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Russian military intelligence in Bulgaria in 1856-1878

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By Oleg Gokov

Russo-Turkish War 1877–1878 was the apogee of the Eastern Crisis of the 1870s. The aspiration of the Balkan peoples to free themselves from Turkish domination was closely intertwined with the desire of each of the great powers to change the situation on the Balkan Peninsula in their favor and prevent the strengthened enemy from entering. The Russian Empire was no exception, striving for a victorious war and the creation of formally independent (but de facto dependent) states on the shores of the Black Sea to ensure control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, which opened the way to the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, there was a war of 1877-1878. – one of the most militarily successful wars of Russia in the 19th century. One of the main components of Russia’s victory in this war was military intelligence.

The purpose of this article is to investigate the intelligence activity of the corps of officers of the Russian General Staff (hereinafter – GS) in the period from 1856, i.e. with the end of the Eastern or Crimean War, until the completion of the Berlin Congress in the summer of 1878.

It is necessary to note that the Soviet and Russian military intelligence of this topic is both extensive and small. The main emphasis in the majority of works on this topic is on participation in the reconnaissance of the Bulgarian population, moreover, the vast majority of researchers do not distinguish between army officers and GSH officers [1]. The fact is that there are not so many works dedicated directly to officers of the General Staff, and they appeared mainly in the post-Soviet era. Therefore, there are plenty of works on the history of Russia’s foreign policy of the period under consideration and on the roles of individual personalities in it. At the same time, to be honest, GSH officers (with the exception of N.P. Ignatiev and P.D. Parensova) have a small (if any) place in them. Most often, authors do not mention at all the affiliation of this or that officer to the General Staff, thereby making a gross mistake. You can read more about the history of GS and its functions in the Russian Empire in our dissertation [2]. Here, it is necessary to note that in the considered period, the GS as a separate body existed only for a short period of time (1863-1865), after which it was merged with the inspectorate department at the Main Headquarters. After that, the GSH meant a corps of specially trained officers and the service they carried out.

So, among the scientific literature that touches on this topic, the first volume “Essay on the history of Russian foreign intelligence” [3] is of interest. It has a scientific and popular character. This is not so much a history of intelligence as a story about individual persons engaged in this intelligence. In particular, this is an essay about the activities on the eve of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. in Romania and Turkey, the officer GSH P.D. Parensova.

The two-volume work by M. Alekseeva is currently the most comprehensive study on the history of Russian military intelligence [4]. However, despite the large amount of processed material, the author mainly paid attention to the exploration of the European and Far Eastern directions. At the same time, the history of military intelligence in the Balkans in the 19th century is presented fragmentarily, and conclusions about the work of intelligence in the early 20th century are often transferred to the second half of the 19th century, although this is not entirely correct, since differences existed.

When writing this article, the author used published official documents, letters and memoirs of officers of the General Staff of the Russian Army – participants in the 1877-1878 war, as well as documents of the Russian State Military Historical Archive.

Thus, this topic has not found proper reflection in historical literature. However, it is sufficiently well provided with sources that allow the researcher to consider it comprehensively.

First of all, it should be noted that in the period under review, the officers of the GS were officers who graduated from the Nikolaev Academy of GS and were assigned to GS. Then reforms in the mid-1860s. The General Staff was only one of the departments of the General Staff (the central body of military management and planning), whose tasks included the command of the General Staff officers’ service. The latter were used in armies on staff positions, as well as as military representatives of Russia abroad.

At first, foreign intelligence in the Balkan territories of the Ottoman Empire was carried out spontaneously. The Ministry of War and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had their own, often independent sources of information, sometimes interacting, but more often competing with each other. Intelligence was mainly carried out by officers from the Ministry of War. It should be noted that according to the Treaty of Paris in 1856, Russia lost the right to have naval forces on the Black Sea, military arsenals and fortresses on its coast. Neutralization of the Black Sea undermined the positions of empires in the Balkans and the Middle East for a long time, as it lost the right to patronize the Danube states and Serbia [5]. Therefore, simultaneously with diplomatic efforts to reverse the neutralization of the Black Sea, Russia launched an active reconnaissance activity in the Balkans and in Turkey in the event of a possible war. A special role here was assigned to officers of the General Staff, who had to organize a systematic collection of information. Intelligence was carried out in various forms: scientific trips (with the assistance of the Russian Geographical Society), secret sending of spies. GSH officers infiltrated Bulgarian lands under the guise of dervishes, merchants, and monks. Acting legally or illegally, with the help of the Bulgarian population, they collected the necessary information, including for the creation of a military operational map of Turkey [6].

