How Crimea Turned Russian

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Vyacheslav Lopatin


On 8 April, 1783, Russian Empress Catherine II signed the decree “On Accession of the Crimean Peninsula, the Taman Island and the Kuban Region to the Russian Empire.” Everyone was due to maintain the document in secrecy until the integration became a fait accompli.

On 28 June, 1783, the Manifesto was finally promulgated as the Crimean nobles swore allegiance to the Empress in the presence of Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin. This ceremony was held on top Ak-Kaya. The transition was smooth and peaceful, but this triumph was preceded by years of political friction and strife in which Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin, the Empress’s right-hand man in all her endeavors, had played the first fiddle.

The Genghis Khan Descendant

In 1774, after concluding the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca with the Ottoman Empire, Russia was entitled to build fortresses in the Crimea. The Crimean Khanate, which apart from the Crimea included Taman and Kuban, was proclaimed independent. However, in 1775, the Ottoman Porte managed to enthrone its supporter Devlet Giray and to make him the supreme ruler. Russian diplomacy counted on Şahin Geray, another representative of the ruling dynasty, who had come into spotlight during his nine-months’ stay in St.Petersburg. He arrived in the capital on a diplomatic mission to discuss the agreement between Russia and Crimea.

In her letter to Voltaire – those letters were addressed to the broad European public rather than to the philosopher per se – the Russian Empress commended the young Genghis Khan scion as a smart young man, keen on learning and ready to launch reforms in the Khanate, the free land “by the grace of God and Russian military force”. By that time Şahin Geray had the title of the Kalga-Sultan and was the Steward of the Khan among the Nogai tribes that roamed Taman and Kuban.

In early 1776, Field Marshal Pyotr Rumyantsev, governor of Little Russia, informed Petersburg about Khan Devlet Giray’s plan to restore the Ottoman protectorate over the Khanate. Şahin Geray and his supporters appealed to Russia for help. They called for decisive actions. In October General Rumyantsev received the authorities’ directives and ordered the troops of Prince Alexander Prozorovskiy to take over Perekop. Major General Ivan Brink, Commander of the Kuban Forces, was given the command to have Şahin Geray elected Khan of the Nogai nomadic hordes. Soon Alexander Suvorov was sent to the Crimea on Potemkin’s initiative. Thus, being an ally of Russia, the enlightened Genghis Khan descendant was put on the Crimean throne.

However, only six years later his authority was challenged. The Crimea witnessed growing unrest and the riot broke out. By that time Prince Potemkin, who had focused on border control, was implementing his strategy in contemplation of a new war with Turkey. He had dispatched troops and established supply bases in Novorossia. He sped up the construction of shipyards in Kherson, the then main base of the nascent Russian Black Sea Fleet. Prince Potemkin also mediated important negotiations. His representative Dr. Jacob Reynegs arrived in Tbilisi to hand over a draft treaty to establish Russian protectorate over Georgia to King Irakli II. The relations with the Sublime Porte soured, but the ties were already too strained to postpone vital political decisions.

The riots which erupted among the Nogai hordes in Kuban, spilled over to the Crimea in May 1782. The Khan’s Guard abandoned him. Şahin Geray fled Bakhchisarai to go first to Cafu (now Feodosia). Then the Russian ship sailed him to Kerch, where the Russian troops had long been stationed. During his stay there he kept sending pleas to St. Petersburg asking for assistance and protection. Gregory Potemkin advocated unqualified support for Şahin Geray as Russia’s important ally. The Prince rallied troops and waited for the absconding ruler in Peter’s Fortress (now Berdyansk). He planned to seize the Crimea. Meanwhile, Batyr Geray, Şahin Geray’s elderly brother was proclaimed Khan. By that time he had already called on the Ottoman Empire to throw him a lifeline. Yakov Bulgakov, Russian Ambassador to Istanbul, informed the authorities that a pasha of three tails had been sent to Taman to cajole the Nogai tribes into embracing the Turkish rule.

