Out of Russia
In my opinion, the French revolution and Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. Before that the nations did not recognize themselves, and people thought kings were gods on earth and said whatever they did was good. For that reason, it is harder to rule a people today.
—Theodoros Kolokotronis, Apomnimonevmata, 49
(The decision has been taken!)
—Anthimos Gazis, February 22, 1821
It all started with the defeat of Napoleon. In 1814, after more than two decades of war across Europe, the French emperor was sent into exile on Elba while the victors celebrated and prepared to convene the peace congress in Vienna that would settle the fate of the continent. Czar Alexander I, ruler of Russia and commander of Europe's largest army, was staying in his mother-in-law's castle at Bruchsal en route to the Austrian capital when, at the end of a day filled with formal presentations and heavy meals, he enjoyed a quiet tête-à-tête with one of his wife's maids of honor. "Since you treat me with such kindness, Sire, I owe you my profession of faith," Roxandra Stourdza told him. "In the depth of my soul, I am a republican, I detest courts and have never attached the slightest importance to those distinctions of rank and birth that give me the chills and bore me to death. But please don't betray my secret here or I could pay dearly." "No, no," the czar replied with a smile. "Have no fear. And to return frankness with frankness . . . I think absolutely as you do."
The men he was about to meet in Vienna would have been horrified at the thought that the czar of Russia was a closet republican. The presiding genius of the Congress, Prince Metternich of Austria, saw the threat of subversion everywhere, and regarded monarchy as the chief defense against it. Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, took legitimism so far that he refused to sign the treaty ending the war on the grounds that Napoleon was a usurper. Between them, these two men were determined to impose a conservative order upon a continent convulsed by the French Revolution. Neither of them had much time for talk of the rights of peoples or nations. Defending the erasure of the centuries-old republic of Genoa from the map of Europe against the evident wishes of its inhabitants, Castlereagh pronounced that "the prejudices of a people" could be taken into account only if "greater objects did not stand in their way."
In reality, the czar was no republican either. At Vienna he and his fellow monarchs returned ousted Bourbon monarchs to their thrones, put the Catholic Belgians under the Dutch king, abolished the ancient republic of Venice and dashed hopes that Poland might be resurrected as an independent state. At the same time, he wanted a settlement that would uphold the "sacred rights of humanity," and unlike Metternich, he sought to be liked rather than feared. "That boy is a mass of contradictions," his grandmother, Catherine the Great, is said to have remarked. Having come to the throne in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Alexander insisted that defeating the French required a higher moral purpose. He fought for constitutional rule in the Ionian Islands and Sardinia; he recognized the Spanish constitution in 1812 and he favored imposing one on the Bourbons in France. His sensitive soul thrilled with the idea that he was destined to bring peace to Europe and he listened to Germany's leading mystics who told him that he was a kind of messiah and that his defeat of the antichrist Bonaparte would lead the continent under Russian guidance to a spiritual rebirth. This conviction crystallized in his extraordinary scheme for Christian monarchs to band together in a Holy Alliance.
At Vienna the czar felt in need of a soulmate, someone who understood his own blend of piety and Enlightened rationalism, a man who would help him, as he saw it, fight for constitutionalism and stand up to Metternich and his more reactionary instincts. He had been impressed by a brilliant young Greek-born diplomat in his entourage, and so he ordered him to join the negotiations: it was thus that the thirty-eight-year-old Ioannis Capodistrias entered the limelight at the Congress, becoming deeply involved in crafting the post-Napoleonic future for Europe (and-years later-the first president of independent Greece). "Two factions are opposing each other all over the world," Metternich said, "the Capodistrias and the Metternichs." The two men were agreed that the coalition of states that had won the war should guarantee the coming peace. But they differed on the nature of that peace and the principles that would help it endure: Metternich believed the radical forces unleashed by the French across Europe must be vigorously combatted and suppressed; Capodistrias felt they should be understood. "This war has not been fought by sovereigns but by nations," he told an interlocutor shortly after his arrival in Vienna. "Since Napoleon has been tumbled from power, one has forgotten the interest of nations and been concerned solely with the interest of princes."
