europe favored such an action. France was occupied with her unfortunate war. Prussia was more than glad to acquiesce, considering this a cheap enough reward for Russia's neutrality. It was clear that England could not go to war alone. On October 31, Prince Gortchakov, the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent out a circular note to the European powers, declaring the restrictions imposed by the treaty of Paris invalid. This declaration was finally ratified by the European powers in 1891.

The revolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina brought on the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The Russian troops were again victorious and had already reached the very gates of Constantinople, when an English squadron appeared in the Straits and halted their triumphant march. The Congress of Berlin again closed the Straits to the warships of all nations. This clause, introduced by Bismarck, was obviously directed against Russia alone. The provisions of the Berlin treaty were in force until the present war.

Beginning with the last decade of the 19th Century, a new influence in Turkey came to assert itself. Germany evidently conceived the idea of making Asia Minor a direct continuation of the German Empire. It is very probable that the German plan of direct imperial expansion was through Austria-Hungary, the Balkans, Turkey and Asia Minor. Her policy of pushing Austria-Hungary farther and farther into the Balkans and thus using the tottering dual monarchy as a "cat's paw" for her scheme, seems to bear out this supposition.

Germany's work in Asia Minor began some years ago. Following a well-organized plan, she began to seize the political control at Constantinople, at the same time forcing her economic ascendency in Asia Minor and Mesopotamia. The building of the Bagdad railroad strengthened considerably her economic position there. But this action was interpreted by England as threatening the British supremacy on the Persian Gulf.

The English influence at Constantinople was rapidly being replaced by that of the Germans, until finally Turkey came to regard Germany as the only power in the world that could preserve her sovereignty. While it is true that the price of this "security" consisted in concessions and other economic advantages which the Germans were more and more insistent in demanding, the Turks of Abdul Hamid's reign, as well as under the Young Turks, considered the sacrifice worth the while. Little by little the influence at Constantinople drifted into the hands of the Germans, until finally Liman von Sanders became virtually the military governor of the Turkish capital.

Sixty years after the first gun boomed the opening of the Crimean War, an allied fleet, flying the flags of the Anglo-French coalition, dropped anchor before the forts of the Dardanelles. But it came to batter down the bulwarks of the German influence entrenched in the Turkish forts and to silence the great Krupp guns that have sent so many French and British warships to the bottom of the Straits.

The Western Allies came not merely because they were anxious to aid their Russian ally in its dire need. They are determined, at any cost, to save their colonies in North Africa from hostile incursions, which would have anything but a desirable effect upon the more or less restless native population.

But whatever be the motives that led to the Balkan campaign, Russia is vitally interested in its outcome. Her economic prosperity is inextricably bound up with the free use of this "latch-key to her house." The exportation of grain from Russia, which was forcibly interrupted by the closing of the Dardanelles at the beginning of the war, was one of the most profitable industries in Southern Russia. Its interruption has caused immense losses. The decrease, during the first six months, in the exports of the port of Marioupol alone, was about 280,000 tons of grain and 40,000 tons of coal. Moreover, the coal trade with Italy was entirely cut off.

The question of imports is even more important. The passage through the Dardanelles would mean an incalculable increase in Russia's military efficiency, as not only supplies, but trained officers and engineers are needed there. And, as far as the work of the whole Quadruple Entente is conerned, they would perhaps be much more useful in Russia than on the Western front.

The permanent results which full use of the Dardanelles would bring to Russia would be tremendous. Russia is ready for an economic expansion which will begin just as soon as she finds in her hands a suitable export base. In many ways Odessa is an ideal port for this purpose. It has excellent water and railway connections with the whole southern part of Russia, a region immensely rich in coal and iron, in fact the natural part of Russia for a rapid and successful industrial development.

The use of Odessa as a channel for import and export trade would inevitably bring the manufacturing center of Russia from the western and central parts of the country to the southern. These industries sprang up in Poland and the central provinces because of their proximity to, and their good railway connections with Germany, which was the main channel of the Russian export and import trade. The opening of Odessa for ocean transportation would free Russia forever from the main cause of the German economic domination.

There is little wonder therefore, that Germany has been, since the time of Bismarck, so determined to keep the Dardanelles closed to Russia. It seems entirely possible that Kaiser Wilhelm made the statement which is sometimes attributed to him: "We cannot allow Odessa to become a second Hamburg."

But Odessa means nothing and is worth nothing unless the key to it, the Straits of Dardanelles, is within Russia's reach. The moment Russia is assured free and undisputed passage through the Straits, however, Odessa would immediately acquire a new and tremendous importance. And not Odessa alone, but the whole country would undergo momentous changes as a result of this one historic change. One might almost say that the whole history of Russia would have to be written in different terms should this event take place.

Russia's economic development, which must necessarily come as the result of her acquisition of a good port, is bound to change entirely the whole political system of the country, which is even now undergoing rapid transformation. And beyond this changing structure stretches the vista of an inevitable social development which cannot but follow in the footsteps of economic and political progress.

The "latch-key to Russia" is still out of the hands of its natural owner. But, unless the readjustments which will follow the War leave Europe in a state of expectancy of another struggle, the control over the Dardanelles, complete, or, at least, sufficient to insure free passage, will, undoubtedly, form the important part of Russia's share of the War's spoils.