“Do not Execute Individuals”

On August 7, 1782, Etienne-Maurice Falconet’s monument to Peter the Great was unveiled. The inscription on the pedestal ran “To Peter the Great from Catherine the Great”. It was commissioned by the Empress to clearly symbolize continuity of the Empress’ policy. Russia kept following its Black Sea direction.

Prince Potemkin left the capital to arrive in the south on September 15. On September 22 he was due to meet the rattled leader. Potemkin comforted Şahin Geray with a personal message from the Empress, who regarded the coup as illegitimate and announced her decision to send the Russian troops to the Crimea to restore him to power, despite the risk of sparking the open armed conflict with the Porte.

On September 27 General-Lieutenant Anton de Balmain was ordered to capture the peninsula. “On invading the Crimea and taking whatever steps necessary to return Şahin Geray to power – Potemkin wrote, – treat the locals gently. Use weapons if needed, especially against most rebellious and unruly ones, but do not execute ordinary people. Let the Khan execute his subjects himself should he have failed to follow the Empress’ suit and to develop the leniency and compassion our Empress is typified by. Should the people voice their strong desire to be under rule of Her Imperial Majesty, say that apart from offering the Khan assistance, you are not authorized to take any further steps and inform me swiftly about the occurrence. I expect frequent messages about the developments on the ground and the Khan’s actions. Pray impart your thoughts and comments about the locals’ sentiments and I encourage you again to treat them kindly”.

On overcoming the slight resistance, Russian troops invaded the Crimea. The rebels fled. Hearing about Şahin Geray’s return, many of them rushed to uphold the “legitimate Khan.” Jakub Rudzevich, a Russian diplomat in the Crimea, notified Potemkin about bringing order to the peninsula and pacifying ordinary people. In those letters he also wrote about the requests of the murzas (the elite) who took part in the revolt against the Khan to protect them from his wrath. Rudzevich concluded his message, stressing that “no one would have bowed to Şahin Geray had it not been for Russian troops.”

Meanwhile, Yakov Bulgakov had to mount a tough diplomatic offensive in Istanbul. The Ottoman government sought clarification because of the violations of the Crimean Khanate’s sovereignty. The Reesefendi (Foreign Minister) made a public statement that the Crimean people hated Şahin Geray and suggested sending Russia’s and Porte’s commissioners to investigate the population’s opinions. Bulgakov resisted the step. He stated that while the legitimately elected Khan recognized by both empires was alive, those trying to topple him would be considered rebels. In a report to Petersburg the diplomat highlighted that the ruling elite of the Ottoman Empire was hesitating, but the lack of money, a weak government and other reasons, including Austria’s staunch backing of Russia, would compel them to give up the idea.

In sum, peace was reestablished in the Crimea. Khan Şahin Geray showed his most effusive gratitude to the Empress. He wrote Potemkin flattering letters full of praise for his nephew, Major-General Alexander Samoylov, who commanded the forward echelons during the Crimean military campaign. The Khan also noted the excellent discipline of the Russian troops “which never insulted or harassed any of his subjects.”

Shortly afterwards, Şahin Geray sought revenge – just as Potemkin had predicted – and ordered numerous executions of his fellow-men. He spared the lives of his own brothers Batyr Geray and Arslan Geray only with Russia’s intercession. Still, his rule was foredoomed to failure and his own fate sealed.

In late October 1782, Prince Potemkin travelled back to St. Petersburg. On his way, which took at least two weeks, he pondered a memorandum on the need to make the Crimea Russian. Potemkin thoroughly analyzed the repercussions. He gave an objective analysis which persuaded Catherine the Great that the time had come for decisive actions.

Russia’s Taurida 

The international situation advantaged Russia. Having suffered heavy losses in North America, Great Britain concluded a preliminary peace treaty with the United States. Anti-Russian intrigues of Prussian diplomats were counterbalanced by Austria’s support. Yakov Bulgakov reaffirmed that the Sublime Porte was not prepared for war. Eventually, on December 14, 1782, the Empress signed her secret rescript to Potemkin that obliged the Prince to implement all the necessary measures to incorporate the Crimean Khanate into the Russian Empire.

