“Russia and Turkey; Or, Which Is The Gobbler?”

October 22, 1870

Frank Bellew

“Russia and Turkey; Or, Which Is The Gobbler?”

Colonialism/Imperialism; Religion, Islam; Symbols, Islamic Crescent Moon; Symbols, Russian Bear; Symbols, Turkish Turkey; Turkey/Ottoman Empire;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.


Whene'er that tender bird I chance to see, 

I wish that I might e'en a gobbler be;

So, as my foes are wrapt in battle murky, 

I'll take my chance, and bone that heathen Turkey.

Russia and the Ottoman (or Turkish) Empire fought a series of wars during the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries that gradually allowed Russia to extend its territory southward.  This cartoon portrays the hungry Russian Bear eyeing the sleeping Turkey with intent to devour it while the rest of Europe is distracted by the Franco-Prussian War.  The crescent moon, symbolic of Islam, the majority religion in Turkey, appears on the turkey's forehead and in the background. 

The onset of the Franco-Prussian War in the summer of 1870 opened the way for Russia to achieve what had long been one of its major foreign policies goals:  nullifying the neutralization of the Black Sea.  Following the Crimean War (1854-1856), the terms of the Treaty of Paris stipulated that the Black Sea (nestled between southern Russia, northern Turkey, and eastern Europe) was closed to naval vessels and opened to commercial ships of all nations.  Russia’s foreign minister, Prince Alexander Gorchakov, was in Berlin in July 1870 shortly before the Franco-Prussian War began, and discussed the impending situation with Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian chancellor.  Gorchakov promised to keep his own country out of the conflict, and subsequently pressured Austria, which had been defeated by Prussia in 1866, to remain neutral, as well.  Furthermore, Russia joined with Britain to compel the neutrality of Denmark, which France had tried to entice into the war as its ally, and to close neutral waters to the French navy.  

However, as a French defeat in the war seemed likely following its resounding rout by Prussia at the Battle of Sedan on September 2, Gorchakov began voicing positions unfavorable to the Prussians.  The Russian foreign minister raised concerns about possible German annexation of French territory, and suggested that a European congress adjudicate the war settlement.  On October 31, 1870, the price for Russia’s continued cooperation with Germany became clear.  Gorchakov circulated a letter among the European powers in which he denounced the Treaty of Paris’s prohibition against a Russian military presence on the Black Sea.

Even before any official pronouncement from St. Petersburg, the European and American press reported uneasiness and uncertainty about Russia’s behavior.  Harper’s Weekly noted in its October 15 issue (published October 5) that Russia was “making military preparations on a vast scale, but whether to attack Turkey or to interfere between Prussia and France is not yet apparent.”  A foreign news column in the October 22 issue of Harper’s Weekly (published October 12) dismissed as “a sign of alarm” the fear in Europe that a secret pact between Prussia and Russia would allow the latter to seize Constantinople, the capital of Turkey.  In the same issue, however, artist Frank Bellew obviously took the possibility seriously, as demonstrated in this featured cartoon.

In his circular, Gorchakov argued that the demilitarization of the Black Sea had not prevented European wars; that it unfairly allowed Turkey to maintain its navy in the Straits, while England and France had a presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea; and that the treaty had already been violated by various naval forces patrolling the Black Sea under different pretexts.  As a result, Russia no longer recognized its loss of sovereignty over the Black Sea, and it denounced the special convention allowing Turkey’s coast guard access to the Black Sea.  Although Russia planned to place a naval fleet on the Black Sea, it accepted the right of the sultan of Turkey to do the same.  In fact, though, neither country could afford a massive military buildup there.

The reaction of the European powers was unanimously negative, but none were effectively in a position to do anything about it.  Britain offered to join an alliance with Prussia and Austria against Russia, but, with Prussia still fighting in France, Bismarck declined and, instead, called for a European conference.  Russia agreed so quickly that Gorchakov may have consulted with Bismarck prior to the German chancellor’s discussion with British officials.  On January 17, 1871, representatives from Prussia, Austria, Turkey, Britain, and Italy (only France was absent) began meeting in London.  The powers agreed to Russia’s remilitarization of the Black Sea, but allowed the Turkish sultan to open the Straits to foreign navies if he deemed the peaceful security of the waters were threatened.  The convention was signed on March 13, 1871.  However, the temporary peace was interrupted by another Russo-Turkish War in 1877-1878 over a struggle for control of the Balkans.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Russia and Turkey; Or, Which Is The Gobbler?”
April 19, 2024

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