Eastern Question

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Eastern Question,

term designating the problem of European territory controlled by the decaying Ottoman EmpireOttoman Empire
, vast state founded in the late 13th cent. by Turkish tribes in Anatolia and ruled by the descendants of Osman I until its dissolution in 1918. Modern Turkey formed only part of the empire, but the terms "Turkey" and "Ottoman Empire" were often used
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 in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th cent. The Turkish threat to Europe was checked by the Hapsburgs in the 16th cent., but the Ottoman Turks still controlled the Balkan Peninsula. With the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire began, and Russia started to push toward the Black Sea.

In the 18th cent., France supported the Turks against Russia and Austria. The Eastern Question came into sharp focus during the reign of Czarina Catherine IICatherine II
or Catherine the Great,
1729–96, czarina of Russia (1762–96). Rise to Power

A German princess, the daughter of Christian Augustus, prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, she emerged from the obscurity of her relatively modest background in 1744
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 with the first two of the Russo-Turkish WarsRusso-Turkish Wars.
The great eastward expansion of Russia in the 16th and 17th cent., during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, nevertheless left the shores of the Black Sea in the hands of the Ottoman sultans and their vassals, the khans of Crimea.
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 (1768–74, 1787–92), when Russia, in alliance with Austria, planned the partition of the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople was the chief prize coveted by Russia, which lacked an adequate warm-water outlet to the sea. These designs aroused alarm in Prussia and, more especially, in Great Britain, which saw its dominance in the Mediterranean threatened by Russian ambitions. (Later it was the strategic importance of the Suez CanalSuez Canal,
Arab. Qanat as Suways, waterway of Egypt extending from Port Said to Port Tawfiq (near Suez) and connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Suez and thence with the Red Sea. The canal is somewhat more than 100 mi (160 km) long.
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 that most concerned Britain.) The formation of a diplomatic alliance by Great Britain, Prussia, and the Netherlands and the Austrian defeats at the hands of the Turks offset Russian successes; yet the first stage of the struggle, terminating with the Treaty of Jassy (1792), left Russia with a foothold on the north shore of the Black Sea.

During the Napoleonic era, when attention shifted elsewhere, Russia, after another war with Turkey, again secured favorable terms in the Treaty of Bucharest (1812). Russian conquests against Persia and in the Caucasus were confirmed in the treaties of GulistanGulistan, Treaty of
, 1813, signed by Russia and Iran (Persia) at Gulistan, a village in what is now NW Azerbaijan. It ended the Russo-Persian war that had begun in 1804. Persia ceded the khanates forming the present-day state of Azerbaijan and renounced its claim on Georgia and Dagestan.
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 (1813) and TurkmanchaiTurkmanchai, Treaty of
, 1828, agreement signed by Russia and Persia at the village of Turkmanchai (Torkaman), East Azerbaijan prov., NW Iran. It concluded the Russo-Persian war that had begun in 1825 and forced Persia to cede part of Persian Armenia to Russia and to grant
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 (1828). These developments and the outbreak of national aspirations among the oppressed peoples of the Balkans again made the Eastern Question a major European problem. The Holy Alliance was committed to defending the territorial integrity of Turkey, but the rival imperialistic interests of the Great Powers, each of which hoped to profit from Ottoman disintegration, soon caused the abandonment of this principle.

In the Greek War of Independence (1821–30), both England and Russia assisted the Greek insurgents, each trying to impose its influence on the newly formed state. The Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, connected with the Greek war, ended successfully for Russia (see Adrianople, Treaty ofAdrianople, Treaty of,
also called Treaty of Edirne, 1829, peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire (see Russo-Turkish Wars). Turkey gave Russia access to the mouths of the Danube and additional territory on the Black Sea, opened the Dardanelles to all commercial
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), but the subsequent Russian assistance to Turkey against Muhammad AliMuhammad Ali,
1769?–1849, pasha of Egypt after 1805. He was a common soldier who rose to leadership by his military skill and political acumen. In 1799 he commanded a Turkish army in an unsuccessful attempt to drive Napoleon from Egypt.
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 of Egypt, followed by a Russo-Turkish alliance (1833), greatly disquieted Britain and France. Still, the five Great Powers (Britain, France, Russia, Austria, and Prussia) acted in concert in the final settlement of the Egyptian question, and a treaty signed (1840) in London offered international guarantees of the Ottoman Empire's integrity.