One reason for Capodistrias's sensitivity to the power of nationalism was that he hailed from the Ionian Islands, where a largely Greek-speaking population had been ruled by the Venetians for centuries before enjoying a brief period of self-rule under joint Russian-Ottoman occupation. Founded in 1800, during the Napoleonic Wars, the so-called Septinsular Republic was effectively the first independent Greek state in modern times, only nominally subservient to the Ottoman sultan. Capodistrias's father, a member of the Corfiot aristocracy, had helped craft its constitution before the son took over the task of making it work, a task that brought him into contact with a range of Greek patriots including bishops, scholars, merchants, and armed fighters who had fled the Ottoman mainland for the safety of the islands. After the French dissolved the Septinsular Republic, Capodistrias left his native island of Corfu and entered Russian service, but he retained his contacts with these men and shared their dreams of freedom. When the czar summoned him to Vienna in 1814, Capodistrias openly wondered whether his ties to the Greeks might not be problematic. "I respect your feelings for your fatherland and for Greece," Alexander reassured him. "And it is because I know how you feel that I wish to have you close by. Nothing could be more appropriate nor more useful than that the Greeks have you near me as their advocate."
Russo-Ottoman antagonism had been building up for more than half a century. Even during their common struggle against the French, the two empires had gone to war, barely patching things up on the eve of Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. The last thing the other powers wanted after Napoleon's defeat was more discord, and Metternich and Castlereagh sought to get Sultan Mahmud II to join them in Vienna at the Congress so that his differences with Russia could be settled peacefully. But the sultan refused—remaining adamantly opposed to any European intervention, however well intended, in his own internal affairs for the next decade and more. His refusal meant that the great powers could not bring the Ottoman lands within the territorial guarantee they planned to provide for the European political settlement; the next best solution, from the British and Austrian viewpoint, was to ensure no official discussion of the Ottoman Empire in Vienna at all.
Metternich did his best to keep the subject off limits. His police blocked the emissaries of subject peoples of the Ottoman Balkans from coming to Vienna. They also attempted to suppress a pamphlet by a German professor that called for Europe's armies to drive the Turks out of Europe. But the Austrians could not prevent a good deal of talk of Christian solidarity with the Serbs, the Greeks, and others. Reports of "scenes of carnage" in Ottoman Serbia were reaching the capital. As for the Greeks, their supporters were in Vienna in force, seeing the Congress as a chance to bring their plight to the attention of Europe. There were salons and memoranda and speeches. Exiled archbishops pleaded for Russian assistance. Richard Church, a British army officer who had trained Greek fighters in the Ionian Islands, told anyone who would listen about the "free men" ready to "defend their liberty against the Turks." Russians in the imperial delegation sympathized. Their empire had been expanding southward at Ottoman expense for decades and they were happy to use Orthodox solidarity as a reason to continue: their army had seen off Napoleon and was not likely to be checked by the sultan's. Austrian secret police reported that the Russians were speaking like "Masters of the Universe": "They inflame the Greeks again and make them hope for their resurrection . . . The Greeks abandon themselves to these ideas . . . Several leading figures speak of the liberation of Epiros, Morea, and a Greek fatherland which Russia will ensure is reborn."
The truth of the matter was that, whatever the Greeks dreamed the czar would do for them, their liberation came a long way down his list of priorities. In Vienna, Alexander's overriding priority was to hold together the wartime coalition that had defeated Napoleon. He understood that none of his partners shared the Russian receptiveness to the cause of the fellow Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman lands, and his basic view therefore was that the peace Congress was not the right place to help the Greeks. When Capodistrias begged him to consider bringing the Ionian Islands back under Russian protection, the czar refused: British troops had taken them over and he had no wish to antagonize them. The only support he was willing to give was on a much smaller scale. Alexander patronized a new learned society—the Friends of the Muses—that Capodistrias established for the cultural improvement of the Greeks, and the czar attended Sunday service in a Greek Orthodox church in Vienna that was used by Christian worshippers from the Ottoman lands. When his presence there was applauded, however, Alexander became upset that what he had intended as a private gesture of support had been misinterpreted.
In Vienna, diplomacy and social display were intertwined as never before. "Doubtless, at no time of the world's history had more grave and complex interests been discussed amidst so many fêtes," remembered one of those present. "A kingdom was cut into bits or enlarged at a ball: an indemnity was granted in the course of a dinner; a constitution was planned during a hunt." It was in this glamorous milieu that Capodistrias and the czar set up their Greek cultural society. Yet for the Greeks what did all the courtly glitz, the gossip and chatter really matter when Metternich was to be heard bluntly saying that he recognized no such thing as a Greek nation, only Ottoman subjects? The czar was not willing to jeopardize the coalition to counter him because his fear of revolution trumped his sense of Christian solidarity. It dawned upon the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire that they could not look to Europe's leaders for liberation and it was at this point that a group of them, hundreds of miles away from the Habsburg capital, decided to take matters into their own hands.
