Christian Rakovsky

The Eastern Question and
the International Socialist Party

Part 2

(July 1897)

Written: July 1897.
Source: K. Rakowsky, La Question d’Orient et le Parti Socialiste Internationale, La Petite Republique, No 7670, 7671, 7672; 14, 15, 16 April 1897. [1]
The following article, together with others involving Bernstein, Kautsky, Wilhelm Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg appears courtesy of the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History from The Balkan Socialist Tradition, Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 no. 3, 2003.
For a full discussion of these articles in their context see the relevant volume of Revolutionary History.
Translated: Andreja Zivkovic.
Transcribed/HTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters, September 2006.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.

The political autonomy of the Balkan peoples has enabled their economic development and the birth of the socialist party. The fall of Turkish rule in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia has taken with it that wall of barbarism that stopped the socialist tide at the foot of the Carpathians, the Danube and the Balkans. Today the international socialist party can be proud. It has thousands and thousands of supporters in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece. In Bulgaria and Romania we have representatives in parliament, a well-organised press, circles and unions; in short, our party for a long time has been on that serious and productive path from which it can only emerge victorious. We can say the same for Serbia, except with a few small qualifications. Only Greece does not yet seem to be very hospitable terrain for socialism. The reason is chauvinism, which not only ravages some Western countries, but also still more certain Eastern countries, and especially Greece. It is the sad past of this country that is the fundamental cause, and Greek unity is the best antidote.

Yes, it is in the interests of the socialist cause in the East to support the national tendencies of the peoples subjected to the Sultan.

Of course, we admit that the question is not very simple, and if it is the subject of so many controversies this is because of the serious and complex character that it takes on as a result of the intervention of the involved states, and especially Russia. It is very true that the manoeuvres of the Russian Empire must keep the international socialist party in a state of constant alertness. At present, ‘more than ever, the long arms of Russian diplomacy’ – as the first Manifesto of the International (1864) says – ‘manage to rummage around in all the European cabinets’, and thus to act powerfully on the internal affairs of all the countries. Every Russian success will have deplorable repercussions in the internal relations of the majority of European states. Hence the Eastern Question, which occupies almost the whole of Russian foreign policy, becomes for the international socialist party not only a foreign policy question, but even, and especially, a question of internal policy.

The concern is often expressed that granting autonomy to the different Christian provinces will mean that Turkey will be weakened and will serve the designs of Russian diplomacy.

This policy, which, despite everything, tends to the conservation of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, is the policy that Europe has followed for more than a century. But what has it achieved? Is the existence of Turkey more certain than it was a hundred years ago? Has the power of Russian diplomacy been destroyed forever? Neither one nor the other has happened. By its absurdities, this policy has come to display its complete powerlessness. Not only is it not an effective means of fighting Russia, as we will show, it even does its work.

In fact, Russia has exploited the weakness of the Ottoman Empire, but this weakness is not of her making. Turkish power used to be based on the warrior customs of the tribes of Central Asia, when the patriarchal mode of existence was at its height; and the Sultans of that period were the foremost soldiers who fought with great courage. The Turks came to Europe with their own civilisation, with their familial and property relations that were absolutely different to ours. But as soon as the Turks abandoned the sword for the plough, and the nomadic and warrior life for a sedentary and agricultural life, their power began to move fatally towards its own decline.

Russia profited from this state of decomposition to increase her power and territory at the expense of Turkey. And what was Western Europe to do? Instead of sustaining the life of that man whose sickness was organic and incurable – his historical degeneration – who was incapable of adopting European civilisation, except for its vices and faults, it should have found him heirs that could replace him before he was stripped by Russia.

These legitimate heirs to the Turkish empire were just beginning to show themselves.

The rebirth of the national idea after the Napoleonic wars did not remain without influence also in the East. The Greek, Serb, Albanian, Romanian and Bulgarian peoples, one after another, awoke to demand their political and national independence. It only remained for the Western countries to profit from this movement, to encourage it and thus to prepare the advance posts of Western civilisation in the East.

But it was Russia who profited from these movements. She channelled them in the direction of her interests. She soon began, in effect, to play a rôle which sat very ill with her, but which she carried out so well, that of protector of the oppressed. Under this pretext, she declared war after war on Turkey and sent emissaries to preach freedom. She supported Romanian and Serbian independence. Through Greek traders in Odessa she sent material aid to the Greeks, while one of the Princes Orlov [2] went to Greece to take charge of the insurrection. And when, after several uprisings in Bulgaria – otherwise brutally repressed and followed by such terrible reprisals that they roused the indignation of the whole of Europe – the Bulgarians found themselves in a state of complete despair, Russia sent its emissary Ionin [3] – one of the future diplomatic agents of Bulgaria – who reformed the Bulgarian Central Revolutionary Committee [4] in Bucharest (Romania) to prepare a new insurrection (1876).

