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Russia and Russians in Serbian History, Part 1

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Russia and Russians in Serbian History, Part 1


From today’s perspective, the history of Russian-Serbian contacts, especially migration, looks very much like a pendulum of sorts. Before the beginning of the 20th century, there were massive relocations of Serbs into the Russian Empire. Serbian refugees served in the Russian army, had a great impact on Russian culture, and contributed to the building of the Russian state (especially true with respect to the era of Peter the Great). Russia’s presence in the Balkans was primarily indirect in nature – in the form of spiritual and educational materials published in Russia for Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire, financial investments in the monasteries and learning centers, and later through military aid to the Serbian principality that was struggling for ultimate independence from the Turks.

After the October Revolution and the Civil War, the pendulum of Russian-Serbian relations moved in the opposite direction. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (until 1930 – the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes), according to the most conservative estimates, offered shelter for around 200,000 Russian refugees. We should note straightaway that for the majority of Russian exiles, Yugoslavia was an intermediate stop en route to Western Europe, the United States, Canada and Latin America. By the beginning of the Second World War there were approximately 40,000 Russian refugees officially registered in Yugoslavia – less than a quarter of the initial number of immigrants. Even this figure, however, was undoubtedly significant for patriarchal Yugoslavia, which was predominantly rural. To explain the very special circumstances and the special climate created for Russians in Yugoslavia under King Alexander Karageorgevich, we must turn to the depths of history insofar as his attitude toward Russia and Russians were the continuation of a long national tradition.

Historical contacts between Russia and Serbia have a long tradition going back to at least the baptism of Rus. In the 13th to 15th centuries, when Russia found itself under the Tatar-Mongol yoke, Serbian rulers supported the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Athos, although this was hardly the limit of Serbia’s participation in maintaining the Byzantine roots of Russia’s Orthodox faith and culture. One only needs to recall the religious educators Gregory Tsamblak and Pakhomy Logofet (also known as Pakhomy the Serb) who made a huge contribution to the genre of Russian chronicle writing, as well as in the correction of liturgical books and religious rites. Klyuchevsky wrote about Logofet: “Pakhomy gave Russian hagiography many examples of smooth, slightly cold and monotonous style, which was easier to imitate with a limited degree of reading. Tsamblak, by contrast, was the founder of a style of Russian spiritual and hagiographic literature described by Likhachev as “emotional-expressive.”

For Russia the 15th and 16th centuries were a time of national consolidation, the emergence of a centralized state, and appearance of the imperial idea (“Moscow – the third Rome, and there will be no fourth”). For the Balkan states, and particularly for Serbia, this period was a time when national statehood was lost under enslavement by the Ottoman Empire. As Moshin, the greatest Yugoslav scholar of Byzantium, rightly pointed out, “the era that became one of slavery for the South Slavs, for their eastern counterparts was one that gave birth to a new political life. It was at this time that Moscow formulated its political mission: to defend Christendom from the infidel and to protect the Orthodox Church from the ‘godless Hagarenes.’”

Beginning under Ivan III, pilgrimages by Serbian clergy and nobility to the Moscow court continued on a large scale under Vasily III and Ivan IV. In 1550, Ivan IV (the Terrible), after communicating with the Serbian church hierarchs, sent a letter to the Turkish Sultan Suleiman II, urging him to honor the sanctity of Khilandar and other Serbian monasteries. In 1556, he gave the monks from the Khilandar monastery a plot of land for a monastic metochion in the center of Moscow. According to practice in place at the time, the metochion became a sort of diplomatic mission of Serbia in Russia, where books, church vessels and money were collected for shipment to the Balkans.

