Галина А. Гребенщикова, Российские флотилии в Средиземном море и морская политика Екатерины II. Санкт Петербург, Изд. Острова, 2014. pp. 224

With the centenary of the First World War upon us, many historians have turned to revisit the history of the Balkan Peninsula and the mythical Eastern Question – a geopolitical quagmire that many consider to have been ended with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.[1] Among the many new approaches to this Great Power drama come new readings of Russian foreign policy in the sultan’s domains. Studies of Russian struggles over the Bosporus and the Dardanelles Straits, on the Balkan Peninsula, and in the Aegean Archipelago in the long nineteenth century have ranged from birds-eye overviews to detailed analyses of individual diplomats and their missions.[2] Few would disagree that Imperial Russian naval history is central to the wars and diplomacy that comprise the Eastern Question. But while Russia’s maritime politics were an important part of the conflicts and controversies surrounding the Ottoman Empire, few studies on the Eastern Question have looked at the treasure trove of relevant materials in Russia’s central Naval Archive to gain a better sense of the tension between the Great Powers at sea. In part, this is an institutional problem. Documents relating to activities under the purview of the Admiralty are squirreled away in a separate archive, with the location of relevant materials not immediately obvious to historians who are unfamiliar with the bureaucratic structure of the Admiralty and Naval Ministry. Moreover, much of the work published on naval history has focused on strategy and tactics more than any broader dimensions, obscuring the richness of material of interest to non-military historians.

Grebenshchikova’s work on imperial Russian naval history moves beyond traditional strategic analysis, presenting a rich tapestry of political, economic, and social elements that comprised the Russian navy. Meticulously researched, her narration weaves between high-level imperial politics and an exquisite level of detail about the composition and daily operations of the naval squadrons. With a strong background in ship architecture, she has argued that imperial politics and strategy were reflected in the construction of the ships themselves,[3] and analyzed the empire-wide effort to procure the necessary raw materials to create the Black Sea fleet.[4] The strength of her work lies in the thorough archival research, evident from the vast amount of details that she masterfully introduces in her texts.

The book under discussion, Российские флотилии в Средиземном море и морская политика Екатерины II, is no exception. However, despite its broad title, the book focuses on a specific episode in Russian naval history: the privateer flotillas operating in the East Mediterranean during the 1787-1791 Russian-Ottoman war. Российские флотилии was released as a paperback supplement to the sweeping, two-volume work on the Black Sea fleet in the reign of Catherine II, in which Grebenshchikova introduced the privateer flotillas and offered brief mention of some of the major personalities involved. In this 'supplement' – a monograph in its own right – Grebenshchikova expatiates on the activities and whereabouts of the flotilla under the command of Lambros Katsonis. A Greek volunteer in the Russian navy during the First Archipelago Mission (1769-1774), Katsonis built a successful career in the armed forces, and in 1788, set out for the Mediterranean as a Russian privateer. Grebenshchikova's analysis focuses on his actions once he arrives in Trieste in 1788 and follows his story until his dishonourable discharge from Russian service in 1797.

As is Grebenshchikova’s style, Российские флотилии consists of two narrative chapters (her two-volume history of the Black Sea fleet only had four). The first chapter presents the political background to the activities of the 1787 war, while the second covers operations and activities in the East Mediterranean. The first chapter’s coverage provides a sketch of the political situation in Europe in the 1770s and 1780s, briefly noting Russia’s effort to recruit irregular combatants as it had in the previous war against the Ottoman Empire. Grebenshchikova introduces us to Major Ludwig Sotiri’s plan to organize a rebellion in Albania (53-56), Catherine II’s deliberations and reluctance to deploy privateers (45), and a brief sketch of the 'Rules for Privateers' by which they were to abide (46-48). Because it is narrative rather than argumentative, there is a sense that Russian diplomatic and strategic moves were reactions to dispatches received in the College of Foreign Affairs about Ottoman manoeuvres. However, she rightly highlights the similarities between these Russian policies and those adopted during the 1768 Russian-Ottoman war.