In 1853, however, rivalry among Britain, France, and Russia brought on the Crimean WarCrimean War
, 1853–56, war between Russia on the one hand and the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, France, and Sardinia on the other. The causes of the conflict were inherent in the unsolved Eastern Question.
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. The treaty that ended it (see Paris, Congress ofParis, Congress of,
1856, conference held by representatives of France, Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Sardinia, Russia, Austria, and Prussia to negotiate the peace after the Crimean War. In the Treaty of Paris (Mar.
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) attempted to deprive Russia of pretexts for intervention, to check Russia's naval power on the Black Sea, and to place the empire under international protection. By this time, Turkey had become the "sick man of Europe," and its disintegration could not be arrested.

Events in Bosnia and HerzegovinaBosnia and Herzegovina
, Serbo-Croatian Bosna i Hercegovina, country (2013 pop. 3,791,622), 19,741 sq mi (51,129 sq km), on the Balkan peninsula, S Europe. It is bounded by Croatia on the west and north, Serbia on the northeast, and Montenegro on the southeast.
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 once more led to a Russo-Turkish War (1877–78); the Treaty of San StefanoSan Stefano, Treaty of
, 1878, peace treaty between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, at the conclusion of the last of the Russo-Turkish Wars; it was signed at San Stefano (now Yeşilköy), a village W of İstanbul, Turkey.
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 was so favorable to Russia that Britain went to the verge of war to compel a revision. The Congress of Berlin (see Berlin, Congress ofBerlin, Congress of,
1878, called by the signers of the Treaty of Paris of 1856 (see Paris, Congress of) to reconsider the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano, which Russia had forced on the Ottoman Empire earlier in 1878.
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) revised the Treaty of San Stefano—a setback for Russian influence—but it created fresh problems. The new Balkan states, dissatisfied with their borders, turned to individual great powers to back their claims.

Austria, allied with Russia in the late 18th cent., had come to fear Russian influence in the Balkans; after its defeat by Prussia in 1866, it had joined in an alliance with Germany (see Triple Alliance and Triple EntenteTriple Alliance and Triple Entente
, two international combinations of states that dominated the diplomatic history of Western Europe from 1882 until they came into armed conflict in World War I.
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). Germany, which had assumed the role of "honest broker" at the Congress of Berlin, became increasingly interested in extending its influence over the Ottoman Empire. The German-Austrian Drang nach Osten [drive to the East] policy became manifest in the reorganization of the Turkish army by German officers, the construction of Baghdad RailwayBaghdad Railway,
railroad of international importance linking Europe with Asia Minor and the Middle East. The line runs from İstanbul, Turkey, to Basra, Iraq; it connected what were distant regions of the Ottoman Empire.
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, the crisis over MoroccoMorocco
, officially Kingdom of Morocco, kingdom (2005 est. pop. 32,726,000), 171,834 sq mi (445,050 sq km), NW Africa. Morocco is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea (N), the Atlantic Ocean (W), Western Sahara (S), and Algeria (S and E).
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, and the Austrian annexation (1908) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian Pan-SlavismPan-Slavism,
theory and movement intended to promote the political or cultural unity of all Slavs. Advocated by various individuals from the 17th cent., it developed as an intellectual and cultural movement in the 19th cent.
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 in the Balkans and the almost total disappearance of European Turkey in the Balkan WarsBalkan Wars,
1912–13, two short wars, fought for the possession of the European territories of the Ottoman Empire. The outbreak of the Italo-Turkish War for the possession of Tripoli (1911) encouraged the Balkan states to increase their territory at Turkish expense.
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 caused Turkey to seek German and Austrian support and to join the Central Powers after the outbreak of World War IWorld War I,
1914–18, also known as the Great War, conflict, chiefly in Europe, among most of the great Western powers. It was the largest war the world had yet seen.
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. The war destroyed the Ottoman Empire and closed the old Eastern Question, but the problem of maintaining stability in the area once ruled by the empire remained.


See M. S. Anderson, The Eastern Question, 1774–1923 (1966); A. J. Toynbee, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1970); D. Djordjevic and S. Fischer-Galati, The Balkan Revolutionary Tradition (1981).