The Russian tsars’ policy toward the Balkan peoples remained unchanged regardless of which dynasty was in power. Moreover, Boris Godunov and Vasily Shuisky showed their fellow believers under the Turkish yoke even more generosity than the Ruriks. Godunov was the first to propose a broad resettlement of Serb refugees to Russia, and while the process of relocation began, its development was hindered due to the Time of Troubles. The plight of the oppressed Balkan peoples did not escape the first Romanovs either. Under Mikhail Fedorovich the Kosovo-based patriarchate began to receive regular financial aid, and Alexei Mikhailovich hosted Transylvanian Metropolitan Sava II Brankovic and his brother, Earl Gregory Brankovic. The secular and spiritual leaders of the Serbian diaspora in Hungary, the Brankovics dreamed of creating a Serb-inhabited Orthodox principality in the Hungarian lands. Alexei Mikhailovich responded favorably to the Brankovic project, and according to some accounts even promised financial support.

The Crimean campaigns of Prince Golitsyn (under Tsarevna Sophia Alexeevna in 1687 and 1689) marked another step by Russia to attempt a military solution to the Eastern question. Vasily Golitsyn never showed himself to be a distinguished military leader; in fact, large-scale military clashes with the Crimean Tatars and even more so with the Turks during the Crimean campaigns never came. On the other hand, we can speak about Golitsyn’s obvious diplomatic skills, which were demonstrated in 1688, especially in negotiations with the Khilandar Archimandrite Isaiah and the de facto leader of the Orthodox Serbs, Patriarch Arseniy III.  Arseniy III had expressed concerns with respect to Russia’s entry into the Catholic Holy League, which, albeit against the Turks, was something “alien to Orthodoxy.” Golitsyn managed to allay the Serbs’ fears, assuring them that after the victory over the Crimean khanate Moscow would inevitably return its focus to the Balkans. He also called on Serbs not to provoke the Ottoman Empire through insurgency or military attacks during the Russian campaign in the Crimea, so that they could both oppose the Turks with a common force. Golitsyn’s plans were not to be, however. He never set foot in the Crimea, instead retreating from the Perekop fortress. It was Golitsyn, however, who first formulated the Russian-Serbian military doctrine, although it would only be implemented at the beginning of the 19th century.

Russian-Serbian relations reached their peak under Peter the Great when Serbs and Montenegrins began to enter the imperial service. Having set a goal of transforming Russia into a great maritime power, Peter I invited specialists as advisers from Dubrovnik (Ragusa), Herzegovina, Montenegro – regions that were famous for their rich maritime traditions. Significant numbers of Serbs from the Austro-Hungarian Military Border came to Russia to serve in the Russian army as part of the separate Serbian Hussar Regiment, which took part in the Battle of Poltava and the Prussian campaign. Savva Raguzinsky, a prominent Russian diplomat born in Dubrovnik, deserves special mention. Raguzinsky, who had signed the Treaty of Kyakhta with China, served as Russia’s ambassador in Rome and Constantinople. In addition to his diplomatic achievements, Raguzinsky translated into Russian Maura Orbini’s Slavic Kingdom, a book that became Russia’s main source of information about the Balkan Slavs. In the 19th century, the book had a significant influence on Slavophilic ideology. In 1723, at the very end of his reign, Peter allowed Major Ivan Albanez, who was of Montenegrin origin, to bring to the Sumy region several hundred Serbs and their families who had previously been in the Austrian service. Beginning with those first small settlements, two Serb territorial entities appeared in the Russian Empire – Novaya Serbia and Slavyanoserbia.

Peter the Great also considered the possibility of sending Russian teachers to Serbia to support literacy and Orthodox belief, as a response to the Serbian educators who had visited Russia during the Middle Ages. The expressions used by Serbs to request teachers are quite telling. Metropolitan Moisei Petrovic, for example, wrote, “I don’t ask for material amenities, but spiritual. I don’t ask for money but for help enlightening the souls living amongst us. Be a second Moses for us and lead us from the ignorance of Egypt!” In February 1724, Peter the Great issued a decree on educational assistance, although during his lifetime these plans were not able to be carried out. The first Russian teacher, Maxim Suvorov, arrived in the Balkans in August 1725, when Catherine I was already in power.

