Russian Mediterranean Sea Interest Before World War I

Research Guide by Alex Babcock

File:Russian Black Sea Fleet after the battle of Synope 1853 .jpg

The Russian Black Sea Fleet, Battle of Sinope, 1853


The Russian interest in extending their influence from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean lead to numerous regional conflicts, and precipitated major world conflict and open warfare. Since the dawn of the Russian navy with Peter the Great, Russia attempted to expand its naval reach. Driven by military and commercial interest abroad, Imperial Russia’s interest in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean lead to the area becoming a constant theatre of war.

Major sources come from any Russian history which handles Russia’s expansion south to acquire warm water ports. The existing historiography of the various conflicts is rich, but often the specifically naval aspects of Russia’s history in the Black Sea region is diluted with other issues. Russian history also has the propensity to be skewed as Russia was until somewhat recently a world superpower. The focusing of the time-frame to pre-World War I removes most pro- or anti-Soviet angles. The development of Russia’s Mediterranean interest in this era is significant because the same interests can be found after World War I, but in a very different world.

This guide contains a collection of print sources, online sources, and a timeline of significant events that are tied to Russia’s naval interest in the Mediterranean.

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Siege of Sebastopol, 1854-55



Bessarabia: Disputed Land between East and West

While George Cioranescu’s Bessarabia does not concern itself principally with Russia and her maritime interest in the Mediterranean, it does provide an account of the manifestation of Imperial Russia’s expansionist plans and how Russia’s interactions with her neighbors were at least partially dictated by naval interest. Cioranescu records how Russia’s expansion to the Dniester River in Bessarabia and the annexation of previously Ottoman territory advanced her Black Sea interests. Russo-Turkish wars tended to lead to Russia occupying the area, leading to her interests being called into question.

George Cioranescu, Bessarabia: Disputed Land between East and West (Bucuresti: Editura Fundatiei Culturale Romane, 1993)

The Emperors and Empresses of Russia Rediscovering the Romanovs

Iskenderov and Raleigh offer a thorough compilation of the Romanov ruling line, tracing the evolution of the dynasty, which offers insight into the development and extension of Imperial Russia’s interest in Black Sea, and later the Mediterranean. Important players in Russian naval development include Tsars Peter I, Catherine II, and Alexander I. Emperors and Empresses follows the foreign policy decisions that affected the construction and deployment of the Russian fleet into the Black Sea and through the Straits to the Bosphorus. Some material contained is superfluous to naval interests, however.

A. A. Iskenderov, The Emperors and Empresses of Russia Rediscovering the Romanovs, edit. Donald J. Raleigh (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996)

A History of the Middle East

Peter Mansfield’s definitive work on the Middle East involves much less direct information on Russian fleets and aspirations in the Black Sea and Mediterranean than would seem necessary for a source, but the history provides rich context to much of the Ottoman side of conflicts, and does show the impact of Russia’s occasional presence in the Mediterranean. The book reaches past World War I, but the first half is of a relevant time period and area of the world. A majority of Russia’s military actions in the Black Sea and even in the Mediterranean had to do with the Ottoman Empire and the balance of power in the Near East, and so ample background information can be found here.

Peter Mansfield, A History of the Middle East (New York: Penguin Group, 1991)

The Ottoman Empire 1700-1922

Quateart’s history deals primarily with the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, but the history of Russia’s presence in the Black Sea is tied irrevocably to her relations with the Ottoman Empire. As Quateart explains: “For the Czarist Russian state based in Moscow the presence of a powerful Ottoman state long blocked the way to Black Sea and Mediterranean warm water ports.” His book is very helpful for relations between the Ottomans and Russia, specifically on treaty details regarding land transfers and coastal territories. With Russia’s wars with the Ottomans being the primary way territory on the Black Sea was gained and an important motivating factor towards the construction and deployment of a fleet in the Mediterranean.

