Magazine article Russian Life

Pyrrhic Defeat: Congress of Paris, 1856

Magazine article Russian Life

Pyrrhic Defeat: Congress of Paris, 1856

Article excerpt

IN FEBRUARY 1856, representatives of most major (and some minor) European powers gathered in Paris: Russia, France, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia. The main purpose of the Congress of Paris was to bring an end to the Crimean War, but its ramifications went much further. It put in place a new system of international relations.

In 1853, when Nicholas I set out on a path toward war with Turkey, he was certain of victory and of Russia's unshakable prominence within Europe. During the decades since Napoleon's defeat, Russia had been one of Europe's undisputed leaders. The Holy Alliance of Europe's great monarchies had largely been brought about by his brother, Tsar Alexander I, who had regularly attended Holy Alliance congresses to take part in discussions of the most diverse economic and political issues affecting Europe, and, on occasion, decisions to militarily intervene in one country or another that was tottering on the brink of revolution.

After Nicholas succeeded Alexander, he long labored under the impression that the balance of power in Europe, once so nicely poised in Russia's favor, had not changed. He failed to notice (or simply ignored) the intensifying competition among the European countries, and how Russia's growing presence in the Caucasus, along the Black Sea coast, and in the Balkans, had soured relations with England and Austria. Although he must have known that Russia's enduring autocracy was frowned upon by much of Europe, he relished this distinction from his Western neighbors and liked to emphasize that his domain was free of revolutionary unrest, that in Russia stability reigned (a talking point still popular with Russian leaders).

Nicholas always saw himself as a dyed in the wool soldier and took pride in his army. Surely, it need fear no enemy (especially Turkey, which he hardly considered a worthy adversary). He spent hours each day managing his incredibly bloated bureaucracy and was certain that everything in the Russian state was under his control. Things could not have been going better.

Nicholas was in for a surprise.

In going to war with Turkey, Russia assumed it would secure for the empire much of the Black Sea coast and assure access to the Turkish Straits. The pretext for conflict was a dispute involving Christian sites in the Holy Land (then under Ottoman control), when a Russian diplomat demanded that the Orthodox community be granted exclusive use of the keys to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. Prince Menshikov was dispatched to Istanbul and given unofficial instructions to be provocatively rude in this country where etiquette is especially valued. As predicted, war was not averted, and the Russian navy had little difficulty destroying the Turkish fleet.

But then England, France, and Sardinia rushed to Turkey's aid, and the Austrian emperor, on whose support, as a fellow autocrat, Nicholas had counted, took the other side.

It turned out that Russian arms were not as effective as English and French weaponry, that Russia's sail-powered warships were outmaneuvered by English steamships, that (given the state of Russian roads) it was impossible to quickly deploy troops and arms, and that the effort to supply the army was plagued by cormption. Despite the heroic actions of the Russian military, Russia lost the Crimean War.

We do not know what Nicholas I was thinking when he died in 1855. His profound depression was obvious, and rumors that he had taken his own life circulated in St. …

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