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The Main Cause of the Russo Turkish War of 1877-1878

William Morgan

On April 24, 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. The war of 1877 would be the last of a series of wars between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The unmistakable reality of the clashing of these titans was that one of these empires was weakening while the other was rising. The war would eventually end in an Ottoman defeat. The Treaty of San Stefano (1878) granted Russia considerable land while other countries, previously subjected to Ottoman rule, would gain their independence. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 would be the final blow to what had been one of the greatest, most resilient empires the world has ever seen. Although historians are absolute about the consequences of the Russo-Turkish War, there is an argument to be had about what exactly caused the war.1 So the question must be asked. What was the main cause of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878? This piece will provide a strong argument that the cause of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 was due to the imperial ambitions of the Russian Empire and its aspiration to become a political and economic force equal to the major powers of Western Europe. Although the Ottoman Empires inability to modernize its economy or finances played a role leading up to the war, the aggrandizing aims from the Russian Empire would shape the RussoTurkish War and the eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Empires imperial ambitions include three sub-arguments. Russias goal at regaining its previously lost lands, expansionism, and acquiring a protectionists position for the trade routes from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Geo-political developments and the emergence of Russian International Foreign Policy Inability of the Ottomans to arrest the Empires spiraling decline

James Goodwin. Lord of the Horizons. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. 312

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By the 18th century the Ottoman Empires expansion had drastically slowed down. The problems associated with the costs and logistics of policing and protecting this vast Empire was becoming apparent to the leadership in Constantinople. Through periodic conflict and subsequent negotiations the Ottomans were losing more land than they were gaining. It became evident that, over time, it was easier to acquire territory than to protect and control it. The Ottomans expanded beyond their potential in the first two centuries of their existence. By the late 1700s the Ottomans controlled much of the eastern world with an Empire that stretched from the Balkans of Eastern Europe, through Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. The Ottomans had been a culture with a strong military background since their exploits were first recorded as slave-soldiers, in the 800s. The fact that they had successfully conquered such a large area to rule was simply a testament to their military supremacy and fierce fighting style. However, once the stagnation of border expansion became evident, many Turkish and even Non-Turkish people questioned the overall sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. It posed the question in many international circles, both friend and foe: was the Ottoman Empire on the brink of decline? In the early 19th century a phrase was coined by Russian delegates to characterize the growing tensions between the Ottoman Sultan and his Greek subjects. As the century progressed the phrase gained popularity and became known as the Eastern Question. It revolved around the inquiry of how to eliminate the power exhaustion in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. The power struggle in these regions emerged with the continual decline of the Ottoman Empire and the influence of the rising Russian Empire.2 European politicians described

Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 191

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the state of the Ottoman Empire, as being the Sick Man of Europe. This analogy was incorrect in many ways. European powers, such as Russia, were not patiently waiting on the Ottoman Empire to die as if it was a terminally ill relative. Powers throughout Europe were like wild predators waiting for the opportune moment to devour their victim, only with the fear that one of the predators would turn to ravish them. The Ottoman Empire was not terminally ill. It was wounded by western powers.3 The Eastern Question has been stretched beyond its limits in an attempt to code the various questions of revolts and wars that took place during the 19th century between European powers and the Ottoman Empire. The significance of this phrase is that it identifies issues of the imperial instability of the Ottomans. For instance, during the 19th century many European powers such as Germany, Austria, and Russia, aimed to have their own influence in the Ottoman Empire by claiming the title of protectors of certain Christians or ethnic groups within the Empires borders. The Ottomans saw this as European powers attempting to dismantle the Empire. They feared that outside influence from European powers, in particular Russia, could lead to the mass extermination and ethnic cleansing of Muslims in the European region of the Ottoman Empire.4 Although sovereignty and decline were clearly becoming major issues for the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, there were other alarming obstacles on the horizon. A strong contention for territory existed between the Ottoman Empire and the neighboring Russian Empire. The Russian population at 129 million had grown to be substantially larger than the Ottomans population of only 32 million. The Ottomans were struggling to retain significant imperial territory, while the Russian Empire was continuing to grow militarily and economically.
3

Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 3 Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 191

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The Russian Empire was one of the few European powers that could compete militarily with the Ottoman Empire. Russias biggest advantage over other European powers was its geographical location. It had the luxury of being neighbors to the declining empire. The part of the Ottoman Empire that the Russians were after was a vast piece of property that was desired by many. Within the borders of the Empire were significant trade routes, important Christian shrines, and great lands to produce agriculture and other raw materials. The Russian Empire was very aware of the profitable lands.