Donald Quataert, The Ottoman Empire: 1700-1922 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5

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Black Sea Fleet in the Bay of Theodosia, just before the Crimean War


The Road to Balaklava: Stumbling into War with Russia

Troubetzkoy opens his account of the Crimean conflicts by emphasizing the stress he places on finding out why events occurred, and what the results are. His book, The Road to Balaklava, is helpful for its maps and for the accounts of Russia’s concentration on the Straits, the Bosphorus and the Darndanelles. He provides ample information on the Crimean War and its context, but places this information in a much more narrative format. This allows for easier connection to be made between events but makes navigation through the text more difficult. Nevertheless, he provides a helpful account of the Straits and their role in Russian foreign Policy.

Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, The Road to Balaklava: Stumbling into War with Russia (Toronto: Trafalgar Press, 1986)

Russia and Europe 1825-1878

Rostovsky provides a very detailed look at Russia and all her interactions with the rest of Europe and her neighbors, between 1825 and 1878. He includes an extensive bibliography as well, to follow his sources and for further research. Although Rostovsky’s history was compiled and published in 1954, at a time that could have left an imprint on his work, his history of Imperial Russia seems unbiased in its account of Russian naval power and objectives. International views might be skewed with relation to contemporary politics, but Rostovsky’s details of Russia’s fleets and Mediterranean access seem factual and relevant.

A. Lobanov Rostovsky, Russia and Europe 1825-1878 (Ann Arbor: George Wahr Publishing Company, 1954)

The Russian Empire 1801-1917

Seton-Watson provides an incredibly helpful history of Imperial Russia, starting pre-19th century and continuing up to World War I. He includes not only references and notations about Russia’s naval power in certain times and places, but also goes into depth about the international ramifications of such expansion and policy. His sections of foreign policy are the most helpful but the information provided on Russia’s economy also helps define the industrial context to Russia’s naval interest. Seton-Watson includes a massive amount of information regarding Russian foreign policy, industry, and objectives of tsars and state officials. All of this illuminates the position of Russia’s interests in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. However, the length of Seton-Watson’s history of Imperial Russia makes navigation for details and specifics arduous.

Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967)

Russia Since 1801: The Making of a New Society

Thaden covers both Russian internal history as well as foreign policy in his accounts of Russia pre-World War I. While he does not delve into military accounts as much as other historians, Thaden provides domestic and international context for Russian naval interest in the Mediterranean. Russia Since 1801 also includes helpful information covering internal crises and conditions relevant to Russia’s military and economic expansion into the Black Sea and beyond. He emphasizes the economic aspect of the Mediterranean more than other authors, explaining how: “The Straits and the Black Sea represented another area of vital concern for Russia. The rapid growth of German economic and political influence in the Ottoman Empire alarmed many Russian officials and public leaders, and around 1900 the Straits seemed even more important than before because of the development of heavy industry in the Ukraine and the increasing volume of Russian trade passing from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean.”

Edward C. Thaden, Russia Since 1801: The Making of a New Society (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1971), 371

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Battle of Chesma, 1770


“Since the days of Catherline II, Russians dreamed of fulfilling their “historic mission” – to precipitate the dissolution of the Turkish Empire and to gain control of Constantinople and the Straits, “the gates to our house”.¹



Encyclopedia Britannica Online

The Encyclopedia Britannica has some information on Russian history on its main Russia page, but is more important for its links and related articles. Britannica has links to many useful online sources and print publications. Its pages on Russo-Turkish wars and the various treaties Russia was involved in are helpful guides.

“Russia,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed November 27, 2012, URL.


Modern Map of the Black Sea


“Black Sea Map” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, accessed  November 27, 2012. URL.

Friesian School

The Friesian website, a winner of the Britannica Internet Guide Award, contains a very large entry on Russian history and the Russian Navy. Specifically the header on Russian Warships contains very helpful information regarding Russia’s attempts to move its fleet in and out of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus Straits. The article contains interesting information regarding the fleet itself and some context for its actions. The website is poorly organized, however, and is unattractively designed. The bibliography contained provides several useful sources.