Eastern Question


the conventional, accepted designation in diplomacy and historical literature for the conflicts in international relations from the 18th to the early 20th century in connection with the projected collapse of the Ottoman Empire (Turkish Sultanate) and the broadening national liberation movement of its peoples, as well as the struggle among the great powers of Europe—Austria (after 1867, Austria-Hungary), Great Britain, Prussia (after 1871, Germany), Russia, France, Italy, and later the USA—over the partition of the empire’s domains, primarily those in Europe. (Several researchers also include the extensive complex of the political problems of the Near East and the Caucasus in the concept of the Eastern Question.) The term “Eastern Question” was first used at the Congress of Verona (1822) of the Holy Alliance during deliberations over the situation that had arisen in the Balkans in connection with the Greek National Liberation Revolution of 1821-29 against Turkey.

The first period of the history of the Eastern Question encompasses the time from the second half of the 18th century to the Crimean War (1853-56), which is characterized primarily by the growing role of Russia in the Near East. As a result of victorious wars with Turkey in 1768-74, 1787-91, 1806-12, and 1828-29, Russia strengthened her position in the southern Ukraine, the Crimea, Bessarabia, and parts of the Caucasus and became permanently established on the shores of the Black Sea. Russia also obtained- rights of passage through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles for commercial ships and warships (the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji [1774] and the Russo-Turkish Treaties of Alliance of 1799 and 1805). The autonomy of Serbia (1829), the limitation of the sultan’s power over Moldavia and Walachia (1829), the independence of Greece (1830), and the closing of the Dardanelles to war-ships of foreign states except Russia (Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi of 1833) were to a considerable degree results of the successes of Russian arms. In spite of the expansionist goals that tsarism pursued in relation to the Ottoman Empire and the territories that were breaking away from it, the Russian Army’s victories over the Turkish Sultanate had historically progressive consequences inasmuch as they contributed to the establishment of independent states on the Balkan Peninsula.

Russian policy in the Near East collided with the expansion of other European powers. At the turn of the 19th century France attempted to play the main role in the area. For the purposes of conquering eastern markets and crushing the colonial predominance of Great Britain, the Directory and later Napoleon I seized territories at the expense of the Ottoman Empire (Egyptian Expedition of 1798-1801) and acquired the land approaches to India. To a considerable degree, the sharpening Franco-Russian conflicts, particularly over the Eastern Question, were responsible for the failure of negotiations between Napoleon I and Alexander I during 1807-08 over the partition of the Ottoman Empire.

The revolution of the Greeks against Turkish domination in 1821, the growth of disagreements between Russia and Great Britain, and conflicts within the Holy Alliance caused a new intensification of the Eastern Question. Conflicts between Turkey and Egypt during 1831-33 and 1839-41 (Egyptian Crises) threatened the preservation of the sultan’s power over the Ottoman Empire and were accompanied by the intervention of the great powers. The Unkiar Skelessi treaty of alliance between Russia and Turkey marked the apogee of tsarism’s political and diplomatic successes in the Eastern Question. However, pressure from Great Britain and Austria—who endeavored to achieve a weakening of Russia’s position on the Balkan peninsula in view of their own expansionist aims—and particularly Nicholas I’s endeavor to isolate France politically prompted the tsarist government to conclude the London Conventions of 1840 and 1841, which were primarily advantageous to Great Britain. The tsarist government was compelled to renounce the benefits of the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi; with the other powers Russia agreed “to observe and support the integrity and independence of the Ottoman Empire.” The tsarist government also recognized the principle of closing the Bosporus and Dardanelles to foreign warships, including its own.

