The history of the Russian diplomatic presence on the island of Crete is almost 250 years old. Russian consuls in Crete have always defended the interests of their state in difficult conditions. For a short period by historical standards (two and a half centuries) of the Turkish rule, the fertile and densely populated island with established trade, good cities, roads and harbors turned into the poorest region (vilayet) of the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the XIX century about 281 thousand people lived in Crete, although during the flourishing times of the rule of the Venetian Republic, the number of inhabitants on the island reached 1 million.
The work of Russian consuls in a strategically important for Russia region of the Eastern Mediterranean (on the island of Crete, which was part of the Ottoman Empire until 1913) deserves to be remembered.
With the signing of the Peace Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca between the Russian and Ottoman Empires in 1774, the Russian Empire forced the Ottomans to allow the passage of Russian merchant ships through the Turkish Straits into the Mediterranean past the sultan’s palace in Constantinople. At the same time, Russia received the right to open its representative offices anywhere in the Ottoman Empire; and Russia took advantage of it, actively expanded its trade, economic and military-political presence outside the Black Sea area. By the end of the XVIII century, Russian consulates were established in the Balkans and the Greek archipelago, in Thessaloniki, Morea, Peloponnese, Cyprus, on the islands Rhodes, Chios, Samos, as well as in Egypt and Syria: in total, it opened 24 diplomatic missions in the empire – the largest number of missions in one country in its entire history. The neighbor was important and dangerous, good intelligence was needed against him, which the first permanent Russian envoy Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, the great-great-great-grandfather of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy, began to organize there. He bought there the great-grandfather of Pushkin, on the instructions of Peter I. It is noteworthy that he was sitting in the dungeon of the Seven Towers Castle in Constantinople, from where he continued to lead intelligence; and it was at about the same time, when Tyutchev’s great-grandfather, a Cossack, was put into this prison.
Crete’s strategically important position at the crossroads made it the center of all trade and military sea routes between Western Europe, the Turkish straits and the Middle East. Russia could not ignore the largest island in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, the presence of Turkish and French naval forces in Crete allowed them to control the movement of merchant and military ships on the way from the Black Sea to the Middle East, which posed a threat to Russia’s plans in the region.
The actions of the Ottoman Empire and France against Crete were also associated with the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula to Russia in 1783. They rightly believed that, having strengthened its positions in the Black Sea, the Russian Empire would begin to advance its interests even further. By the nature of the military preparations on the island, the possibility of its use as a naval base could not be ruled out by Russia. The ideally protected, deep-water Souda bay (near Chania) and the spacious port were ideal for the permanent basing of a large fleet. The location of the French fleet on the island of Crete was of no small importance for the protection of the Turkish capital from a possible attack by the Russian fleet, since the distance from Crete to Constantinople is almost the same as the distance between Constantinople and the Russian Crimea which was and is of exceptional importance for the Russian naval forces.
The task of the first Russian consul in Crete, Mr. K. Schpalkgaber, appointed in 1784, was to eliminate threats to the advancement of Russian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean region, to observe what was happening on the island and promptly report everything to the Russian envoy in Constantinople, as well as to contribute to the trade of the subjects of the Russian Empire with Crete. Thanks to the reports of the Russian consul from Crete, it was possible to undermine the confidence Turkish side had in France as an impartial actor. Thus, the potential threat of using Crete as a Turkish-French naval base was reduced. However, in connection with the outbreak of the Russian-Turkish war of 1787-1791, the consul and two full-time translators were forced to leave the island.
From 1795 to 1827, the interests of Russia on the island were represented by the Austrian vice-consuls M.A. Bertrand and D’Hercules, and from 1830 to 1853 by the Dutch vice-consul Mr. Toron. Messages from the island gained particular importance when Greece became an independent state in 1832 and Crete continued to remain part of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1853, the Russian Empire entered into a war with a coalition of the British, French and Ottoman Empires (Crimean War); and the activities of the Russian mission in Crete were temporarily suspended. After Russia’s defeat in this war, under the terms of the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856, Russia was prohibited from having a navy in the Black Sea, and the passage of its warships through the Straits was closed. France and England, taking advantage of this, consolidated their positions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
After the Crimean War, Russia set itself the task of regaining its earlier place in the Mediterranean trade, where the Greek fleet played a special role: more than 80% of the grain trade was carried out by Greek seafarers. In this regard, the question of the restoration of the Russian consulate in Crete at the crossroads of trade routes became urgent.