Maxim Suvorov’s mission marks the beginning of the history of Russians in Serbia. A so-called “Slavic school” was opened for them near the Austrian Military Border, which was designed to provide training for future priests and teachers in a number of secular disciplines. In the 20th century (1921-1944), this city, which had been renamed Sremski Karlovci, served as a refuge for the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. It was here that the pejorative name for the international church originated – Karlovac schismatics. We can see yet again that the unique and friendly attitude of Serbia’s secular and religious authorities toward Russian emigrants was not coincidental. In a way, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) in 1921 shook the sprouts of the seeds sown by Maxim Suvorov in 1725.

If truth be told, then we must note that Suvorov developed rather difficult relations with the Serbian church authorities who were forced to subordinate their ambitions to Vienna’s diplomatic interests. Suvorov moved from Karlovac to Belgrade to continue his work there, but in 1732, he was forced to leave Serbia. He appealed to the Russian envoy in Vienna, Lanchinsky, who, assessing the situation, reported to the Senate that Suvorov’s mission was successful and that it made sense to continue it despite opposition among certain people surrounding the Serbian metropolitan and Austrian authorities. Suvorov set off for Petrovaradin (currently the Serbian city of Novi Sad) in order to continue his educational mission, after which he went to Segedin (currently the Hungarian city of Szeged). In 1736, Maxim Suvorov returned to Russia, but his eleven years of educational work did not pass by without a result; he produced hundreds of priests and teachers, laid the foundations of Serbia’s secular educational system and gained credibility among the Serbs. The new Serbian metropolitan, Vikentiy Jovanovic, enjoyed favorable relations with Suvorov and asked the synod to continue to send instructors from Russia, ensuring that all the necessary conditions would be provided.

Suvorov’s mission was continued by other Russian educators, mostly graduates of the Kiev Theological Academy – Kozachinsky, Kazunovsky, Klimovsky, Shumlyan, Levandovsky and Minatsky. Emanuel Kozachinsky renewed Suvorov’s efforts to open a school in Sremski Karlovci, proclaiming himself its “prefect.” Under Kozachinsky, students in Sremski Karlovci put on a “tragicomedy” play written by the “prefect” on the basis of Serbian history. This modest school production is officially considered to be the beginning of Serbian theater, and Kozachinsky to be the first Serbian playwright. Kozachinsky’s colleagues began teaching in Belgrade, Segedin, Osijek and Vukovar. Anna Ioannovna’s regime, however, did little to encourage Orthodox missionary and educational activity, and Russian interest in the region soon began to wane. In the late 1730s, most of the seminarians went back to Kiev, save for two who managed to start families and chose to remain among the Serbs.

After Kozachinsky and his colleagues, Russian teachers did not appear in Serbia for another hundred years. This was largely due to the political situation in Russia and Austria, as well as the tensions that both empires experienced in their relations with Turkey. However, “having tasted the fruits of Russian education,” the Serbian clergy and people (traders and soldiers) were no longer satisfied with semi-local teachers. A large number of Serbs went to Russia for training, primarily at the Kiev Theological Academy, which enjoyed closer proximity to the Balkans. From 1721-1768, twenty-eight Serbs trained in Kiev, including the future historian Jovan Rachich, as well as educators Dionisy Novakovic and Evstafiev Skleretich.

Russian influence in the Serb-populated areas of Austria and the adjacent areas of Turkey led to a situation in which the educated part of the local population began abandoning the Serbian language in favor of a Volapьk of sorts that was “pleasant Serbian,” combining Serbian, Russian and Church Slavonic. This was not only a literary language but also an everyday spoken language, and those who wanted an education were expected to speak the new language. Despite the activities of the 19th century Serbian educator Vuk Karadzic, the creator of the modern Serbian language who actively opposed the new language and tried whenever possible to replace them with everyday words, “many expressions of contemporary literary Serbian contain visible traces of Russian and Church Slavonic forms.”

