pdf Download PDF

Reviewed by
Lucien J. Frary, Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821–1844. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015. Pp. 320. 12 illustrations, 2 maps. Cloth $110.

How much do we know about Russian foreign policy and its agents in Greece in the period before and after the emergence of the post-Ottoman and postRevolution Greek state? As it turns out, very little before Lucien Frary's book, which reveals the machinations of Russian policy and its reactions to the [End Page 257] establishment of an independent national, or rather, more accurately, an autocephalus Church of Greece. The importance of this development for the emergence of other national churches as a spur to Balkan nationalism has been emphasized in earlier publications. The role of Russia in the creation of a Church of Greece, however, had received little attention except from the point of view of the legitimacy it aimed to offer to the teenaged Bavarian prince, who was sent to Greece to grow up as king together with his fledgling state. Frary's book is a well-written, international, and diplomatic history with a nuanced approach to Russian reactions to the constitutional reform of 1843, which concerned deeply the autocratic, absolutist Russian court and administration. Frary also discusses the emergence of Russian public opinion and its reactions to Greek affairs and Greek-Russian relations, which will interest informed specialists—including historians of Greece, Russia, modern Europe, international relations, and diplomatic history, or rather international history, as it is called in some quarters—as well as the broader public.

The book covers the wide gap between the Orlov rebellion (which every Greek child is taught at school) in the late eighteenth century and the Russian-Ottoman War of 1828 that gave momentum to the cause of Greek independence under Kapodistrias. Not accidentally, Kapodistrias was a Russian minister, as most historians know, before becoming the first governor-turned-president. By the time he was prepared to implement his own course as president, however, he was assassinated in 1831 at Nafplio, and Russian policy changed accordingly. How does the author trace the impact of Russia on the making of Greek identity? The book keeps alternating its focus from the Russian court to the Orthodox Church to Greek political realities. The role of secret societies, the outcome of armed rebellions, and even the spread of prophecies are examined through the archives of Russian embassies and consulates, as well as a wide range of Russian publication sources presented here for the first time.

The argument could be summarized as follows: in the fifteen years after the emergence of a Greek state, which was a major turning point in the history of the Balkans, collective Greek identity moved away from the Ottoman Orthodox millet system and crystallized around revolutionary nationalism and a religious-secular synthesis. The book avoids, pertinently and convincingly, a neat and artificial division between modern and premodern. It traces the origins of Russian involvement in the Aegean and Ionian Seas and in the Balkans, beginning with Catherine the Great, "the founder of Russian philhellenism" (23). It offers an all-Russian perspective on the history of the revolution, the transitional period rather dramatically called by the author "from anarchy to [End Page 258] absolutism," and the role of Russian foreign policy during the so-called Eastern crises (1832–1833 and 1839–1841), controversially described as "the product of a civil war within the Ottoman Empire" (88). It then traces the leverage exerted by Russia in Greek ecclesiastical and broadly political affairs, culminating in the Russian ecclesiastical mission, arguing rather implausibly for its importance for the present, comparing the nationalist debate in Othonian Greece with the conflict between church and state in 2000, as the latter attempted to abolish religious oaths and religious affiliation on identity cards. There is a large amount of detailed research on the process of selecting the members of the ecclestiastical mission that will appeal more to Russian historians.

The interplay between Greek expectations and Russian priorities, however, reveals that control of the new state through its monarch and the new Church was really at stake. Frary has researched and analyzed the correspondence between Minister Nesselrod and Ambassador Katakazy meticulously. Pressure on Othon by Strogonov, the head of the Russian mission, intensified after 1835, especially on the point of the king's conversion to Orthodoxy, a very important point for the Tsar and Russian interests. Stroganov caused the king "considerable distress" and, although it would be misleading to call Russian policy aggressive, "vigorous action was employed in special situations" (137). The campaign, of course, was more sophisticated than patronizing a young king into submitting to Russing pressure, and it included publications of religious texts in Greek. Russian policy was always cautious, however, not to appear too involved and influential in Greek affairs so as not to alienate and upset the other two powers, France and Britain. The same chapter (4) shows the rising influence of Russophile Konstantions Oikonomos and his conflict with Neophytos Vamvas and Theoklitos Pharmakidis on the translation of the New Testament and Russia's anti-Protestant campaign. So successful was the campaign of installing Russophiles in power that by the late 1830s they were everywhere, from the Greek Embassy in London to the key Ministries of Interior and Justice, the two most important ministries in the administration of the early Greek state.

One of the most exciting chapters includes the revision of scholarship over the actual existence of the Philorthodox Society plot, whether it actually formed a threat to the regime of King Othon, as both contemporaries and historians such as John A. Petropoulos (1968) have argued, or was a plot by anti-Russian competitors for the control of the country. The revision is based on the study of Russian archives that offers a fascinating narrative of the alleged plot, the international dimension that the conspiracy acquired in the British protectorate of the Ionian Islands, and the spectacular failure of the witch hunt [End Page 259] to produce any tangible results of a plot by Russia against Othon, evident in the judicial proceedings that proved the hoax. For Frary, "the episode illuminates the nature of Greek politics during the period and underscores the role of religion" (191). In the book's previous sentence, however, one finds a more convincing interpretation of the affair, since "if the Anglophiles invented the affair, they were very successful in ousting their rivals from key posts in the government and the Holy Synod" (191). This phrase encapsulates the tension between the argument of the book and its evidence; what role did religion actually play in 1830s-1840s Greece? The book argues for the making of Greek identity based on religious nationalism, "the intersection of religion and politics" (198), but the title refers to the collective identity as evident also in the Cretan uprising of 1841. The ambivalence of Russian policy on the Cretan outbreak is telling, even more so during the constitutional challenge that the 1843 uprising posed to King Othon, since Tsar Nicholas I of Russia was adamantly opposed to any revolutionary movement that curtailed the absolute power of Othon.

Therefore, the book is more about the role of Russian policy and the reactions against it, especially by Othon, than about the process of identity formation. Frary's invaluable contribution is precisely his Russian perspective, the evidence found in Russian archives, the point of the view of the Russian reading public, and the thorough understanding of the Russian powerplay both at home (Russia) and in Greece. The Russian Empire's international and diplomatic history during the first half of the nineteenth century is all the more rich for this book; so is Greek early-state history, as well as the role of Russian diplomatic agents in what is a long needed revision of Petropoulos's monumental but outdated work (1968). Historians and students of Modern Greece will learn much, returning to the book often for reference and arguments, while historians of the Balkans—especially those who study the history of nationalism, foreign policy, the history of national Churches, and Orthodoxy as foreign and national policy—will find the book very useful. [End Page 260]

Athanasios (Sakis) Gekas
York University
Athanasios (Sakis) Gekas

Athanasios (Sakis) Gekas is Associate Professor and Hellenic Heritage Foundation Chair of Modern Greek History and Hellenic Studies at York University. He has published on the history of the Ionian Islands and on aspects of Greek and Mediterranean economic and social history. His book Xenocracy: State, Class, and Colonialism in the Ionian Islands, 1815–1864 will be published by Berghahn Books in 2017.


Petropoulos, John A. 1968. Politics and Stagecraft in the Kingdom of Greece, 1833–1843. Princeton: Princeton University Press.