Thus, by way of a most comprehensible contradiction, Russia, which defended ‘legitimism’ in the West and restored kings who had been chased from their thrones, acted the rabble-rouser and played at revolution in the East. It is also true that each time after she engaged in a war on behalf of her Christian ‘brothers’, she managed to incorporate a new province into her immense territory. It is also true that the peoples liberated by her were sooner or later bound to fall under her yoke, and if this has not yet completely happened in all cases it is certainly not her fault! In the Balkans she employed all the methods that had previously been used to great success elsewhere. Thus in the Crimea she incited the Tartars to rise up against Turkish domination, while at the same time promising them that if they united with her she would grant them a certain autonomy. Their autonomy has now departed to join the constitution promised to Poland!

Let us add to all this, that if she had been given the chance, Russia would have acted in the same way towards the Balkan peoples. Unfortunately, the peoples are unable to divine the ulterior motives of the governments: they are simplistic in their reasoning, and as Russia helped them and defended them against Turkish barbarism they extended all of their sympathies to the executioners of Poland who had become for them ‘protectors’ and ‘liberators’.

Moreover, Russia was able to play with the fire of revolution in the East with all the more ease since the great mass of the Russian people was frozen in a state of servitude and ignorance. There were no repercussions to be feared.

Why did the West, by defending the cause of freedom in the East, not take this formidable weapon from the hands of Russia and turn it against her? Was this the result of a simple lack of foresight and diplomatic error. Obviously not. In all this there are other causes which more obviously explain the inaction and conservative spirit of Europe in the East.

Already eight months ago in our report to the London Congress [5], we Bulgarian socialists spent some time emphasising the preponderant role played by bondholders in the East, that is, the bondholders of the Ottoman debt. In fact it is clear that none of the states that have freed themselves from Turkey (Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Romania) and those who will liberate themselves tomorrow (Armenia, Crete, Macedonia) will accept the burdensome legacy of the Sultan’s debt. This is why for a certain class of very influential people the conservation of the Turkish empire appears as a supreme interest.

On the other hand, Turkey at present, with the regime of Capitulations [6] that make a veritable Pasha of every swindler, constitutes the best imaginable colony for exploitation.

As for Russia, where industry is not developed, and where there is no surplus capital that can be lent, she does not have any financial or industrial interest in Turkey. Her hands were not tied, and she had her sights solely on her political goal.

Here are the totality of causes which on the one hand have led to the passivity of Europe and on the other have given complete freedom of action to Russia and determined her success. While Europe did not wish to hear any talk of the autonomy of these peoples, and said through Lord Chatham, ‘I have nothing to talk about with a man who does not see the interests of England (and Europe) in the conservation of the Ottoman empire’, Russia worked to establish this autonomy and to consolidate its own power.

Thus, the Western bourgeoisie, through its commercial egoism and its divisions and internal struggles for trading markets, has failed in its historic rôle in the East. Believing that it was combating Russia by supporting Turkey, it merely played her game by rendering her the indispensable protector of the Christians abandoned by the West, and by making her a false instrument of progress. Full responsibility for Russian predominance in the East belongs to capitalist and bourgeois Europe.

It is up to the international socialist party to do what the bourgeoisie has not done. This rôle, undertaken in the interest of civilisation itself and of the socialist cause in the East, has become all the easier now that Russia, as we see, through its new positioning on the question of Constantinople, is exposing its own flanks and offering them up to our attack.


1. La Petite République, 14, 15, 16 April 1897. Translated from the French by Andreja Zivkovic.

2.Count Grigory Grigoriyevich Orlov (1734–1783) and his brother Count Aleksei Grigoriyevich Orlov (1737–1808) were involved in fomenting a Greek revolt in the 1760s as part of Catherine the Great’s expansionist designs in the Balkans. Grigory was in fact Catherine’s lover.

3. V.S. Ionin was Russia’s diplomatic representative in Bulgaria who played an important rôle in aiding and abetting pro-Russian sympathisers in the country, both before and after Bulgaria gained its autonomy at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

4. Established in 1870 by the revolutionary nationalist Lyuben Karavelov (1834–1879), this Committee sought to organise Bulgarians in readiness for an insurrection against the Ottomans.

5. Of the Second Socialist International, held in the last week of July 1896.

6. Capitulations were special privileges (tax concessions, legal immunities) afforded Europeans who resided and traded in the Ottoman Empire. This meant that Ottoman trade increasingly fell into foreign hands.

Last updated on 26 May 2021