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Russias goal at regaining its previously lost lands, expansionism, and acquiring a protectionists position for the trade routes from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Russias ambition to reclaim land was at an all-time high by the late 1800s. It was an age of Empires and Colonialism, with territorial gains being a measure of political success and national identity. With the exception of the Crimean War, the Russians took territory from the Ottoman Empire in each of the five previous wars. They were on an imperial mission to reclaim dominion in the Black Sea region.5 The British, an undisputable world economic and military power, had positioned themselves with colonial interests across the globe and protectorate over a variety of people immersed in strife and oppression. However, the Crown was keenly aware of the potential instability that could erupt from a shift in the balance of power in the Near East if Russia gained control of the region. Though sympathetic to the plight of the Orthodox Christians being victimized through Muslim expansionism, the British found themselves generally in alliance with the Ottomans to protect British political and economic interests in the region and curb Russian control of the Aegean Sea and the access points to the Black Sea.6 Russia, recognizing the military advantage posed by the Brits, had to give full consideration to British resolve toward their Ottoman alliance before approaching any conflict with the Turks. As was proven in the Crimean War, the Russian military was no match for the British juggernaut, should they again band with the Turks against them in war. One of the dubious challenges to this alliance was Britains increasing interest in mounting imperial expeditions of her own. The fact that the

Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 6 Ibid., 20

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former protector of the Ottomans pursued land in Egypt meant that Russia would take pleasure in having a freer hand to cause problems in Ottoman affairs.7 The Black Seas geographic and strategic significance was based on profitable economic factors. It served as a meeting point for all Mediterranean and Eurasian Steppe powers. The region had an abundance of resources for trade. Whatever power controlled the ports to the Black Sea, through the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, controlled the trade that passed through it. Following the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean War in 1856, Russias influence in the Black Sea region, had been substantially reduced.8 The treaty forced Russia to give up her territorial control over Kars, the Danubian Delta, and southern Bessarabia. Additionally, neither the Russians nor the Ottomans were allowed to harbor military warships along the shores of the Black Sea. 9 One of the goals for Russias expansionist efforts was to secure an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea. In order for Russia to port a much desired warm-water fleet in the Mediterranean Sea, she first had to control ports on the Black Sea. Much of Russias commerce exiting through ports on the Black Sea were only able to reach world markets through two straits at the western end of the Sea, both under Ottoman control. Russia needed unrestricted and unthreatened access to the Dardanelles and the Bosporus straits to protect its interest in unfettered goods movement to the world.

Reat Kasaba. The Cambridge History of Turkey. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge UP, 2008. 44 Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 90 Ibid., p.163

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Russia also desired a naval military prominence in the Black Sea to promote and protect economic interests in the future. A military presence in the Black Sea would ensure control and oversight over the trade routes to the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, military dominion in this area would secure the Russian Empire as the hegemony of the worlds economy. It would also provide protection of their southern border from any future attacks by sea.10

Geo-Political developments and the emergence of Russian International Foreign Policy

For the Russian leadership, in particular the Tsar and the Ministry of War, the geopolitical climate had ripened for waging a war with the Ottomans. Between the 18th to late 19th century Russia fought six wars with the Ottoman Empire and had won each of them until the most recent war, the Crimean War, which ended in 1856. It was a loss more attributable to the British military dominance in its alliance with the Ottomans than with the capability of the Ottoman military.11 Geographically, the Ottoman Empire consisted of 32 million people, highly centralized within city regions, though the vastness of the Empire actually covered huge amounts of uninhabitable mountains and deserts. The government drew revenue from its masses through an archaic and poorly monitored system of tax-farming. Under this system contracted tax collectors were given the task of conducting all tax revenue collections for the government. However, the system was flawed and was administrated unfairly, producing little and keeping the people

10

Gbor goston and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 90 Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 6

