On June 19th, the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center hosted a talk entitled Eighteen Greeks and one Armenian: voices of Black Sea merchants in the early nineteenth century by Dr. Julia Leikin, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Exeter and the 2018 Fisher Fellow. The talk followed Dr. Leikin’s participation in the Fisher Workshop in the preceding days and centered around her current research on “Russian practices of sovereignty at sea and the legal construction of maritime space” in the early modern period and later.
Dr. Leikin began her talk by providing context for the broader field of study, tracing a narrative of Russian Imperial maritime law that begins with the 1768 Russo-Turkish war. She points to the late eighteenth century as the time in which the Russian Empire became party to international discussions of maritime norms and began adapting these norms to its own needs in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The study of historical maritime law in this case is centered around what Dr. Leikin describes as the “intersection of war and commerce as seen by imperial St. Petersburg” in her given time frame, specifically as this concerns evolving historical questions surrounding the relationship between ships of war and ships of trade as dictated from the imperial center and realized on the sea. More broadly, this study can involve looking at the ways in which military ships secured shipping lanes for their own trade vessels and commandeered enemy vessels in times of war. While this field of study is sometimes discussed as though it existed in a context of consistent international regulations, in reality each empire set its own policy as to what constituted an enemy ship and why it was liable to be captured. This created a fascinating and inconstant web of sometimes corresponding and sometimes conflicting international laws and priorities that were open to manipulation from a variety of sources.
Dr. Leikin uses the specific example of the 1809 seizure of an Ottoman-flagged ship crewed primarily by Greek merchants in order to draw her context into focus. After being boarded by sailors of the Russian navy, neither the vessel nor its prisoners offered resistance as they were brought to port in Crimea. Instead, the crew of the ship sought legal recourse through the provincial admiralty court system, arguing that the Russian Empire had not previously treated their coreligionists this way. In such cases as this, the burden fell on merchants to prove that the seizure of their ships was unjust, and so the merchants composed a petition — described by Dr. Leikin as typical of the genre — explaining the difficulties in procuring the capital to acquire a merchant vessel in the first place and detailing their future suffering and penury should the seizure of their ship be deemed legal under wartime law. Though many strategies in navigating Russian admiralty courts were surely employed by the diverse crews of confiscated vessels, the crew in this specific example appealed to notions of Christian brotherhood in search of justice; indeed, the letter goes so far as to assert that the crew supported the Russian Empire in its war against the Ottomans, casting Greeks and Armenians in Ottoman lands as natural allies to the Orthodox Russians. Dr. Leikin makes clear that this choice of narrative is not isolated. Instead, her work seeks to connect this sort of appeal — to mercy for the merchants and their families, specifically as fellow Orthodox Christians — to the image the Russian Imperial center sought to project; her narrative also seeks to bridge trends in the Black Sea with similar earlier rhetorical strategies employed by petitioners in the Eastern Mediterranean. As Russia’s 1806 Prize Law made no customary exemption for Ottoman Christian merchants in times of war, these sorts of appeals relied on precedent more than legality.
Pointing to her broader work, Dr. Leikin noted that her scholarship on this topic disrupts a narrative of Christian migration in the period as being usually highly ideological. Instead — as illustrated in this specific example of a commandeered ship and its crew’s rhetorical strategies for regaining their property — a desire to draw upon supposed connections between Christian peoples in the Black Sea region and surrounding lands was a highly practical act for merchants. Where simply appealing to Christian mercy and precedent was sometimes sufficient to have commandeered ships returned, many future merchants would also add the right to fly the Russian flag to their arsenal of tools to avoid loss of profit and property. Dr. Leikin connects these themes across decades, wars, and seas, and shows how later shifts in apparent allegiance may well be due more to practical concerns than religious ones.
Tyler Dolan is a PhD student in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on Russian-Jewish and Yiddish language literature of the Russian Revolution and interwar period.