The resettlement of Serbs to the Russian Empire continued. Starting under Peter the Great, the migration took place throughout the first half of the 18th century, although the number of Serbian immigrants was relatively small. The turning point for Serbian resettlement to Russia came in 1751-1752 when Austrian Empress Maria Theresa decided to abolish the freedom enjoyed by the Serbian population along the Military Border with Turkey, which provoked a hitherto unprecedented wave of migration. For these two years the same number of Serbs settled in the Russian Empire as had moved in the twenty years following the establishment of the first Serbian colony in Novorossiya by Ivan Albanez. A telling case can be found with Colonel Ivan Shevich, who, having decided to take Russian citizenship, brought with him 210 men with their families – a total of roughly five hundred people. Russian Empress Elizabeth’s cabinet, in the belief that the Serbs would continue to migrate to Russia in such numbers, in 1751 decided to establish a new autonomous region called Novaya Serbia in the northwestern part of Zaporizhzhya. In 1753, Slavyanoserbia was established between the Bakhmut and Lugan. Both territories were subordinated directly to the Senate and the Military Collegium.

Under Empress Elizabeth approximately 3,000 Serbs in total settled on the territory that currently makes up the Lugansk and Kirovograd Regions in Ukraine. Most of them were former subjects of the Austrian Empire, although there were also refugees from Turkey. The settlers followed a paramilitary lifestyle that was in many ways similar to that of the Cossacks. They had to protect southern Russia from raids by Crimean Tatars, as well as be ready to mobilize in the event of hostilities with Turkey in the region of the Danube. However, the Russian government’s hopes of continuing the flow of migrants from the Military Border failed to materialize. Empress Maria Theresa, having understood that the buffer zone separating Turkey and Austria was under the threat of extinction, restored some of the benefits previously to the Serbian population that had previously been abolished. She also strictly prohibited Serb officers from accepting Russian citizenship. These and other measures, as well as the fact that the land offered for Serb settlements in Russia was wild and undeveloped, resulted in Serbian military emigration to Russia practically ceasing by the early 1760s.

Both Serbian districts lost their autonomous status and became part of the Novorossiya guberniya under Catherine II in 1764. Those Serbs who had officer ranks were granted the nobility and estates in the adjoining areas, while ordinary Serbs became state peasants without the right of transfer from state to private ownership. By virtue of the same faith, similarities in languages and customs, the Serbian settlers were rapidly assimilated by the Russians in the region. In 1862, no more than 1,000 residents could remember their Serbian origin, and by 1900, all traces of Serbian settlement had been lost. Many Russified Serbs left a significant mark on Russian history. The most famous of them, perhaps, was General Mikhail Miloradovich whose name for the majority of Russians, unfortunately, is associated only with the Decembrist uprising and for shooting Kakhovsky. Miloradovich certainly deserves to be remembered as a general, however. There was also Nikolai and Leonty Depreradovich, the brilliant generals who were the grandsons of Rajko Preradovic, one of the founders of Novaya Serbia. They were most famous for their role in overthrowing Paul I.

The history of the Serbian settlements, as well as that of the Serbs in the Russian service, is important in terms of understanding this people's attitude toward Russia. The willingness of Serbia to take in Russian emigrants during the 1920s was directly tied to Russia’s willingness to accept Serb refugees in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was also tied to the contribution that Russia made to the formation of Serbian culture. For many thousands of Serbs Russia became a second homeland, and the autonomous regions in the Russian Empire were seen as the embryo of a future Serbian state under the auspices of the Russian emperor. Novaya Serbia and Slavyanoserbia were in the same row as “the new Israel” under the authority of the Russian tsar, which was hoped for by the medieval Serbian chronicler, and the “Orthodox Illiriya,” dreamed about by George Brankovic.