On January 20, 1783, Potemkin ordered Duke de Balmain to occupy the coast of the Akhtiarskaya Bay. The Russian leaders were keeping in mind that several years ago the powerful Ottoman fleet tried to block the peninsula while threatening to wreak destruction on Russian ships. Vice Admiral Fedot Klockachev received Potemkin’s order to rally all the vessels in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and then enter the Akhtiarskaya Bay.

In spring 1783, it was decided that Potemkin should leave for the south to be in charge of the accession process. On April 8, Catherine the Great signed the manifesto “On Accession of the Crimean Peninsula, the Taman Island and the Kuban Region to the Russian Empire”, which she had drawn up together with Prince Potemkin. This document was supposed to be kept under wraps until the Crimea became part of Russia. Meanwhile, without a delay Potemkin headed for the peninsula.

It took several months to prepare Şahin Girey’s abdication. First, he was given a few subtle hints about the prospects of taking the Persian throne. The Crimean Prince was hesitant to take the plunge. But as soon as his Crimean murzas voiced their intention to become Russian subjects, he realized that in any case, he would fail to remain in power. Sergey Loshkarev, Russia’s resident in the Crimea and one of the smartest members of Potemkin’s cabal, was carefully tracking the Khan’s sentiments. After a while, Şahin Girey was proposed to move to Russia. The Order of St. Andrew the Apostle the First-Called, the highest award for the most outstanding civilian or military merit, and a generous allowance, were small compensation for his unhappy fate.

On May 5, Catherine II let Potemkin know about receiving his letter from Krychaw or Krichev, a city in the Mogilev region. “From all your letters I can conclude that the Crimean Prince has given up the throne. There should be no regrets about it. However, command your people to treat him gently and with great kindness as if he were still a ruler and also give him everything which he is entitled to, because I will not change my attitude towards him”. As we may see, the Khan’s renunciation of authority caught everybody by surprise. Having arrived in Kherson, Potemkin engaged in the negotiations with Şahin Girey. On May 16, he elaborated on these talks as follows: “Now it is essential to remove the Khan from the Crimea, which, from my perspective, is quite easy. Similarly, the accession of the peninsula in the Power of Your Most Gracious Majesty is unlikely to be troublesome”.

Generally, Potemkin’s predictions turned out to be accurate, apart from the first point. Having abdicated, Şahin Girey started to play pranks by delaying his departure from the Crimea under different pretexts. He counted on the strained atmosphere that would make the Russian government restore his rule only to abandon the idea of incorporating the Crimea at a later stage.

Having assessed the state of affairs, Potemkin massed the troops. Then through his agents he started encouraging the Khanate’s establishment to submit to the will of the Russian Empire. Crimea’s social groups, numerically strong and powerful entities, were willing to give their allegiance to Russia to avert endless political infighting. In Kuban, after receiving Potemkin’s orders, Suvorov got hold of fortifications of the former Kuban line and was ready to administer the Nogai tribes’ oath on the day set by Potemkin, that is on June 28, Catherine’s accession day.

“The Crimea’s fate has been decided…”

On June 5, the Empress sent a special award to Şahin Girey – the blue ribbon of the Order of St. Andrew with an oval medallion framed in diamonds and with the word “Fidelity” inscribed, a jeweled star of the same order but without the usual cross, since the former Khan was not a Christian. Importantly, this decoration was designed to ensure his amenability. Despite that, Catherine the Great still was disconcerted by the forthcoming events. “I impatiently await from you news about completion of the Crimean affair”, she informed Potemkin; “please take it before the Turks succeed in twisting the Tatars into resistance to you”. And again on June 29, 1783, she wrote her Governor that “news is coming in of the fact that the Turks are arming themselves to the teeth, but for some time our friends will prevent them from going to war” and she hoped that “by now the fate of the Crimea has been decided, for you write that you are going there”.