Russian effective diplomat, Consul S.I. Dendrino, arrived in Crete in the spring of 1860. The most important task of the consulate was to prevent the conversion of the Greeks to Catholicism and their return to the fold of the Orthodox Church (respectively, to the sphere of Russian influence), as well as to maintain peace on the island. Attempts to destabilize the situation in Crete expected to lead the island under the protectorate of France or England. The Russian consul acted as a kind of mediator between the Greek population and the Ottoman authorities in Crete, trying to prevent conflicts between them and to maintain a certain political balance.
During the Cretan uprising of 1866-1869 (the Great Cretan Revolution about 2,000 refugees were taken from Crete to Athens and the adjacent islands on Russian ships) with the help of the Russian consulate, but Russia could not provide official support to the rebels, therefore, judging by the reports of the consulate, Russian influence on the Greeks became tenuous.
In 1869 Mr. S.I. Dendrino left the island, and the new consul of Russia in Crete, Mr. A.E. Lagovsky (consul from 1870 to 1878), successfully increased the Russian influence. After the start of the next Russian-Turkish war (1877-1878), Russian diplomats briefly left the island again.
The next consul, Mr. P.S. Romanenko, came to Crete in 1879. By this time, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was intensifying, and a new and rather active stage in the activities of Russian diplomacy in Crete began, including Russia’s participation in the process of obtaining autonomy for Crete in 1897 after the peacekeeping operation of the great powers in 1897-1913 and the annexation of Crete to Greece. During this time, the following Russian effective consuls served on the island:
from 1879 to 1882 – the titular Counsellor P.S. Romanenko;
from 1883 to 1894 – State Counsellor L.A. Neaga;
in 1895 – baron A.B. Fitinhoff-Schell;
from 1896 to 1898 – State Counsellor N.N. Demerik;
from 1899 to 1901 – State Counsellor A.A. Girs;
from 1902 to 1904 – Collegiate Counsellor N.S. von Etter;
from 1905 to 1908 – A.N. Bronevsky;
from 1909 to 1912 – State Counsellor A.F. Shebunin;
in 1913 – State Counsellor A.D. Kalmykov; and
from 1914 to 1917 – Court Counsellor P.A. Lobachev.
In 1917, after the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, the consulate general in Crete continued to work, but after the end of the Civil War and the intervention in which Greece also had participated, diplomatic relations were interrupted, and the consulate was closed. Thereafter, the Russian diplomats remained on the island for some time, hoping for the return of the former power, but with the establishment of diplomatic relations between Greece and the USSR in 1924 the diplomats of the former Russian power were forced to leave; and the consulate general was not subsequently resumed.
The last Russian consul in Crete Mr. S.L. Zuev had deposited the entire archive of the Imperial Russian Consulate in Crete (1860-1919) for safekeeping with the Greek authorities. This little-studied archive is one of the documentary funds of the Historical Archives of Crete and is kept in Chania. The archive documents are a valuable source of information not only about diplomatic and political, but also about economic, trade, naval and other aspects of Russia’s activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Since 1998, the interests of Russia on the island have been represented by Honorary Consul Nikos Daskalandonakis, a well-known major Greek entrepreneur in the hotel business. For more than 20 years Nikos has been protecting the rights and interests of Russian citizens in the consular district entrusted to him. Nikos Daskalandonakis is the President of Grecotel, which owns 40 hotel complexes in 12 regions of Greece. More than 6,000 employees are working in different branches of this company. Nikos had began his professional career in his hometown of Rethymno, Crete, where the office of the Honorary Consulate of Russia in Crete and the Dodecanese Islands is now located.
In the article were used the following sources: V. Zanin “Russian diplomacy on the island of Crete”, “International Affairs” magazine (archived 7th issue 2018); O.V. Sokolovskaya “Archive of the Imperial Russian Consulate in Crete. 1860-1919 “, scientific journal” Domestic archives “, 2008, ISSN: 0869-4427; and other personal texts.