That Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway


Once upon a time the Russian Czars ruled a vast empire. In those days, Palestine was ruled by the Ottomans. One day a feud broke out among Christian sects in the Holy Land. The Armenians and the Orthodox had keys to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem but the Catholics did not, and they wanted one.

A petty squabble among distant infidels would hardly vex the Sultan’s court in Constantinople. Perhaps it penetrated Topkapi Palace as a trifle, as mere amusement. Taking their nargiles and gazing down on the Golden Horn, the effendis and the beys must have shrugged in wonder.

Except the real feud in Palestine went deeper than keys. The Orthodox Patriarch had moved from Constantinople to Jerusalem, so the Pope sent the Catholic Patriarch down there too. The French already had a diplomat there who agitated for the Catholic cause, and before long all the parties were joined in a second raucous quarrel, this one about renovating the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, just up the road from Bethlehem. Finally the exasperated Ottomans sent troops to separate the crazy, feuding monks.

Believing he was smoothing things over, the Sultan granted a set of keys to the Catholics. But Nicholas I, Czar of the Russians, took offense. He saw the Sultan favoring France at about the same time Napolean III was proclaiming the Second Empire, and Czars were no fans of Napoleans. Besides, the Czar had other issues with the Ottomans. Just now tough, mountain-dwelling Orthodox Montenegrins were rising up against the Sultan, and the Czar fashioned himself protector of the Orthodox in the Balkans.

So on orders from the Czar an old and arrogant Prince named Menshikov sailed from Russia across the Black Sea and demanded that within five days the Sultan publicly declare Russia’s right to protect the Orthodox subjects of the Sultan in Palestine and Montenegro – deep within his own empire.

The result was the Crimean War. In which Russia asserted its right to protect people in a separate, sovereign land.

The Czar ultimately lost the war to a European and Ottoman coalition, and some half a million people lost their lives.


The title of this post is the name of a new book subtitled Russia and the Communist Past by David Satter. Today’s little fairy tale comes thanks largely to Clive Ponting’s The Crimean War: The Truth Behind the Myth.

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