“‘Athena Gallery’ is a modern shopping center in the heart of Odessa,” a Ukrainian tourist website informs visitors to the Black Sea port. “On seven floors there are more than 200 shops, services and restaurants. The shopping center is located in the heart of the city, close to Deribasovskaya Street with a convenient access to the center, underground parking and excellent transport interchange at any time of the day or night.”
The mall’s name, its well-preserved neoclassical facade (now dwarfed by a multistory glass addition), and its address on Hrets’ ka-Greek Square—indicate that this is where the original Greek market was built at the start of the nineteenth century, when the town was in its infancy, a product of the Russian Empire’s push south to the Black Sea. A far cry from the splendors of imperial Vienna and a tenth its size, Odessa in 1820 was a settlement less than three decades old and based on the coming and going of goods. The Greek market was in its commercial center, amid importers’ stores where carts transported dried fruits, olive oil, walnuts and tobacco, salted fish, carob, incense, and wine the short distance to and from the port.
In a tree-lined street in the shadow of the mall, a row of three modest early nineteenth-century town houses survives to this day. The middle one has the layout commonly found in the neighborhood—a ground-floor shop, an entrance to the inner courtyard to unload goods, and residential rooms upstairs with a balcony overlooking the street. It was here, at number 18 Krasni Perulok, then owned by a prosperous Greek merchant, that "some Greeks of very obscure class" banded together at the end of 1814 to found a fraternal society of their own. Humbler than its illustrious Vienna equivalent, their Filiki Etaireia (Friendly Society) would turn out to be the catalyst for Europe's first successful national revolution, ultimately forcing kings and diplomats to change their entire approach to the management of the European peace.
They were just three men at the start: a commercial clerk, a former student, and an artisan, whose lives until then had been nothing but stops and starts. Emmanuil Xanthos was a merchant's factor from the island of Patmos, who had been traveling in the Balkans when he joined the Freemasons and was inspired to found a similar organization in Odessa to bring Greeks together to work for the overthrow of Ottoman tyranny. Athanasios Tsakalof, the son of a fur trader based in Moscow, had studied in Paris and joined a Greek cultural society there before coming to Russia for work. Nikolaos Skoufas was a hatmaker. The three of them may not have been rich but they were literate, well traveled, and politically engaged. When they met in late 1814, they were upset about the Congress of Vienna. They knew about the German professor calling for a European war against the Ottomans and they were outraged that Metternich had not only tried to suppress that pamphlet but had also had the effrontery to deny the Greeks were "to be found in the catalog of nations." Faced with the prospect that Europe would henceforth oppose revolution of any kind, Xanthos, Tsakalof, and Skoufas agreed to try to "gather the select and brave men of the race so that they could work, by themselves, to gain that which they vainly hoped to receive, over so many years, from the philanthropy of Christian kings." To work for their own liberation: that was the vital decision.
That these three men met in Odessa was scarcely an accident. Thanks to the 1774 Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainardji, the Russian Empire had acquired a new role as protector of the Orthodox populations of the Ottoman lands. Moreover, Catherine the Great, Czar Alexander I's strong-willed grandmother, had been obsessed with the Greeks. She had named a new summer palace after Alexander the Great's birthplace to inspire her elder grandson. She dreamed of his younger brother sitting on the throne in Constantinople; she built a replica of its great Byzantine church, Ayia Sofia, on the grounds of her estate at Tsarskoe Selo, and she also provided support for the Greeks under Ottoman rule as well: it is as though, ancient or modern, to Catherine the Greeks were one. "The empress discoursed with me the other day on the ancient Greeks; of their alacrity and the superiority of their genius, and the same character being still extant in the modern ones," wrote the English ambassador in 1779. Once Russia conquered the Crimea, that entire region was wrested from Ottoman rule. Establishing a vast new southern province of New Russia-an area larger than France-the government welcomed settlers, among them many families from the Greek islands, with free land, subsidies, and tax exemptions. A small Tatar village on the Black Sea became the new settlement of Odessa, whose population grew tenfold in three decades. By the late 1820s it numbered over 30,000 and was expanding quickly. It was a place, wrote the young Alexander Pushkin, where "everything breathes Europe." A city of foreigners, on its way to becoming the third-largest city of the empire, Odessa was an astounding commercial success and the Greek community was at its heart.