The most prominent person, who largely determined the foreign policy of the Russian Empire in this area, was Major General (since 1865 – Lieutenant General) GSH N.P. Ignatiev. In July 1864 he was appointed ambassador to Constantinople. In my opinion, H.P. Ignatiev represented the “action party” in the Russian government. In the Balkans, the main task of diplomacy is H.P. Ignatiev saw in the restoration of Russia’s positions in this region that it was necessary to get rid of the narrowly understood principle of protecting Orthodoxy and move to support the national liberation aspirations of the Balkan peoples. He considered the solution of the strait problem, the establishment of control over them, to be an important part of Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans. H.P. Ignatiev believed that the creation of independent Slavic states in the place of European Christian provinces of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was necessary to put pressure on Turkey [7]. Energy and enterprise of the new Russian ambassador contributed to the fact that he soon took a prominent place in the diplomatic corps of the Turkish capital, winning the sympathy of a number of ministers and Sultan Abdul-Aziza himself.

U.S. Kartsov wrote: “On all the events of that time (1864-1876 – the years of H.P. Ignatieva’s tenure as ambassador – O.G.) his bright and powerful personality was imprinted… In every place H.P. Ignatiev would have been an outstanding figure, – in Constantinople, where every person counts, he soon acquired a predominant importance. He was called le vice-Sultan; yes, he was really theirs: Turkish ministers were afraid of him and were in his hands” [8].

With the help of Constantinople Christians H.P. Ignatiev created a wide network of agencies that provided him with information about the state of the Ottoman Empire and its provinces. He also took on the responsibility of managing the activities of the Russian officers assigned to survey routes and gather information in various parts of the Ottoman Empire. For this purpose H.P. Ignatiev entered into direct contacts with the Caucasian military leadership on matters related to the study of the theater of the future war [9]. In 1866-1867 with the Caucasus, with his participation, some GSH officers were sent, led by captain A.S. Green [10]. One of the main tasks was the compilation of a map of European Turkey, which was started in the Caucasian Military District at the end of 1868 [11]. The general editing of its compilation was entrusted to Major-General Fosha, with the assistance of Major-General GSH N.N. Obruchev, Colonel Shevelev and Lieutenant Colonel Stubendorf. Materials from 1828-1832 were used to create the map, as well as a survey conducted by officers of the General Staff in 1860-1872. [12].

In 1867, in the context of the preparation of the indicated map, Russia proposed to Turkey a joint project to measure the meridian arcs from Izmail south to the island of Candia. G.I. Bobrikov wrote in his memoirs: “In 1867, a party of surveyor officers was sent to the Balkan Peninsula to familiarize themselves with the conditions of the areas in the two extended meridian arcs to the island of Candia. The main scientific thought belonged to Struve – the chief astronomer of the Pulkovo Observatory; resourceful use of it – to our post in Constantinople, the adjutant-general H.P. Ignatiev” [13]. The main goal of the work was to create a map of European Turkey, since the map of the late 1820s. was incomplete and outdated. The Turkish government has given consent to the works. In August 1867, the Russian General Staff equipped an expedition under the general leadership of Captain GSH Kortazzi, which included Captain GSH N.D. Artamonov and Staff Sergeant G.I. Bobrikov. In Turkey, with permission H.P. Ignatieva, they were joined by lieutenant D.A., who was stationed at the embassy. Skalon and Staff-Captain of the Corps of Military Topographers Bykov [14]. Since the degree and other measurements were made in localities known to the Russian military only on the basis of questionable information, officers of the General Staff made several trips to the interior of the country in order to determine the latitude of various points near the Balkans and to connect them along the longitude with points determined on the Danube. As for N.D. Artamonova, then he, in addition to topographical and other works, was assigned the task of forming an intelligence network among the local population [15]. As a result, the total number of certain points amounted to 70 titles. These information laid the basis for creating a map of European Turkey. The main work on its publication was assigned to N.D. Artamonova. In 1869, he, having already been made a lieutenant colonel of the GS, visited Turkey a second time under the guise of a Cossack officer “to present catalogs of astronomical points of the Balkan Peninsula, detailed calculations to him and a printed copy of works on the already produced degree measurement to Izmail and, in addition, to check the geographical situations of some points” [16]. In Turkey N.D. Artamonov traveled from Constantinople through Kazanlyk, Zlatitsa and Sofia to Sistova, geographically determining 37 points [17]. After returning from business trips, in 1870 he was appointed editor of the edition of the tenth map of European Turkey. In 1876, before the Russian-Turkish war, he finished its publication. This map was the most complete of those available to the Russian command.