It is obvious that Russia’s support of the Orthodox population in the Balkans, the active involvement of Serbs and Montenegrins in the Russian service and the creation of special conditions for Serb settlers were caused not by altruism; rather, they were due to Russia’s geopolitical interests, which, with respect to the Balkans, have changed very little since the time of Ivan the Terrible. But until the middle of the 19th century, when Serbia, having obtained autonomy from Turkey, began trying to build its own foreign policy, Russia’s interests almost entirely coincided with the aspirations of the Serbian people. Therefore it is not accurate to speak of Russian “proselytizing” in the Balkans; rather, what should be noted is the principle identity of the Russian and Serbian national-political paradigm.

The end of the 18th century in Russia’s foreign policy was marked by the deterioration of relations with Turkey and the subsequent Russo-Turkish wars. On January 19, 1769, Catherine II issued a proclamation to the Balkan Christians “in the Slavonic and Greek languages” in which she called on Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire to rebel and resist the Turks. The appeal was spread around the Balkans by Russian agents. While Montenegro and Bosnia bore responsibility for the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War through their mass armed insurrections, Serbia only witnessed minor disturbances. This was the result of the very unfortunate outcome experienced by the Serbs during the preceding Austro-Turkish War of 1737-1739, in which Austria lost its possessions south of the Danube, including Belgrade, and the population of northern Serbia (the newly formed Belgrade pachalik) was subjected to severe Turkish repression. Only by the 1780s did the Serbs gain enough strength for a new uprising.

In 1787, dissatisfied with the conditions of the Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca, Turkey declared war on Russia, not knowing of the recently concluded military alliance between Russia and Austria. The beginning of the war led to the development of an anti-Turkish movement in Serbia. The Serb rebels freed the north of the country, and in 1788, the Austrian army once again repelled the Turks from Belgrade. This victory was to be short-lived, however. In 1791, under the terms of the Peace Treaty of Sistov, Austria conceded all the conquered territory to Turkey. These events had two fundamentally important consequences for the history of relations between Russia and Serbia. First, the Serbs finally lost faith in the ability of Austria to aid them in achieving freedom from the Turks. Henceforth, Serbian aspirations not only in education and religion, but also in the military sphere concerned primarily the Russian Empire. Second, a large number of Serbs with military experience flocked to Russia once again. Some of them were settled in the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Walachia, which were under Russian protection, in anticipation of renewed hostilities. Some of them joined the ranks of the Bakhmut Hussar Regiment, which was created at the site of the abolished Serbian autonomous regions.

The reign of Paul I proved to be a difficult test for Russian-Serbian relations. The emperor, who declared himself the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, was suspected by many of rejecting Orthodoxy, which would have been quite logical insofar as the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was a Catholic one. In the Balkans people began to conceive of the Russian emperor as the antichrist. Out of fairness, however, it should be noted that such attitudes came from Russia itself, as the Orthodox clergy by and large neither understood nor accepted Paul’s reforms. The rejection of Paul's connection with the Order and his refusal to follow traditional Orthodox rituals can partly explain the active participation in his overthrow by the Depreradovich brothers, Nikolai and Leonty, as well as other Serbian officers in the Russian service.

The ascent of Alexander I to the throne in 1801 raised great expectations among the Serbs. In 1803, Archimandrite Arseniy Gagovic was granted an audience with the emperor. The archimandrite called upon Alexander to fix his glance on Serbia and to facilitate the Serbs’ escape from the Turkish yoke. Archimandrite Arseniy was received favorably on the whole and was even somewhat encouraged. At the beginning of 1804, Metropolitan Stefan Stratimiroviж of Karlovci sent Alexander I a detailed “memorandum” describing the current situation in the region. The document requested military assistance in the liberation of Serbia from the Turks, as well as the resumption of educational activities by Russian teachers. In the spring of 1804, several anti-Turkish guerrilla on the part of Serbian insurgents provoked yet another wave of Turkish reprisals. At the head of the rebellion was George Petrovich Karageorgevich.


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