“Successors of Rome: Russia, 862-Present,” Friesian, accessed November 24, 2012, last modified 2012, URL.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress provides a very in-depth page for Russian history, including relevant information for wars, treaties, and naval development. The articles organization is basic but easy to navigate, and the Library contains an encyclopedic set of articles on the various wars and periods where Russian naval interest was tangible.

“A Country Study: Russia,” Library of Congress, accessed November 24, 2012, last modified March 22, 2011, URL.

Rus Navy

Rus Navy appears to be a site dedicated to the past and current Russian Navy. It’s articles appear to be very strongly nationally biased, but it does contain a large amount of information regarding early developments in the construction of Russia’s navy and a chronological set of articles detailing its exploits. This website is unreliable as a source of impartial information, but its articles have some merit in their statistics and dates.

“Peter the First,” and “Russian Sailing Fleet in the XIXth Century,” RusNavy, accessed November 26, 2012, URL.

Wikimedia Foundation

The Wikipedia articles on the Russo-Turkish wars, as well as related articles on other Russian military conflicts and their resulting treaties and settlements provide an immense foundation of information. While some articles could use more citations, the information presented about specific treaties and dates of conflicts all matches up with other assorted sources. Wikipedia does not go to extreme depth, and cannot be relied upon for nuances of Russian development and politics, but for factual information it provides the most helpful format and content.

“History of the Russo-Turkish wars,” Wikimedia Foundation, accessed November 17, last modified November 13, 2012, URL.


Action of May 26, 1829


“However much Russian diplomacy may have been acting on behalf of the Balkan Christians, the concern which Russia showed over their fate was purely indirect because it did not affect her vital interests. Not so the question of the Straits. The importance of these “keys” to the back door of Russia was a growing issue as the Russian seaboard on the Black Sea was acquiring an increasing importance as the main outlet for Russia’s agricultural, and, later, industrial production.”²



Russo-Turkish War (1676-1681)

  • Treaty of Bakhchisarai: Russo-Turkish border established at the Dnieper River
  • Feodor III was Tsar

Russo-Turkish War (1686–1700)

  • Russo–Turkish War of 1686–1700: Azov and Taganrog fortress ceded to Russia, Black Sea access
  • Peter I was Tsar

Russo-Turkish War (1710-1711)

  • Treaty of the Pruth: Azov and Taganrog returned, some fortresses demolished
  • Peter I was Tsar

Russo-Austrian-Turkish War (1735–1739)

  • Treaty of Niš: Port at Azov acquired, but no fleet permitted, nor the annexation of Crimea
  • Anna Ioannovna was Tsarina

Russo-Turkish War (1768–1774)

  • Battle of Chesma: Russian Fleet appears for the first time on the Mediterranean, destroying the Turkish fleet at Chesma Bay, Russian fleet had come from Baltic.³
  • Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca: Azov and Kinburn ports acquired by Russia, given the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire, merchant passage through the Dardanelles, Azov restrictions lifted
  • Catherine II was Empress

Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792)

  • Russians capture Ochakov, taken seriously by William Pitt: “who saw visions of Russian naval power extending through the Black Sea into the Mediterranean”4
  • Treaty of Jassy: Crimean Khanate annexed by Russia
  • Catherine II was Empress

Septinsular Republic (1800-1807)

  • Siege of Corfu (1798-1799) a joint siege on the French-held island by the Russian and Ottoman navies
  • Septinsular Republic established as a Russian protectorate
  • Paul I, then Alexander I was Tsar

Russo-Turkish War (1806–1812)

  • Dardanelles blocked to Russia as the Ottoman Empire’s declaration of war
  • 1812 Treaty of Bucharest: Bessarabia ceded to Russia, whose frontier near the Black Sea has become much more economically valuable
  • Alexander I was Tsar

Battle of Navarino (20 October 1827) and the Russo-Turkish War (1828–1829)

