Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500-1800

By Agoston, Gabor | Kritika, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Military Transformation in the Ottoman Empire and Russia, 1500-1800


Agoston, Gabor, Kritika


By the early 16th century, the Ottoman Empire had emerged as a major military power in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. The Ottomans were feared and admired by contemporaneous Europeans from Niccolo Machiavelli to Ivan Peresvetov. The latter regarded the empire of Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444-46, 1451-81) as a model to be emulated by his own ruler, Ivan IV of Muscovy (r. 1547-84), and indeed Ottoman (and Islamic, Mongol) methods of resource mobilization and warfare were taken into consideration during the military reforms of Ivan III (r. 1462-1505) and Ivan IV. Yet by 1783, the Ottomans had lost the northern Black Sea littoral and the Crimea, an Ottoman client state with a predominantly Muslim population, to the Russians. Writing his advice to Sultan Mahmud I (r. 1730-54) in 1732, Ibrahim Muteferrika, the founder of the first Arabic-letter printing press in the empire and an ardent proponent of Ottoman reforms, cited the military reforms of Peter the Great (r. 1682-1725) as an example worthy of imitation. Ivan Peresvetov's and Ibrahim Muteferrika's contrasting opinions reflect major shifts in Ottoman and Russian military fortunes, changes that await explanation.

Military historians of Central and Eastern Europe have long been obsessed with the European "military revolution" as observed in certain parts of Western Europe and have tried to measure military developments in their regions against those in Western Europe. (1) This article argues that comparing and contrasting Ottoman, Austrian Habsburg, Polish-Lithuanian, and Muscovite/Russian military capabilities, performance, and transformations can be just as fruitful as comparing these empires to those of the leading states of the European military revolution. (2) Comparisons of strategies of recruitment and resource mobilization, as well as of bureaucratic-fiscal developments, help us better understand the divergent paths these empires' governments took, and thus the nature of their empires. Such comparisons also help us qualify both the military-revolution approach and its more recent critique that uses cultural arguments. Based ultimately on Weberian assumptions that war acted as a catalyst for political and social change, the military-revolution approach views war "as a force driven by its own internal dynamics of technological developments and organizational innovation," which led to force optimization and thus greater military effectiveness. The cultural argument counters these assumptions with its claim that war ultimately is "culturally determined" and is a product of the cultural context of specific societies. According to this assumption, "the degree to which a technological or organizational innovation is accepted and developed depends upon the cultural context." (3)

This article is the first attempt at comparing Ottoman and Russian military capabilities from circa 1500 through 1800. My main focus is on military, fiscal, and bureaucratic-institutional transformations and on the changing role of the central government in warmaking. The article pays special attention to the following questions: How did recruitment strategies and methods of resource mobilization change? Were the changes the result of planned reforms or a response to internal and/or external challenges? What causal connections existed between changes in the composition and effectiveness of the armed forces and changes in the relationship between rulers and their elites? Since these questions will ultimately require a monograph or two, the present article's aim is to introduce the questions and give preliminary answers to some of them.

The main argument set forth here is that whereas in the patrimonial Ottoman Empire of the 16th century, the sultan and his central government had more control over their empire's resources and the means of organized violence than their Muscovite counterparts, by the 18th century Istanbul lost its edge over St. Petersburg. Despite its failure in the 1711 Pruth campaign, by the early 18th century Russia had considerably strengthened its military capabilities vis-a-vis the Ottomans due to a series of autocratic military, bureaucratic, and fiscal policies, some of which were devised and implemented as responses to Tatar and Ottoman threats or introduced as imitations of Ottoman military--bureaucratic practices. …

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