11

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unsettled.12 One of the many problems with the lack of substantial revenue production through taxation was the inability to pay for a sizable military to protect and police the large land mass encompassed in the Empire. As a result, areas of the Empire were plagued with violence from local rebels, ethnic disputes, and crime. Unrest among the civilian population among the Balkans in defiance of the Muslim occupation was beneficial for the timing of Russian ambitions. The Christians in general, but more specifically the Slavs, were culturally and through heritage connected to Russia. Russia fostered this connection in shows of support publically toward their causes for independence or in other conflicts against the Muslims. These conflicts consequently led to revolts in Bosnia in 1875 and Bulgaria in 1876.13 Russia recognized that the Ottoman military had been preoccupied with these conflicts and was vulnerable to attack. This was the political environment that the Russians would be testing with their actions against the Ottomans. Foreign Policy, a previously weak and marginally successful part of the Russian government, was stretched to the limit to appease and occupy the Western European powers, all the while quietly supporting and promoting civil unrest in the Christian areas of the Balkans and Bulgaria against the Muslims.14 However, their efforts were rewarded when they managed to get Austria to agree to remain neutral in the conflict. Although Russia would sacrifice Bosnia for this concession, they were also successful in getting Romania to allow safe passage for Russian troops.15

12

Karen Barkey. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 229-230 Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 45

13

14

Dietrich Geyer, Russian Imperialism: The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 1860-1914. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 73 15 Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 498 William Morgan Page 9

Russias distinct position in foreign policy during the 19th century was economically dependent on the European financial circles. This made Russia both a subject and an object of imperialism.16 Following the Crimean War, Russia underwent urgent reform. The discrepancy between the Russian claim as a great power and the backwardness of the Empire was exposed. The Russian state accepted the fact that the Empire was in need of enormous development, and made it known that Russias ability to defend herself would depend solely on the reforms of society, public finances, and administrative machinery. While the underdeveloped economy affected the Russian Empires foreign policy, the Empire developed by continually expanding the Tsars domain and subjugating the people.17 Russias neighboring German Empire was led by Chancellor Bismarck, an aggressive politician who had plans of his own for expansion as he built the Reich. While not as globally placed as the British, Chancellor Bismarck looked closer to home with interest in territories and peoples that adjoined his borders such as Poland, and other Slavic areas. Russias interest in adding land mass to the west would provide a buffer against German or Austria-Hungary expansion to the east. Pressure was moderately growing between the Russian state and other European powers. Russia was anxious to close the gap in the balance of power in Europe. Her only legitimate opportunity to restore the lost balance of power was to extend her influence into the Balkans through diplomacy and warfare.18 By the 19th century, almost half of the southeast corner of Europe consisted of Muslims. Some European powers opposed the fact that Christians were ruled by Muslims in the Ottoman
16

Dietrich Geyer,. Russian Imperialism: The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 1860-1914. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 5-6
17

Ibid., 19 Ibid., p.67

18

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Empire.19 Sympathy was given to the minority Christians. Eventually European powers, such as Russia, gave supportive aid to the nationalist movements of the Christian populations in Eastern Anatolia and the Balkans.20 Not only did the Russian Empire seek to divide the Ottoman Empire from within, The Russian Empire envisioned absolute authority over the Orthodox populations in the Ottoman Balkans. Supporting and protecting minority Christians in a Muslim empire, the Russians attempted to win favor of the Christians. On the other hand, Britain favored the Ottomans. Although they did not agree with Muslim rule over Christians, Britain feared the potential damage that the Russian Empire could do if it conquered more of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Britain favored a weak Ottoman State over a rapidly expanding Russian Empire.21 During the 1860s and 1870s, Muslims and Christians within the Ottoman Empire would employ physical and economic violence against each other. Anxieties caused by the political uncertainties involving the potential incursion of the Russians triggered Muslims to engage in violent acts toward the Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Muslim commoners, under Ottoman rule, understood the reality that the Russian Empire supported the Christian population of the Empire. They suspected that in the event of a Russian invasion, they would either be killed or forced from their lands. Essentially, the Muslims felt as if they had nothing to lose in attacking Christian subjects. Because there was an absence of strong central leadership in the Ottoman Empire, it was not uncommon for Christian tribes to have goods raided by other Muslim tribes.22
19

Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 20

20

Hakan M. Yavuz and Peter Sluglett. War and Diplomacy; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011. 287
21

Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 497
22

Hakan M. Yavuz and Peter Sluglett. War and Diplomacy; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011. 288

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Soon after civil unrest broke out between Christians and Muslims, a pattern emerged. Christians counter-attacked the Muslims, with the support of the Russian Empire, to exterminate Ottoman Muslims from Eastern Europe. The Russian Empire encouraged Christian Slavs to, not only rebel against the Ottoman state, but the local Muslim population as well. The religious genocide and ethnic cleansing from the Ottoman Christian subjects of the empire lead to mass revolts. It was also a contributing factor to the Russian imperial ambitions. Therefore, it contributed to the main cause to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.23

Inability of the Ottomans to arrest the spiraling socio-economic decline

One may think that Russias imperial ambition was enough to win a war with the Ottomans, but it was aided by the Ottoman Empires exceptional debt, civil instability, aggressive taxation, and recent drought and crop failure. Throughout the 19th century the Ottoman Empire found itself pursuing western modernity. With the influence of the British, the Ottomans envisioned the transition from a rule of empire to a modern state rule as a smooth one. One of the major obstacles to this process would be the lack of resources.24 In most of Europe, close knit populations assisted in the progress of trade and industry. Cities were in close proximity to both transportation lines and raw materials. The Ottoman Empire was such a vast holding and encompassed so many isolated cities, that it required the construction of railroads and roads to connect inhabited lands to places of population, or to join raw material with manufacturing, or to get produce to market.

23

Reat Kasaba. The Cambridge History of Turkey. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge UP, 2008. 45 Karen Barkey. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 227

24

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An added problem due to the isolation of much of the territory involved the poor security along the roads and routes due to the sparse allocation of government troops and police throughout the immensity of the empire. This left large areas for rebels, marauders, and invaders to roam with impunity. The government was forced to use a portion of its meager funds to contract through tribes or local constabularies for protection of travelers for the transport of goods.25 The Ottoman Empire struggled mightily with financial affairs. Following the Crimean War, the Ottomans owed a foreign debt to European banks for financing the cost of the war which, in fact, blunted the aggression of the rising Russian Empire, but proved to be an insurmountable amount that could not be repaid with revenue collection available.26 In addition, Abdul-Aziz I, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had used the borrowing power of the state for additional loans from the European powers following the war, leading to an enormous debt following that conflict. In 1875 the Ottoman state suspended the interest payment on its foreign debt as civil unrest mounted in the Balkans. This placed the Empire in a considerable state of economic ruin which ultimately led to a coup d'tat by the military to replace the leader. With the European banks no longer willing to fund the Empire, and the general consensus by the European leaders that the Empire was not worth getting into another war to support, the Russians felt emboldened to use this opportunity.27

25

Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 5 Karen Barkey. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. 274

26

27

Hakan M. Yavuz and Peter Sluglett. War and Diplomacy; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011. 22

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The foreign debt in the Ottoman Empire had reached the point of Rubicon. Outside powers offered to restructure the debt with the agreement that they could have an exponential amount of access to the levers of the Ottoman Empires power and finances.28 This would soon lead to humorless reform throughout the Empires social and economic systems. The reforms that were executed in the Ottoman Empire enraged traditional Muslims as well as non-Muslims. The embittered commoners would soon turn to revolt to cope with their frustration. In an attempt to alleviate the financial crisis, the Ottomans developed a new tax farming system. Tax farming itself had been practiced in other parts of the world long before the western modernity process of the Ottoman Empire. It was a system based on revenue farming that allowed the state to indirectly collect taxes.29 Essentially, the new system required the Sultan to do three things: First, the Sultan borrowed money from his subjects based on an estimation of the income of a particular revenue source. Second, he would divide the borrowed money into a large number of shares. Third and finally, the Sultan would sell the shares back to the people.30 These tax reforms created a lot of unrest among all parts of the population. Muslims complained that some portions of the system provided privileges or benefits to the Non-Muslims; however, nonMuslims saw the new reforms as inadequate to meet their needs. The Ottoman state would soon find itself surrounded by enemies.31 Following a very poor harvest that brought crop failure and famine to much of the Ottoman people in 1875, Christian peasants in Bosnia and Herzegovina fled to the mountain

