Containing Balkan Nationalism

Imperial Russia and Ottoman Christians, 1856-1914

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Denis Vovchenko
Religion and Global Politics
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     360 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anyone who lived through, or is aware of, the wars in the former Yugoslavia knows that the Balkans can be a minefield of sectarian, ethnic, and cultural hostility. Prior to World War I, this was no different. As Denis Vovchenko’s book studiously recounts, the beginnings of Balkan nationalism in the former Ottoman Empire had all of these modern components in play and eventually helped seal the fate of the “Sick Man of Europe.” However, the primary aim of Balkan Nationalism: Imperial Russia and Ottoman Christians, 1856-1914 is to chronicle the Bulgarian Church’s attempt at independence from the historic Patriarchate of Constantinople in order to secure ethnic autonomy within the Ottoman legal system which granted legal rights to religious groups (2-3). Vovchenko places his focus within this historical event on the exhaustive efforts of Imperial Russia to prevent fragmentation of Orthodox Christians along ethnic lines through diplomacy, ecclesiastical engagement and, at times, financial and military action. This focus provides material for today’s policy makers in finding supranational identities and federative legal arrangements to defuse potentially disastrous ethnic nationalism (4).

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the ongoing narrative by explaining the Ottoman legal system and the restructuring of the Patriarchate to now include the formerly autonomous Bulgarian and Serbian Churches in the mid-fifteenth century (24). According to the Islamic notion of a bi-furcated state in which non-Muslims were second-class autonomous communities, the Patriarchate took on governmental roles such as tax collection and schooling, adopting Greek as the language of business for efficiency’s sake, and unintentionally ignoring Slavic cultural maintenance (28-29). Meanwhile Russia, as the only major independent Orthodox power saw herself in a Messianic role, protecting the Ottoman Orthodox community.

The significance of this background is that Vovchenko shows that, within the Ottoman Empire and Russian political thought, ethnicity was not the predominant identity marker but rather, this was religion. In thinking of geopolitical issues today, the shared religion of Islamic nations or Christianized African nations could form the bedrock of shared identity and policy, which could de-escalate conflict arising from ethnic and tribal disputes.

Progressing through chapters 2-6, Vovchenko details the rise of the independent Bulgarian Exarchate, which sought to unify ethnic Bulgarians into an ethnically based Church, eventually creating several independent Balkan states. This separation was accomplished through shrewd political maneuvering, often playing the nineteenth-century Great Powers off of one another, and resulting in a formal schism in the Orthodox Church. To contain this ethnocentric Church movement, as well as the nationalist ambitions behind it, Russia used its diplomatic relationships with the Ottoman government and the Patriarchate of Constantinople to reconcile the two groups through mutual concessions and the advancement of Pan-Orthodox, Pan-Slavic, or Greco-Slavic alternatives to nationalism. These concessions included spurs for ethnically Greek clerics to learn their parishioners’ language (80), power-sharing agreements between the laity, the clergy, Slavs, and Greeks (86), and the eventual autonomy of the Bulgarian Church within historically Bulgarian lands (135). Despite major concessions, the Bulgarian Exarchate and nationalists continued the schism and their push for legal autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. This schism led to semi-comical experiences such as separate Greek and Bulgarian priests ministering to the same households (150), but in doing so fractured the Orthodox community, and prepared the Balkans for regional bloodshed and war with the Ottomans, and one another (292).

Vovchenko’s recounting of Bulgarian intransigence and the degree to which Russia attempted to de-escalate tensions, shows that even with the best of intentions, utilizing supranational identities and the issue of ethnonationalism remain resilient foes to vanquish. Regarding its religious impact however, it is interesting to note the role that Orthodoxy played as one of the primary motivations for Russian foreign policy in the Balkans as well as the staunch stance of the Patriarchate against ethnic fragmentation. Given that Christianity is the religion in question, it sparks curiosity as to why this faith in particular could even have the power to unite varied ethnic groups into a common political and communal vision.

Chapter 7 serves as an excursus, discussing Russia’s view of Muslim Slavs, which demonstrated the victory of Pan-Orthodoxy over Pan-Slavism. A poignant topic to have discussed in this section would have been the notion of Christo-Slavism itself, the idea that Slavs are inherently Orthodox, and that to convert to Islam made one a Turk. This conflation of ethnicity and religion still has bearing today—as seen in the Bosnian Genocide—and would have been a helpful idea for Vovchenko to unpack and critique.

In line with this suggestion, Vovchenko’s thesis would have been strengthened with more extensive discussions as to why the efforts of Russia and the Sublime Porte failed to contain Balkan nationalism. While evaluative comments are interspersed throughout this text, and focused on short conclusions at the chapters’ ends, there is no sustained exploration of why failure came; and for modern curiosity, why many of those same factors were not defused by the time that Yugoslavia broke apart in the early 1990s. Despite this weakness however, the great value of Vovchenko’s work is that it demonstrates that there is an alternative to ethnocentric political and religious institutions. In a time when ethnic identity politics still play a major role on the world scene, Vovchenko shows how promoting Pan-religious identities can be a viable alternative to deeper state fragmentation over ethnic differences. Within the realm of Christianity, Vovchenko also details how the Orthodox Church adapted itself to ethnic differences, yet remained committed to the notion that ultimately Christianity trumps ethnicity, a point in which the American Church—divided by white, Korean, Hispanic, and other ethnocentric groupings—would do well to heed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brendon Norton is a graduate student in biblical and theological studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Denis Vovchenko is Associate Professor of History at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK. He is the author of articles and reviews in scholarly journals such a sEthnic and Racial StudiesJournal of the History of IdeasMiddle Eastern StudiesKritika, and Modern Greek Studies Yearbook.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.