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Russia's Greatest Naval Victory: The Battle of Chesma

By Edited Apr 10, 2016 1 1

Russo-Turkish War


The Russo-Turkish war was a prolonged engagement between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire for the control of the Black Sea, Chrimea, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus Region of Anatolia.  The period for the conflict stretched from 1768-1774 and involved many of the major crown heads of Europe. 

The war began in earnest because of the Polish succession crisis.  When the Elector of Saxony, Augustus II died in 1764, the Prussian and Russian Empires sought to place a new puppet on the throne.  Poland had been ruled by foreing interests for decades and neither power wanted a strong King of Poland so they decided upon Poniatowski Stanislaw. 

This played into Nikita Panin's plan for a new balance of power in the north where he sought to have a foreign policy plan centered around the hypothetical "northern accord".  His plan sought to grow an alliance between the decentralized states of Poland, Sweden and the stronger staes of Denmark, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia.  While Panin was working on his policy from 1764-1768 tension was building in the south where the northern accord would be useless. 

It would be hard to bring Prussia or Great Britain into play against the Ottoman Empire and this was one of the flaws of the plan.  The plan counted on a strong Poland to aid Russia in any war with the Ottoman Empire.  However, in 1768 Poland was weak.  A succession crisis had provoked civil unrest and Stainslaw was in no position to aid Russia especially since it was his Kingdom that sparked the war between Russia and the Turks. 

Russo-Turkish War 1


The Polish confederates blamed Russian influence for their woos and most of their anger was directed at Stanislaw despite his polish ethnicity.  For generations Poland had been ruled by the electors of Saxony, but when a Polish noble became King the magnates (rich barons) of Poland viewed this as direct meddling on behalf of Russia.  Stanislaw had been a lover of Catherine and this was widely known.  His succession provoked a rebellion and the Confederates centered around the town of Bar which was near the Ottoman Empire's frontier. 

The Confederates grew because many Polish people were dissatisfied with what they deemed a Russian puppet who would interfere with the nobles, church, and citizenry.  They began to build a massive armed insurrection against Stanislaw and the town of Bar became their headquarters. 

Eventually, Catherine directed Russian troops to assist Stanislaw and quash the rebellion, but the revolutionaries began to use the frontier with the Ottoman Empire to their advantage.  They would strike Russian troops and retreat across the border into the Ottoman Empire where they knew the Russians would not chase them.  Eventually though the Russians did give chase and that is when the Ottoman Empire declared war. 


The Border

Russo-Turkish War 2
Credit: Google Images

Bar where it all happened

The War

The War began with strong advantage for the Ottoman Empire.  They controlled the Black Sea and made it impossible for Russia's southern fleets to gain entrance into the Mediterranean Sea.  This was because they controlled the Bosphorus Strait.  The strait allowed ships to travel between the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea.  Since the strait was so narrow it was hard if not impossible for the Russian Empire to gain entrance into the Mediterranean Sea where they could put pressure on the Ottoman heartland in the Middle East. 

Russo-Turkish War III
Russo-Turkish War IV

Additionally, the Turkish Empire held a strong advantage in that they controlled most of the Balkans either directly or through influence.  Their presence in the Balkans had been dwindling since the siege of Vienna several centuries earlier, but there was still army fortifications and camps there.  The Russians had to push out of Eastern Europe and then fight their way down through the Balkans and into Anatolia.  They would have little if any fleet support.  Lastly, the final advantage the Ottomans had was that they declared war first and so the first move and victory was theirs to take. 

As the war progressed it became evident that the Russian Empire would have trouble defeating the Ottomans.  Their land campaign in the Balkans was in peril because of the warm climate.  For example, the weather in Romania was much different than the climate in Ukraine and Northern Russia.  Farm boys used to cold weather became sick and as the army trudged through Romania an outbreak of the bubonic plague occurred.  However, despite the plague and tough conditions the Russians would win a major naval victory that allowed them to go on and win the war against the Ottoman Empire. 


Russo-Turkish War VII
Credit: Google Images

Chesme is the location off the coast of Anatolia where the decisive Russian naval victory occured.  The battle at Chesme would become known as the Battle of Chesma.


Russo-Turkish War VIII
In 1770, the Russians would gain a major naval victory at Chesme and this battle would become known as the Battle of Chesma.  Since, the Russians couldn't gain access to the Bosphorus Strait they sought to do something unique.  Catherine sent a squadron of battleships around Great Britain and into the Mediterranean Sea from the opposite direction. 

One of the commanders of the Russian squadron was Alexei Orlov who is the most likely candidate for committing regicide against Peter III.  He may have been the man who killed the Tsar and allowed his brother's lover Catherine to ascend to the Russian throne.  Alexei was also one of the leaders of the Orlov Court Party that was in direct competition with Panin's court party.  If you remember, earlier in the article we discussed Panin's northern accord diplomatic system that was in peril due to the Russo-Turkish War. 

Russo-Turkish War V

The Russian fleet gave chase to the Ottoman Fleet across the Mediterranean Sea, but for the most part there was no conclusive engagement.  The Ottomans refused to give battle and it took several months before the Russian fleet under Alexi Orlov could entrap the Ottomans and gain a decisive victory.  This occurred at Chesme.



The Battle

Russo-Turkish War VI
On July 5th, 1770 the Russians under Alexei Orlov finally forced the Ottoman navy into a decisive battle.  Over three dozen Ottoman Ships were anchored in the port of Chesme and when the Russian fleet arrived they blocked the port forcing the Ottoman Navy into a defensive position inside Chesme harbour. 

The Russians bombarded the Ottoman fleet inside the harbour.  Even though there were less Russian ships, they had the advantage in the fight because they struck with surprise.  The Ottoman fleet was caught off guard.  It was dark and many of the Ottoman sailors were asleep.  The Russians opened the attack with fire ships.  The fire ships rolled into the harbour and had a devastating effect on the Ottoman fleet. 

Battle II
Just imagine dozens of fire ships, boats streaming into an enclosed area, lit and burning. The Ottomans tried to form a defensive position, but they were thrown into disaray by the fire boats.  Then the Russians opened fired with their canons.  Most ports, including Chesme, had defensive guns built along fortifications and towers.  However, the bombardment and fire vessels took care of most of the defenses and ruined the Ottoman's Empire fleet defensive strategy. 

The battle lasted around a day, but when the smoke cleared there were around 600 Russian casualties.  The Ottomans suffered much higher casualties.  Some estimates put it at 30,000 sailors and port defenders. 


The battle helped Russia when the Russo-Turkish War, but the war didn't end with the victory at Chesme.  However, after the Battle of Chesma the Russians controlled the Mediterranean Sea.  They were able to destroy the Ottoman Empire's naval superiority.  After the Battle, the Russians controlled the sea and used their fleet to aid their armies which were bogged down in the Balkans and suffering from defeat and plague. 

The Battle of Chesma became a rallying cry for the Russian Empire and Catherine commissioned dozens of oil paintings (pictured in this article) to celebrate the victory at Chesme.  Churches were built to celebrate the battle and Alexei Orlov was given many rewards for his command of the victorious fleet. 

Own the Painting

Ivan Aivazovsky Battle Of Chesma 1886
Amazon Price: Buy Now
(price as of Apr 10, 2016)
Own this historic oil painting celebrating the Battle of Chesma today.


Mar 2, 2014 2:18pm
Good job with this article Kaden, I had never heard of the Battle of Chesma before
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