The second period in the history of the Eastern Question opened with the Crimean War (1853-56) and ended in thè late 19th century. During this period Great Britain, France, and a number of other Western powers, pretending to support the status quo, the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and the balance of power in Europe, managed to remove Russian influence from the Balkan Peninsula and strengthen and extend their own positions in Turkey. Under favorable circumstances, Great Britain, France and Austria tried to gain border territories from Turkey (the British seizure of Cyprus in 1878 and Egypt in 1882; Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1878; and French occupation of Tunisia in 1881). The Crimean War promoted the consolidation of the position of French and British capital in the Ottoman Empire and accelerated the process of transforming the empire into a semicolonial country. At the same time the exposure of Russia’s weakness in comparison to the capitalist states of Western Europe predetermined the collapse of the influence of tsarism in international affairs, including the Eastern Question. This was clearly demonstrated in the decisions of the Congress of Berlin (1878), when, after winning the war against Turkey, the tsarist government was forced to agree to a review of the Peace Treaty of San Stefano of 1878. Nevertheless, the creation of a united Rumanian state (1859-61) and the proclamation of Rumania’s independence (1877) were achieved with Russian assistance, and the liberation of the Bulgarian people from the Turkish yoke and the creation of a Bulgarian national state (1878) were results of Russia’s victory in the war of 1877-78 with Turkey. Supported by Russia, Serbia and Montenegro obtained recognition of their independence in international law. From the 1870’s, Austria-Hungary’s aspiration to economic and political hegemony in the Balkan Peninsula caused the growth of antagonism between Russia and Austria-Hungary over the Eastern Question.

With the coming of the age of imperialism, the third period in the history of the Eastern Question began. The appearance of new centers of world conflict brought some decrease in the relative importance of the Eastern Question in the system of conflicts among the European powers. However, the intensifying struggle for the partition of the world led to a deepening of conflicts in the Near East as well, where German expansion developed particularly violently in the late 19th century. The construction of the Baghdad Railroad and the subordination of the Turkish governing elite led by Abdul-Hamid II and later of the Young Turks to German military and political influence protected the dominant position of Germany in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. German expansion contributed to the intensification of Russo-German and particularly Anglo-German antagonism. In addition, the activization of Austria-Hungary’s expansionist policy in the Balkan Peninsula (the annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina and the endeavor to obtain an outlet on the Aegean Sea), which was based on German support, led to extreme tension in Austro-Russian relations (Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09). However, the tsarist government, whose position was weakened by defeat in the war with Japan as well as by the Revolution of 1905-07, adhered to a temporizing, cautious course. Meanwhile, the broadening of the national liberation movements of peoples subject to the sultan—Armenians, Macedonians, Albanians, the population of Crete, the Arabs—was accompanied by intervention of the European powers in the internal affairs of Turkey. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13—the progressive result of which was the liberation of Macedonia, Albania, and the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea from Turkish rule—were at the same time evidence of the transition of the Eastern Question to a critical phase.

Turkey’s participation in World War I on the side of the German-Austrian bloc allowed Germany to transform the Ottoman Empire “into her own financial and military vassal” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. Sobr. Soch., 5th ed., vol. 30, p. 247). At the same time, secret treaties concluded during the war by the Entente powers (Anglo-Russian-French Agreement of 1915, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and others), stipulated the transfer of Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Black Sea straits to Russia and the partition of the Asiatic part of Turkey among the allies.

Turkey’s military defeat by the Entente (Moudhros Armistice of 1918) made the seizure of Arab and other non-Turkish territories of the Ottoman Empire as well as Turkish lands a part of Entente policy. Plans of this nature were discussed at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20, including a scheme to put Turkey under an American mandate. After long negotiations during which sharp conflicts in the camp of the victors were revealed, the Treaty of Sèvres of 1920, which was unfair to Turkey, was prepared. However, the national liberation struggle of the Turkish people, which was developing under the influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution, prevented the implementation of this treaty.

The Soviet government decisively rejected the policies of tsarism, abolished the secret treaties, including treaties and agreements on the partition of Turkey, and gave active moral, political, and material support to the national liberation struggle of the Turkish people against the Entente’s imperialistic intervention. From the wreckage of the former multinational Ottoman Empire an independent Turkish national state was formed. Thus, the new historical epoch opened by the October Revolution forever removed the Eastern Question from the arena of world politics.


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Marx, K. “Vostochnyi vopros.” Ibid., vol. 12.
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Engels, F. “Chto budet s Evropeiskoi Turtsiei?” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Goriuchii material v mirovoi politike.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 17.
Lenin, V. I. “Sobytiia na Balkanakh i v Persii.” Ibid.
Lenin, V. I. “Probuzhdenie Azii.” Ibid., vol. 23.
Lenin, V. I. “Pod chuzhim flagom.” Ibid., vol. 26.
Zhigarev, S. Russkaia politika v vostochnom voprose: Istorikoiuridicheskie ocherki, 2 vols. Moscow, 1896.
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