Actually, the future Prince of Taurida was playing it safe. Russia’s troops occupied strategically important territories in the Crimea. The Khan was about to leave the peninsula. Potemkin’s propaganda campaign was fruitful as everything had been prepared for Catherine to rejoice over the oath of submission by the Crimea. And suddenly the threat of plague brought in from the island of Taman emerged. In this case, Potemkin displayed his administrative skills and courage. On horseback he headed to the Crimea in order to introduce tough measures against the spread of the disease on the ground. Now it became much more complicated to keep in touch with him. On July 10, the Empress conveyed the following message to Potemkin: “It is very long since, my dear friend, I had letters from you. I think that you have left for the Crimea; I apprehend your illness, God be with you and protect you from it. From Tsargrad I received the trade treaty completely signed, and Bulgakov says that they know about the occupation of the Crimea, only nobody will crow about it, and they themselves seek to extinguish the rumors. An amazing affair! <…> I would like to admit that I am longing to hear news from you. I beg you in all ways to mind your health”.

Within 5 days Catherine’s desperation reached its peak. “You can imagine how anxious I must be having no news from you for more than five weeks”, she criticized Potemkin; “moreover, baseless rumors are circulating everywhere, and I have nothing to silence them with. I expected the occupation of Crimea by mid-May at the latest and now it is mid-July and I know no more about it than the Pope. Inevitable rumors are rife, which I confess tortures me. I implore you to report more frequently. <…> Hither arrive all sorts of tales about the distemper; by frequent messages you will calm my spirit. I cannot write in another way: neither I nor anyone knows where you are. I am sending the letter to Kherson at random”.

Before Potemkin still had obtained this information, his couriers were heading to Saint Petersburg to dispatch the letter of July 10. The Prince informed the Empress that the Crimean murzas had submitted to Russia’s will and swore allegiance and that within three days others were to follow suit. In the end, Potemkin modestly told Catherine about his illness: “Only God knows how I have worn myself out. In fact, I have to be embroiled in many activities, and I need to move from place to place. At Kherson I fell gravely ill and despite my weakness, I left for the Crimea. Now, praise God, I am better. Plague is raging around the camp, but God still protects me”.

Officially, on that day Potemkin reported about Kuban’s locals swearing an oath. Two largest groups – the Nogai Yedisan and Zhemboyluk Hordes – took an oath of allegiance to Russia. Near Yeysk Suvorov personally took the Crimean murzas and beys’ oath of loyalty to the Russian state and then the Nogai-style festivities took place. Within five to six days, on the outskirts of Kopyl (Kuban), Lieutenant-Colonel Ivan Leshkevich, a Russian agent among Nogai tribes, administered the oath of the major murzas and beys of the biggest Edichkul horde comprising four generations with more than 30 thousand so called kazans (that is, families). Swearing the oath to Russia was also successful in upper Kuban.

On fulfilling his duty, happy Prince Potemkin enthusiastically wrote Catherine about fertile lands and abundant harvests in the Crimea. He asked the Empress to give preferences to local residents, advised her to funnel money to supporting mosques, schools and fountains, with the aim of “pleasing Mohammedans”. By that time Potemkin had managed to draw a topographic map of the Crimea and get familiar with the Akhtiarskaya Bay in order to create a new navy base, future Sevastopol. On August 5, one more letter was delivered to Saint Petersburg. The Prince informed Her Majesty that the Kingdom of Georgia had accepted Russian protection a few days later with the Treaty of Georgievsk. “Milady, Mother of all Russians, my foster-mother, the Georgia business is also brought to an end. Has any other Sovereign contributed so much to the splendor of the epoch as you have? But it is not all brilliance. It is of much benefit to the state”. And on December 28, 1783, Turkish Sultan Abdülhamid I formally recognized Russia’s sovereignty over the Crimea. The glorious diplomatic victory of Russian diplomat Yakov Bulgakov underpinned the outcomes of the long fight for the Crimean Khanate.

This article first appeared in the Istorik journal.

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