Despite the narrow focus, the book is neither a micro-history nor a biography; it is a polemic against the shroud of heroism that previous biographers have ascribed to Lambros Katsonis.[5] The second chapter opens with the controversy over the figure of Lambros Katsonis in the aftermath of the war regarding his unpaid debts to Rear-Admiral Nikolai S. Mordvinov, but the story quickly pivots to a chronological recounting of Katsonis’s adventures in the Mediterranean. Consular dispatches from Spiridon Varucca in Trieste, Damiano Zaguriskii in Zante, and Liberan Benakis in Corfu (among others), and reports from the Russian naval commander for Mediterranean forces Vice-Admiral Gibbs - many of which Grebenshchikova quotes in full - drive the narrative. The story that unfolds is less Grebenshchikova’s own than that painted by Russian and foreign diplomats. Predictably, many see Katsonis as a transgressor of the civility of nations and proper behavior, and his actions as 'reprehensible to the honor of the Russian flag' (129). The barrage of dispatches is perforated by Grebenshchikova’s commentary and her use of additional materials to underscore how, in her opinion, Katsonis violated rules and codes by which he was bound (see, for example, 67, 72, and 84). Grebenshchikova does not hide her view that Katsonis was a pirate and a bandit, in contrast to better-behaved privateers – a position that had caused some controversy on the pages of the Russian academic and popular press (5-11).[6]

The work presents a considerable amount of evidence and makes for a gripping tale. After all, who does not like a good pirate story and a diplomatic scandal? However, one cannot help but think that she has missed an opportunity to say something more substantial about the legal and political system within which Katsonis was operating. Российские флотилии argues that Katsonis was eager to flout Russian authority without allowing for the possibility that the Russian Empire might not have had much interest in circumscribing his activities. In my interpretation, Katsonis’s activities raised (and continue to raise) many questions about the relationship between privateers and Russia’s consular network, the legal protocols in place to regulate Katsonis and his crew, and the contemporary perceptions of Katsonis in the Russian government. My research addresses the broader context of Russian privateering and the legal significance of Katsonis’s case, thereby providing a different approach to the 'pirate or hero' debate in the current historiography.

- Julia Leikin, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL


[1] For the newest approaches to the Eastern Question, including its usefulness as a category of historical analysis, see Lucien J. Frary and Mara Kozelsky (eds), Russian-Ottoman Borderlands: The Eastern Question Reconsidered (London, 2014).

[2] Some examples of recent scholarship on the Eastern Question include Lucien J. Frary, Russia and the Making of Modern Greek Identity, 1821-1844 (Oxford, 2015); И. М. Смилянская, М. Б. Велижев и Е. Б. Смилянская, Россия в Средиземноморье: Архипелагская экспиция Екатерина Великой (Moscow, 2011); Г. Л. Арш, Россия и борьба Греции за освобождение: от Екатерины II до Николая I: очерки (Moscow, 2013). See also the review essay by Lucien J. Frary, 'The Two-Headed Russian Eagle over the Bosporus: The Eastern Question and Russian Historiography”, Modern Greek Studies Yearbook, 30-31 (2014/15).

[3] Галина А. Гребенщикова, Балтийский флот в период правления Екатерины II: документы, факты, исследовния (St Petersburg, 2007).

[4] Галина А. Гребенщикова, Черноморский флот в период правления Екатерины II: документы, факты, исследовния (St Petersburg, 2012).

[5] Ю. Д. Пряхин, Ламброс Кацонис в истории Греции и России (St Petersburg, 2004); idem, Греки в истории России XVIII-XIX веков (St Petersburg, 2008), 168-199; idem, Ламброс Кацонис: личность, жизнь, деятельность, документы архивов (St Petersburg, 2011); А. Г. Сацкий, 'Корсары под Андреевским флагом', Летопись Причерноморья: Литература, история, археология, 6 (2006); Г. Л. Арш, 'Российская флотилия Ламброса Кацониса на Средиземном море, попытка освобождения Греции (1788-1792)', in В интерьере Балкан (Moscow, 2010), 117-140; С. Д. Климовский, “Корсар Ламбро Качиони и русские крейсерские флотилии на Средиземном море (1788-1791)', Гангут, 59 (2010), 23-40; Dikeos Vayakakos, Lambros Katsonis i Mani (Athens, 1994); Stamu Panos, Lambros Katsonis (Athens, 2011).

[6] Grebenshchikova’s Черноморский флот (see above) offered a critical perspective of Katsonis’s activities. This resulted in a vituperative response from Priakhin in the popular and academic press: see, for example, A. Гертцос, И. Николопулос, Ю. Д. Пряхин, Ради установления истины (St Petersburg, 2013); undated editorial by Feodora Yannitsi and Г. Л. Арш available at (last accessed September 15, 2015). After the publication of the present volume, the dispute continued in the pages of the Russian journal Вопросы истории. See Г. Л. Арш, 'К вопросу об оценке Ламброса Кацониса в историографии', Вопросы истории, 4 (2015), 137-41, and Г. А. Гребенщикова, 'К вопросу о роли Ламбро Кацониса в российской морской истории', Вопросы истории, 8 (2015), 133-38.

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