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The 160-Year Christian History Behind What's Happening in Ukraine
Image: Rumlin / Wikimedia Commons

In recent days, the Crimean peninsula has been at the heart of what some have described as the greatest international crisis of the 21st century. But this is not the first time the region has been so critical to international affairs. Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists.

If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover—without a sense of its Christian background—we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.

Given its date, that religious emphasis may seem wildly anachronistic. This was, after all, a highly modern struggle between the Great Powers of the day: Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia. The war was fought with highly modern technology, including railroads and telegraphs, not to mention deadly artillery. Some 800,000 died, almost half from disease—at least as many fatalities as in the American Civil War of the next decade.

Yet the war's causes seem to belong to a strictly pre-modern era, and Orlando Figes' excellent recent history calls this The Last Crusade. As in medieval times, the war grew out of the situation of Christians under Muslim rule in the Middle East, and specifically the control of Jerusalem's holy places.

From the 15th century, the dominant Muslim power was the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled over millions of Christians—Armenians, Greeks, Slavs, and others. As Ottoman power crumbled, European Christian nations pressed hard on its shrinking borders, annexing its territory. From the 1770s, the main predator was Orthodox Russia, which soon established its control of the Black Sea region and pushed into the Caucasus. The Russians also demanded and won the right to protect the holy places, which were to be under Orthodox supervision.

Given time, the Russians would undoubtedly have snapped up the whole Ottoman realm if other powers, especially Britain, had not dreaded the creation of a Russian superpower stretching from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. In effect, Britain became the protector and guarantor of the corrupt and failing Ottoman regime. This international balance of terror allowed the Ottoman Empire to drag on its existence into the 20th century.

That status quo was destabilized in 1852 with the accession of a new French regime under Napoleon III, who had initially seized power in a coup d'état. Facing deep divisions at home, and desperate to prove his legitimacy, he sought to increase his prestige by provoking an international crisis. He did so by exploiting Orthodox–Catholic battles in Jerusalem, gruesome and grossly undignified street-fights led by clergy on both sides, which sometimes erupted into full-scale riots.

In 1846, one such clerical rumble left 40 dead. In 1853, Napoleon demanded that the Ottomans place the holy places under the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and backed up his demands by a naval expedition. We need not go too deeply into the tortuous diplomacy that followed, except to say that war broke out in October 1853. But yes, indeed, even in the age of steam power and the industrial revolution, half of Europe really did go to war over religious grievances.

Looking back at European history, it's all too easy to assume that the religious role in politics and warfare died out much earlier than it really did. We might, for instance, assume that Europe's religious wars ended in 1648, with the closure of the Thirty Years War. But most of the continent's states were avowedly Christian right up to the First World War and beyond, and most practiced some form of church establishment. When wars did erupt, governments and churches framed their nation's cause in religious and even apocalyptic terms, depicting their (usually Christian) enemies as the spawn of Satan. In England, the Crimean War was the last for which the government formally proclaimed national days of prayer, fasting, and humiliation.

The great exception to this general picture of church establishment was France, where Republican secularist traditions were so strong. Yet it was Napoleon III's France that assumed the role of Catholic crusader, at the cost of soaking the continent in blood. Long after the Enlightenment, we neglect the Christian role in European politics and statecraft at our peril.

This was nowhere more true than in Tsarist Russia, where—right up to 1917—politics never lost their apocalyptic and messianic character. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453, Muscovite Russia took up that mantle. Two Romes had fallen, proclaimed the Tsars, a third stands, and a fourth will never be. As the Third Rome, Moscow was heir to the hopes that surrounded the glorious Byzantine name, including the dreams and visions presented in such texts as the Apocalypse of Daniel. In this apocryphal tradition, a future Constantine would liberate the Orthodox Christian world from the Sons of Hagar, who were increasingly identified as the Muslim Ottomans. At the height of the Turkish wars in the 1770s, Catherine the Great christened one of her grandsons Constantine.

Through the 19th century, even seemingly rational and cynical Russian statesmen maintained this concept of the messianic nation, destined to defend Orthodoxy against Muslims and Catholics alike. Nothing would prevent that empire from freeing Christians in the Balkans and then extending its power over Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine. The words of Pseudo-Daniel still guided Russian actions in 1914.

Obviously, Russian policies reflected both religious and secular motives, and both forces combined inextricably to drive this Russian version of manifest destiny. When the Russians annexed the Crimea in 1783, they did so because of the enormous opportunity to project their power into the Black Sea region, and also because they could now build warm-water naval bases. Nineteenth-century Odessa became a boom city, a Russian counterpart to San Francisco, and Sevastopol was a mighty naval fortress. But Russians also knew that extending their power on what had been those Muslim lands proved the truth of their fundamental religious/national vision. And in the 1850s, they perceived the deadly political and religious threat when foreign forces invaded the Crimea, that now-reconquered holy territory.

Tsarist power is long gone, and the Soviet regime that succeeded it had no time for mystical visions. Yet, as that Soviet idea perished in its turn, Russians have turned once more to the religious roots of national ideology. Post-Soviet regimes have worked intimately with the Orthodox Church, which has been happy to support strong government and to consecrate national occasions. In return, the state has helped the church rebuild Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries aplenty. For 20 years now, both state and church have even labored to reconstruct the once potent Russian presence in the holy places themselves, now of course under Israeli political control.

Why are we surprised to see this new holy Russia extend its protecting arm over the Christian-backed Ba'athist regime in Syria? Russian regimes have been staking a claim to guard that region's Christians for 250 years.

It would be pleasant to think that the U.S. and Europe are taking these religious factors into full account as they calculate their response to the present crisis in Crimea and Ukraine. Pleasant, but unlikely.

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.

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The 160-Year Christian History Behind What's Happening in Ukraine