It’s some while since I last did a post on the links between Greece and Russia, so I am going to pick up the theme again with this post about the Orlov Revolt in the 1770s. This was an attempt by Greek exiles in Russia, supported by Catherine the Great, to foment an overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece.
One of the interesting aspects of this episode in Greek history is that some of its key scenes took place in Messinia, an area of the Peloponnese that I know a little, and specifically the harbours of Koroni, Methoni and Pylos.
It’s hard to find good material about the Orlov Revolt, so I am indebted to David Brewer’s book, Greece, the Hidden Centuries (2010) for the main lines of what happened.
The idea of a revolt against Ottoman rule was first raised in Russia in 1762 by Giorgos Papazolis, an artillery officer. Given leave of absence from the army, he went first to Venice and then on to Greece in 1766 to canvas support for the idea of an uprising, promising that the Turks would be overthrown and the Byzantine empire re-established.
Papazolis involved two brothers in the scheme, Aleksei and Fyodor Orlov. Aleksei had distinguished himself in the service of Catherine the Great by deposing and then murdering Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III. Fyodor was a distinguished general. It may be that their involvement with the Greek cause came as a result of the views of a third Orlov brother, Grigory, who advocated Greek Christian freedom from Ottoman rule.
Since the seventeenth century Russia had three key objectives to its foreign policy: to gain access to the Baltic (achieved through Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg); to acquire land to its western border as a buffer; and to gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Curiously it was the second of these, rather than the third which sparked conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 Catherine managed to have her favourite, Stanislav Poniatovsky elected to the crown of Poland, to the outrage of the Polish nobility who appealed to France and the Ottomans for help. When Russia ignored an ultimatum to withdraw, the Ottomans declared war.
It was at this point that the Orlov brothers, Aleksei and Fyodor went to Venice to raise money and volunteers for a Greek revolt. In 1769 Catherine the Great made Aleksei Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces involved in the rebellion. Whilst he was still in Livorno on a separate mission for Catherine, his brother, Fyodor, arrived with the first Russian fleet of 9 ships and 60 men at the harbour of Itilo in the Mani (having for various reasons already lost 10 of the ships with which he had left the Baltic).
Fyodor established two armies under Russian command, called the Eastern and Western Legions. The Eastern Legion besieged Mystras in March 1770 until it surrendered after nine days, leading to the slaughter of 1,000 Turks and the capture of a further 1,000. One of its main achievements was also to set up a provisional government under Antonios Psaros.
The Western Legion’s main task was to join up with the Russian ships that were besieging the port of Koroni which the Russians wanted as a base for their fleet. Koroni was defended by a large fortress built by the Venetians which, following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, had enabled to hold out against the Turks until 1500. The Russian siege of Koroni, led by Fyodor Orlov, lasted for six weeks and achieved nothing.
Some other parts of Greece joined in the revolt, mainly Corinth, Patras, Nauplio, Monemvasia, Kiparisia and Crete. In the meantime Orlov was sending reports back to the Russian court claiming to be in control of the whole of the Peloponnese.
However, at this point, as the Ottomans were being pressed by the Russians on other fronts outside of Greece they resorted to using Albanian mercenaries to relieve the sieges in Corinth, Patras and Tripolis. The Albanian mercenaries managed to raise the siege of Tripolis but then turned on the Greeks, slaughtering 3,000.
The Russians succeeded in capturing Navarino Bay, a great natural, sheltered harbour at Pylos.
At last in April 1770 Aleksei Orlov arrived in the Peloponnese and attempted to rally the Greek leaders by addressing them “all Orthodox Christian Greeks who are subject to the tyranny of the Turks”, promising them the Russians wanted the Greeks “to remain always under her care and protection”. But it was too little, to late. In May Aleksei Orlov attempted and failed to capture the fortress at Methoni.The Albanian mercenary forces started moving south from Tripolis to restore order, and the game was up. Many people in Messinia fled towards the Russian fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay seeking escape on the Russian ships, until Aleksei Orlov, closed the gates. He had by then decided to withdraw from Greece and abandon the Revolt, and on 6 June the Russian fleet set sail, leaving behind many thousands of Greek refugees to face the consequences.
For the next nine years the Albanian mercenaries devastated the Peloponnese, claiming they had not been paid. It is estimated that c.20,000 Greeks were seized and sold as slaves and a further 50,000 Greeks (about one sixth of the pre-Revolt population of the Peloponnese) fled to the Ionian Islands, Italy, other parts of Europe and to Russia (especially Crimea and Odessa). It was not until 1779 that the Ottomans were able to restore order in the Peloponnese.
The Russo-Turkish war was eventually brought to an end with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The war had inflicted serious setbacks for the Ottoman Empire on land and sea and the peace treaty brought Russia significant land gains in the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and North Caucasus. In addition it gave Russia status as official protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.
The outcome for Greece was a disaster: large parts of the Peloponnese were devastated, thousands of Greeks, Turks and Albanians were killed and a large proportion of the Greek population forced into exile. However, there were two key learnings that came out of it that were applied fifty years later in 1821 during the Greek War of Independence.
The first is that in order for independence to be achieved, there had to be a political structure in the form of a provisional government, to provide direction, consensus and cohesion amongst the rebel forces. Second, it provided a clear warning of the dangers of allowing foreign powers to interfere in Greek affairs. During the Orlov Revolt it became clear to the Greeks that they were at risk of swapping Ottoman rule for Russian overlords and this bred a distrust of the intentions of other countries’ support for Greek independence.