In addition to the above methods for obtaining information by the Russian Military Ministry about what is happening in Turkey, about its armed forces, means of communication, etc., there was another one – the position of a military agent in Constantinople. It was of an official nature, so the agent was close to the court, had the opportunity to freely attend military maneuvers, reviews, individual provinces of the empire, however, only if he received government permission for this. A military agent enjoyed diplomatic immunity, which allowed him not to fear for his life when performing assignments. However, his intelligence activities had their drawbacks. So, being an official, he was constantly under the supervision of the Turks, so he had to act carefully so as not to incur suspicion and not be expelled from the country. In the 1860s – 1870s. the post of military agent in Constantinople was occupied by officers of the Caucasian Military District – Colonels of the General Staff V.A. Frankini and A.S. Green.

(to be continued)


[1] Bulgarian-Russian socio-political relations. 50 – 70s 19th century – Chisinau, 1986. – 266 p.; Goranov P., Spasov L. The participation of Bulgarian patriots in Russian intelligence during the liberation war // Unforgettable feat. Some Aspects of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878 and the liberation of Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke. – Lvov, 1980. – S. 41-55; Koev G. Ruskoto military investigations in Starozagorsko // Liberation War of 1877–1878. and the role of the Bulgarian militia. – Samara, 1992. – S. 29-32; Kosev K., Doinov S. The Liberation War of 1877–1878 and the Bulgarian National Revolution. – Sofia, 1988. – 390s.; Todorov G.D. Roleta in Bulgarian in Russian found out the prez liberation of the Russian-Turkish war (1877–1878) // Izvestiya na instituta za istorii BAN. – 1960. – T. 9. – S. 3-565; Ulunyan A.A. The Bulgarian people and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877–1878 – M., 1971. – 206 p.

[2] Gokov O.A. The role of officers of the General Staff in the implementation of the foreign policy of the Russian Empire in the Muslim East in the second half of the 19th century: Dissertation for the degree of candidate of historical sciences. – Kharkov, 2004. – S. 45-79.

[3] Essays on the history of Russian foreign intelligence: In 6 volumes / Ch. ed. EAT. Primakov. – M., 1996. – T. 1. – 240 p.

[4] Alekseev M, Military intelligence of Russia: From Rurik to Nicholas II: In 2 books. – M., 1998. – Book. 1. – 398 p.

[5] For more details, see: Narochnitskaya L.I. Russia and the abolition of the neutralization of the Black Sea. 1856-1871 On the history of the Eastern question. – M., 1989. – 224 p.

[6] Koev P. Ruskoto military investigations in Starozagorsko // Liberation War of 1877-1878. and the role of the Bulgarian militia. – Samara, 1992. – S. 29.

[7] Khevrolina V.M. Russian diplomat Count N.P. Ignatiev // Modern and recent history. – 1992. – No. 1. – S. 141-142.

[8] Yu.S. Kartsov. Behind the scenes of diplomacy // Russian antiquity. – 1908. – Prince. 1. – S. 90.

[9] Narochnitskaya L.I. Decree op. – S. 91.

[10] News of the Russian Geographical Society. – 1867. – T. 3. – No. 10. – P. 12

[11] Notes of the Military Topographic Department of the General Staff. – 1870. – Ch. 31. – S. 11.

[12] Historical outline of the activities of the corps of military topographers 1822-72. – St. Petersburg, 1872. – S.584-585.

[13] Bobrikov G.I. [Memories of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878] // Russian antiquity. – 1913. – Prince. 3. – S. 488.

[14] Notes of the military topographic department of the General Staff. – 1871. – Ch. 32. – S. 5

[15] Starodymov N.A. The brave intelligence officer Nikolai Artamonov formed an intelligence network in Turkey long before the war // Military History Journal. – 2001. – No. 10. – P. 48.

[16] Ibid. – S. 49.

[17] Notes of the military topographic department of the General Staff. – 1871. – Ch. 32. – P. 6.

Source: Drinovsky collection / Drinovsky collection. -2008. – T. 2. – X. – Sofia: Academician vidavnitstvo im. prof. Marina Drinova. – S. 152-160.

Source of the illustration: Bulgarian pathfinders in Gurko’s detachment. Ritz. N., N. Karazin. – Source: Vinogradov V.I. Russo-Turkish War 1877-1878 and liberation of Bulgaria. – M.: Mysl, 1978. – p. 203.

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