When the Russians occupied the Aegean

Russian and Greek academics presented, for the first time, primary sources and documents which explored the Russian occupation of the Aegean during 1768-1774, where Russian operations were carried out 230 years ago. In Naoussa on Paros, once a port for the Russian Aegean fleet (1770-1775), the conference on The Russian Presence in the Aegean Sea 1768-1774 took place almost unnoticed from 3-6 October. The presence of the Russian fleet in the Aegean was to prove decisive for the outcome of its expansionist policy, and the future of the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire. The constant appeals by the Orthodox component to the Russians – not only out of a sense of oppression but also because of fear of Catholicism, then enjoying greatly increased prestige due to the impressive victories of the Austrians in the years 1683-1698 – contributed to the conditions which would allow the territorial and economic expansion of the Russian Empire. During the Russian operations in the Aegean, almost all the Cycladic islands fell under Russian rule, in accordance with orders given by Catherine II of Russia. The inhabitants vowed fealty to the empire, which presented itself as the protector of the subject Christian peoples of the Balkans, giving the war the form of a crusade, Orthodoxy against Islam. Historical evidence that has come to light has ushered in close cooperation over once inaccessible state archives, thus increasing the prospects of reviewing and interpreting primary sources, of great value for periods that have been as little researched as the one in question. From this point of view, the initiative by the Institute of Political Sociology (at the National Center for Social Research) and the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Panteios University to get in touch with Russian historians, and specifically with the Russian Naval Archive at the Museum of St. Petersburg, is a milestone. Historians now have easier access to primary source material in the form of Russian administrative documents, thus lessening dependence on secondary sources. Historical knowledge has undergone a shift. The Russians now interpret the Orlov campaign not as a failure but as part of the overall modern plan for the territorial and economic expansion of Russia. The push by the Russians into the Mediterranean and the Aegean was not permanent in nature, thus it is characterized by the term presence – a presence that upset the status quo in the Aegean and which opened up a number of opportunities for the Russian and Greek peoples. The Orlov campaigns The naval campaign in the Mediterranean was inspired by Georgios Papzozis, from Siatista in Macedonia. But the scheme was actually carried out by the Russian aristocrats Gregory, Alexis, and Feodor Orlov. Three navy squadrons sailed into the Eastern Mediterranean via the English Channel and Gibraltar with the aim of distracting attention from an uprising in the Balkans. The fleet’s five-year adventures off the Peloponnese and in the Aegean, known as the Orlov campaigns, had positive results for the Russians, and in part for the Greeks, which resulted in the Russian naval victory at Cesme, the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji and the formation of the Black Sea fleet. The cost of the campaign was spectacular for the time. In those five years, 20 ships of the line, five frigates and nine transport ships were sent to the Aegean, wrote Eugene Tarle, an academic and top historian in political science and diplomacy. The costs of the mission amounted to 3,149,341 silver rubles, which did not include direct or indirect funding by the imperial fund for the hiring of top Russian and foreign officers and agents, nor were the taxes collected from the inhabitants of the Greek islands taken into account. With the occupation by the Russians of the Cyclades (including Paros, Antiparos, Andros, Tinos, Milos, Kimolos, Folegandros, Sikinos, Ios, Santorini, Amorgos, Myconos, Naxos, Delos, Syros, Kea, Kythnos, Serifos and Sifnos), society, demographics, administration and the economy underwent a transformation. This was to have a catalytic impact on the daily life of island communities. This state of affairs was particularly dissatisfactory to the Catholic inhabitants of Andros, Syros and Tinos. The fanaticism of the Orthodox against the Catholics created tensions, waves of emigration and the weakening of the Catholic communities, despite the Russians attempt to keep equal distance from each, as was said at the conference. However, Catherine’s policy aimed at the consolidation of Orthodoxy and Greek education, testified to by the establishment on Naxos of a Greek school, whose students fled to St. Petersburg after the Russians left the Aegean and continued their studies at the school for Orthodox students from other countries which was set up in 1775. The situation in the Aegean was further aggravated by piracy by Greek corsairs (mostly from the island of Psara, the Mani, and Sfakia on Crete) who robbed Greeks and Turks without distinction, and the influx of Greeks and Albanians mobilized by the Russians. The endless appeals by the islanders forced the Russians to order that the pirates be systematically hunted down. The changes due to Russian influence were observable in all Greek communities, both within the Ottoman Empire and the Greek diaspora; the participation of Greeks in the Russo-Turkish wars increased, their services to the Russian State and its war machine were extended, important privileges which facilitated commercial activities and shipping were granted, while decrees protected Greek communities and allowed them to grow in economic and social power. Range of subjects Academics from universities and institutes in Vienna, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Athens, Thessaloniki and Ioannina took part in the conference, which elaborated on the aims of Russian policy during the period: the plans to liberate the Greeks and Slavs, Catherine’s Greek scheme, the Aegean’s place in the Russo-Turkish conflict, European interrelations and tensions. Russian historians presented the fleet’s naval campaign and the contribution by Greek sailors, the occupation and administration of the Cyclades, as well as ports and billeting, where the naval forces stayed and how they survived, works such as harbors and fortifications, schools, infirmaries, hospitals and works generally to do with health, such as the lazarettos on Andros and Paros. New facts on former Aegean trade routes, commerce and piracy, handicrafts, commercial shipping, the agricultural world, culture and relations with local communities were announced at the conference. Of interest, because they came to light for the first time, were the descriptions of the island communities by the Russian authorities, the mementos of the naval campaign (from the Collection of the Central Naval Museum of St. Petersburg) the maps and the sketches of the archipelago, the depictions of the naval clashes, the ships’ logs – an important source – as well as the correspondence of Petrobey, Mavromichalis, Panin and Orlov through which the Russo-Turkish War unfolds.

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