Trouble in the Ottoman Empire: The Russo-Turkish War

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  • 0:03 Background to War
  • 1:05 Rebellion in the Balkans
  • 2:08 Treaty of San Stefano
  • 3:02 Treaty of Berlin
  • 4:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains the importance of the Russo-Turkish War of the late 19th century. In doing so, it highlights some of the conflict in the Balkans, as well as the treaties of San Stefano and Berlin.

Background to War

The Russo-Turkish War of the late 19th century signaled a turning point in Europe's balance of power. Pitting Russia against the once powerful Muslim Turks of the Ottoman Empire, this conflict ushered in sweeping change. For Russia, these changes would eventually work out rather well. For the Ottomans, not so much. This was the beginning of the end for their empire.

To begin, for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire and the Russians had been at odds. The Russians greatly coveted the Turkish control of the Black Sea ports and its trade routes to the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, the Turks had no interest in relinquishing this control. Making things harder for Russia, the rest of Europe (especially Britain and France) had no intentions of letting Russia control these trade routes. This was clear due to the Crimean War of the 1850s, in which these two European power houses came to the aid of the Ottomans.

Rebellion in the Balkans

Although the Crimean War was officially won by the Ottomans and their European allies, what ensued were years of on-again-off-again fighting as Russian pushed further and further into Ottoman lands, gaining control of parts of the Black Sea. Despite the desire of most of Europe, Russia continued to move into Ottoman lands. Unfortunately for the Ottomans, this conflict came to a decisive head in the Balkans.

In the mid-1870s, Christian Slavs living in the Ottoman-controlled provinces of Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Bulgaria rebelled against their Muslim rulers. Inspired by the concept known as Pan-Slavism, these Christian Slavs believed that all Slavic people should be autonomously united as one. Also moved by their Pan-Slavic dreams, other Slavs across the region joined the fight. Unfortunately, these people groups were no match for the Turkish army. The Turks dealt them a decisive defeat and tens of thousands of Slavs were massacred.

Treaty of San Stefano

Seeing their fellow Slavs massacred, and also seeing an opportunity to gain some more land, Russian forces descended on the Ottoman Empire. After a very bloody campaign, the Russians, joined by the Romanians, defeated the Ottoman armies at the Siege of Pleven. This victory opened up the gateway for Russian forces to move further into Ottoman lands, seizing Adrianople in the year 1878.

Seeing their hopes of victory dashed, the Ottoman Turks agreed to end the Russo-Turkish War with the Treaty of San Stefano. This treaty, crippling the Ottoman Empire, saw Russia gain control of much of the Ottoman holdings in the Balkans. Adding great insult to injury, it also granted freedom from Ottoman rule to the Slavic regions of Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, as well as independence to Romania.

Treaty of Berlin

Unfortunately for Russia, the rest of Europe, especially Britain and Austria-Hungary, had no intention of letting Russia control the land delineated under the Treaty of San Stefano. Instead, the powerhouses of Europe stepped in with the Treaty of Berlin in which Russia's winnings were greatly reduced. Forced to accept this or perhaps face more fighting, Russia walked away with only new lands in the mountainous Caucasus regions. Bosnia and Herzegovnia were given to Austria, while Romania was declared independent.

Although the Treaty of Berlin wasn't great for Russia, it really devastated the Ottoman Empire. With much of their lands reallocated to other powers, the Ottoman Empire was reduced to not much more than a pawn in Europe's political game. With its former glory draining away, the once mighty Ottoman Empire soon earned itself the nickname, 'The Sick Man of Europe.'

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