During the first half of the 19th century Western Europe looked with growing interest at the other half of the Continent, and especially at the emergence of a large Slav world that the rest of Europe had never appreciated before in all its breadth and complexity. Naturally there had been long-standing relations with many of its peoples, especially for an Italy that faced both the Adriatic sea and the Danubian world, and thus found herself placed in a crucial geo-political arena close to them. (1) But, in practice, Russia herself, the most important Slav Power, had only recently been really "discovered" by the West as a result of the major role that it had played during the Napoleonic wars and because of the entrance of Tsarist armies in Paris, in Vienna, and in our Peninsula. Moreover, after the Congress of Vienna, Russia had itself become a Continental protagonist of the first order.
So now that matters had calmed down after the long period of disturbance, the Europe of the Restoration observed with increasing concern the revival of Russia's former expansionist tendencies, especially those towards the South and the West that recalled old fears. All this at a time when the entire Slav world--and thus also the smaller Slav peoples, whom other Europeans had only recently been getting to know and to study--was beginning to become the focus of increasing European attention. Only now, and partly as a result of the development of linguistic studies, were they being discovered as individual nations and yet also as nations all stemming from a single racial stock. The reactions to these discoveries oscillated from sympathy to interest to concern.
Both the big Western states that had already succeeded in constituting themselves as nations during the previous period, and also an Italy that was itself aspiring more than ever before to achieve its own unity and independence, soon showed themselves sensitive to the problems and expectations of a Slav world in ferment, in which there was growing national consciousness and growing demands for recognition of their specific identities, for autonomy and also for independence. And soon there began to be recognition that the Slav problem was much bigger than just those posed by the Magyars or the Romanians who were engaged in the fight for unity and independence against Austria and Turkey. In this case, they found themselves faced with a whole range of peoples posing problems on a large scale and the solutions to which would have profound implications for the "European equilibrium" that had been established at the Vienna Congress.
Would the Slav peoples work, above all, to establish their own distinct identities as separate Slav nations? Or would they instead search for a solution that would unify them in a single, huge nation? And, if the latter were to prevail, which of the Slav nations would succeed in acting as the coalescing force for the other "sisters"?
For centuries, Russia had essentially been closed in on itself. Since Peter the Great, it had had occasions to appear to Europe in a positive role, as a bulwark against Ottoman, Habsburg, and Napoleonic expansion; but now Nicholas I appeared as a real symbol of political and social conservatism. In the meantime, and after the harsh repression of the Thirties uprising, Polish emigres had widely publicized through the Continent a new sense of national consciousness and ever greater requirements for freedom.
Together with the still not yet extinguished echoes of the Crusade theme, and of the idea that Slavs could once more play a crucial role in the definitive removal of Turkey from the Continent, there was also persistent Western fear of the Russian giant. The East, the Slavic world, the new places where it was possible to exercise Europeans' Romantic taste for exoticism were now watched with a mixture of enthusiasm, hope and concern. After all, they were only now being truly "discovered" as a part of Europe. …