The Russian Review/Volume 1/June 1916/Russia and the Balkan Question

Russia and the Balkan Question  (1916) 
by Alexander Pogodin

Russia and the Balkan Question.

By Professor A. L. Pogodin.

University of Kharkov.

The significance of the present War, which must put an end to the constant danger that Germany's militaristic imperialism presents to the peaceful development of the world, lies in the fact that it must solve, once for all, the Balkan question. The substance of this question is as follows. The Balkan peninsula, except that portion of it which' is occupied by the Osmanli Turks and the handful of Albanians, is inhabited by nations related by bonds of religion and, in some cases, of racial descent with the Russian people. Now, Russia, as a state, has felt more and more acutely, with each decade of her political and economic development, the need of a free use of the Black Sea, which is navigable throughout the year. But the key to this passageway is in the hands of Turkey, and therefore the elimination of the Turkish power from Europe, which has ever been the aim of the Eastern Slavs, has become a question of prime importance for Russia.

The Dardanelles are for Russia the gateway to the West, to the highly cultured and civilized nations of Western Europe, with whom Russia is seeking more close and intimate relations. In this respect Russia's policies in her interest in Constantinople are exactly the reverse of the German policy, which is so well expressed by the phrase Drang Nach Osten. The face of Germany is turned towards the East; she aims to reach Asia Minor, to threaten Britain's age-long interests in India, Egypt, and the Levant. Thus Russia's foreign policy in the Near East conflicted not with British interests, but with those of Germany, which, in turn, were highly antagonistic to England and her position in Asia. It was a fortunate thing that England realized this in time, and the antagonism between her and Russia over the Balkan question became transformed into their united effort to bring about peace and order in the unfortunate Balkan peninsula.

Here, again, Russia's attempts in this direction came into sharp antagonism with the policies of Germany. What Russia wanted was a state of cordial and friendly relations among the Balkan peoples, a peaceful settlement of the Macedonian question, a general cultural uplifting in the Balkans. In short, the Balkan policy of Russia, England and France was along the lines of constructive work. On the other hand, it was to Germany's advantage to keep the Balkan nations at enmity among themselves, to play them off one against another, to decrease their power of resistance to the process of Germanization. Her activities there were based upon destructive work, for her aim was to erect her own might upon the ruins of the smaller nations of the Balkan peninsula.

The roots of the relations that bound Russian policies with the fate of Serbia in the present War stretch far back into the history of both nations. At the time that the Turks became complete masters of the Balkan Peninsula, Russia herself was just freed from the yoke of her oppressors, the Tartars, and was consolidating about the princedom of Moscow. Even at that time there were indications of the future greatness and might of the incipient state, and the eyes of Poland, Austria and Crimea were turned to it with considerable attention. When, after the middle of the sixteenth century, the Prince of Moscow began to conquer, one after another, the realms of Russia's erstwhile oppressors, Kazan, Astrakhan, Siberia, when he assumed the title of tsar, when the Metropolitan of Moscow was recognized by the whole Eastern Orthodoxy as one of the patriarchs, then the gaze of the submerged nationalities of the Balkan peninsula began to be turned towards the North, for they began to hope for liberation from that quarter. The Russian Tsars themselves came to consider the liberation of Serbs, Bulgars, Greeks, as well as the Roumanians of Moldavia and Walachia, as their historic duty. They kept up a lively intercourse with these peoples, spent large sums of money for the support of their churches, waged numerous wars against Turkey, and these wars were always difficult and burdensome, though not always successful.

It was only natural that in the minds of these oppressed peoples should grow the conviction that the Tsar of Moscow was their defender, and that their interests are closely interrelated with the interests of Russia. The idea of Pan-Slavism, which never had either a practical significance, or even a proper formulation, was, undoubtedly, something artificial and untrue to life, but this spirit of unity between the Balkan peoples and Russia has been a direct and natural outcome of the existing social and historical conditions. This spirit is deeply imbedded in the mind of the Russian people. The sympathy that the Russian peasant has for his smaller "brother" is not imaginary; the desire to save him from oppression on the part of anybody, whether Turkey or Germany, finds a sincere response not only in the peasantry, but in the other classes of the population as well.

The events of 1908, when the annexation by Austria of Bosnia and Herzegovina took place, constituting in itself a threat for an independent existence of Serbia, aroused Russia from one end to the other. During the Winter of 1908 and the Spring of 1909, the author of this article visited many cities of Russia, where he was invited by different organizations to speak on the Austro-Serbian question, and he can testify to the warm sympathies that all classes of the Russian people entertained towards Serbia. This sympathy and interest were based not only on a realization of Russia's historic attitude towards the Balkan Slavs, but also upon a widespread recognition of the fact that the affairs in the Balkans are of vital concern to Russia. At that time we still believed that Bulgaria would not prove to be such a traitor to Russia as she has shown herself to be, that she would not prove herself unworthy of that liberty which was won for her by Russia at the price of bloody sacrifices. We knew that Russia's diplomacy in Bulgaria was not always what it should have been and that our diplomatic mistakes were utilized to utmost advantage by the representatives of Berlin and Vienna in order to represent Russia as an enemy of Bulgaria. But we also knew that Russia's policy in Poland was infinitely more mistaken, that, while the Poles had ample ground for a possible antagonism to Russia, the Bulgars had to imagine and invent their grievances. And yet, the Poles have remained loyal to Russia and to the Slavs in this historic crisis; their sense of state wisdom told them that it is only in a renovated Russia that they will find a solution of their historic problems. The Bulgars did not realize this, and perpetrated the deed of Cain, prompted by a mirage of the conquest of Macedonia, and an opportunity of wreaking bloody and cruel vengeance upon half-crushed Serbia.

Russia is not seeking any territorial aggrandizement in the Balkans, in the kingdoms of Serbia, Roumania, Bulgaria, or Greece. Any extension of her territory would detract from, rather than add to, her strength, for it would require additional expenditure of those forces which are needed for constructive work within the country itself. Russia is not interested primarily in converting the Balkans into her market, as Germany and Austria have so often asserted. Russia's own, home market is so enormous and so undeveloped as to require the whole attention of her industrial and commercial classes for many years to come. Thus, what Russia wants is neither the territory nor the money of the Balkan countries. She wants these countries to be free and strong and civilized and friendly among themselves, for upon their strength and their mutual friendship rests Russia's influence in the East. And in so far as Russia, with the aid of her Allies, will succeed in this, her mission in the Balkans will be one of good, not of evil; of culture, not of disruption.