  • Great Powers, Britain, France and Russia, destroys Ottoman fleet waging war on rebellious Greece.
  • Russia’s involvement in Greece relevant to her expansion out of the Black Sea.
  • “This battle together with the blockade of the Dardanelles which followed the Russo-Turkish war was to be the last Russian naval venture of the century in the Mediterranean”5
  • Russo-Turkish war of 1828-1829 declared by Ottomans in response, closing Straits and repudiating the Akkerman Convention
  • Black Sea Fleet utilized as Russia had become the dominant Black Sea force
  • Treaty of Adrianople (Treaty of Edirne): Russia gains more Black Sea coastal territory, and the Straits are opened for all commercial vessels
  • Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi, in 1833, created as Russia protected the Ottoman Empire: defensive treaty in return for Ottomans closing the Straits to all rival Powers
  • In a secret article, the Sublime Porte pledged itself “in lieu of the aid she was to have furnished in accordance with the principle of reciprocity, to limit her action… the closing of the Straits of the Dardanelles, so as not to permit the entrance of any foreign warships under any pretence whatesoever”6
  • Nicholas I was Tsar

Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856)

  • Economic interests stronger: “the rise of annual exports of Russian wheat from 10.7 million puds during the early thirties to 38.1 million puds in the late fifties (90% of wheat exports were shipped from Black Sea ports) enhanced the importance of the Turkish Straits for Russia.”7
  • Russia’s interest in the Ottoman Empire contested, other Great Powers want to neutralize Russia’s influence in the Mediterranean.
  • November 30, 1853, Russia destroys an Ottoman fleet at Sinope, which scares British and French interests
  • Russia does not risk engagement with Allied fleets, but has its navy trapped at Sebastopol
  • Siege of Sebastopol and Taganrog
  • 1856 Treaty of Paris: Black Sea closed to all warships, Black Sea territory lost to Russia, Russia forced to give up claims to protect Ottoman Christians
  • Nicholas I, then Alexander II was Tsar.

Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878)

  • Russia looks to retake Black Sea coast and sea privileges, declaring that “she does not consider herself any longer bound by the clauses of the treaty of 1856 which restrict her sovereignty over the Black Sea.”8
  • Russia nearly invades Constantinople, pressured to stop by British fleet.
  • Treaty of San Stefano: Straits declared open to all neutral parties, but the treaty was superseded by the Congress of Berlin
  • Congress of Berlin: Russia keeps some territory, Balkans reorganized, mostly in Austria’s favor
  • Alexander II was Tsar

Pre-World War I

  • 1887, Alexander II joins Reinsurance Treaty with Germany: mutual defense agreement, for aid in the Straits.
  • “The Straits and the Black Sea represented another area of vital concern for Russia. The rapid growth of German economic and political influence in the Ottoman Empire alarmed many Russian officials and public leaders, and around 1900 the Straits seemed even more important than before because of the development of heavy industry in the Ukraine and the increasing volume of Russian trade passing from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean.”9
Timeline Citations:

¹ Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, The Road to Balaklava: Stumbling into War with Russia (Toronto: Trafalgar Press, 1986), 6.

² A. Lobanov Rostovsky, Russia and Europe 1825-1878 (Ann Arbor: George Wahr Publishing Company, 1954), 25.

³ Ibid., 3

4 Hugh Seton-Watson, The Russian Empire 1801-1917 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 48

5 A. Lobanov Rostovsky, Russia and Europe 1825-1878 (Ann Arbor: George Wahr Publishing Company, 1954), 22

6 Ibid., 48

7 Edward C. Thaden, Russia Since 1801: The Making of a New Society (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1971), 159.

8 A. Lobanov Rostovsky, Russia and Europe 1825-1878 (Ann Arbor: George Wahr Publishing Company, 1954), 249.

9 Edward C. Thaden, Russia Since 1801: The Making of a New Society (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1971), 371.



-All images used are in the public domain