28

James Goodwin. Lord of the Horizons. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. 311 Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 229 Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 556 Ibid., p.554

29

30

31

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sides. They did this in an attempt to avoid paying taxes and to escape the harsh measures that the Ottoman tax collectors often employed on them. Riots also broke out in the same region for much of the same reasons.32 The Russian Empire, well aware of the financial crisis, influenced and supported uprisings against Ottoman tax collectors. The Russians aimed to support the Christian people in order to achieve their overall imperial goal of winning the hearts and minds of the people.33 As the Russian Empire encouraged uprisings, a crisis intensified in the Balkans. Russia used the financial crisis and the collection of taxes as a way to fuel the fire beneath the revolts that were soon to take place. Rebellion was trending as the nationalist movement proved contagious for other states in the Balkans.34 Other Western European powers were quietly supporting and promoting civil unrest in the Christian areas of the Balkans and Bulgaria against the Muslims also, but the Russians used its cultural link with the Slav population, inside and outside of its borders, to encourage the nationalistic fervor. This nationalism was a source of unity for the cause of anti-Muslim sentiment and gave rise to atrocities and counter-atrocities as Christian and Muslim factions fought, often with the intent of ethnic cleansing. All the while the Ottoman state was trying to introduce their new reforms but civil unrest was reaching an unsurpassable peak. The reforms were a case of too little too late to save the Empire.35

32

Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 93 Reat Kasaba. The Cambridge History of Turkey. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge UP, 2008. 44 Ibid., p.45

33

34

35

Hakan M. Yavuz and Peter Sluglett. War and Diplomacy; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011. 103

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The uprisings were eventually put down by government troops, but the sheer fact that the Ottoman state had to direct the attention of its military assets away from an impending Russian assault on the Empire, made the Russian decision for war even more opportunistic.

Conclusion

Therefore, the main cause of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 would be the combination of a Russian leadership still harboring embitterment over the loss of territory in the Crimean War and the resulting loss of political influence in a region it felt was hers to dominate; and an Ottoman government unable to overcome the economic failures and natural catastrophes which had beset the empire. This environment of political personalities, competing nationalistic and cultural pride among all of the international players, created a perfect storm of events which opened the door for Russia to take action. Russias victory over the Turks in the war netted several benefits. In the Treaty of Stefano (1878), Russia won significant territorial gains and earned the recognition and respect of the Slavic Christians within these awarded lands and the adjoining territories affected by the Muslim oppression. While concerns from other European powers, led by Britain and Austria, created the need for further negotiations at the Treaty of Berlin (1878), Russia found itself being reckoned with as a player in the outcome of the territorial gains, states of independence, and the establishment of ethnic areas within the territories.36 Its strength at negotiations among its foreign policy representatives against their Western European counterparts may be arguable but

36

Justin McCarthy. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. 47

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the fact that Russia had a place at that table was indicative of the growth of their foreign policy status.37 In the end, eight percent of the most productive Ottoman territory was ceded. A financial damage, in the amount of three hundred forty million, was required to be paid to Russia by the Ottomans, further crippling an already unstable economy. This coupled with the in-migration of over a half million Muslim refugees weakened the empire still further, eliminating it as a threat in the future. Russia has remained the preeminent power in the region ever since.38

Russo-Turkish Campaign Medal 1877-1878

37

Dietrich Geyer, Russian Imperialism: The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 1860-1914. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 82
38

Gbor goston, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. 499

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Bibliography

goston, Gbor, and Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2009. p. 90, 93, 163, 191, 497-499, 554, 556. Barkey, Karen. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008. p. 227, 229-230, 274. Geyer, Dietrich. Russian Imperialism: The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 18601914. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. p. 5-6, 19, 67, 73, 82. Goodwin, James. Lord of the Horizons. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1998. p. 311312 Kasaba, Reat. The Cambridge History of Turkey. Cambridge (UK): Cambridge UP, 2008. p. 4445. McCarthy, Justin. The Ottoman Peoples and the End of Empire. London: Arnold, 2001. p.3, 5, 6, 20, 45, 47, 229. Yavuz, M. Hakan and Sluglett, Peter. War and Diplomacy; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and the Treaty of Berlin. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011. p. 22, 287-288. Google Images.

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