Defending Polish Liberty: A History of the Ottoman Declaration of War on Russia in 1768

By Yusuf Karabicak
Submitted to Session P6509 (Transottoman Mobilities in the Second Half of the 18th Century: Ottoman, Russian, and Polish-Lithuanian Entanglements, 2021 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia in 1768 arguing that Russian activities in Poland-Lithuania were undermining Polish liberty (serbestiyet in Ottoman Turkish) and that despite repeated warnings, Russia continued to increase its military presence in the country in order to destroy said liberty. This argument is underexplored in Ottoman historiography both for its significance for Ottoman-Polish relations and, perhaps more importantly, for the dissemination of a central concept of 18th century debates, that of liberty, in an Ottoman milieu.

In fact, the Ottoman Empire had long been interested in Polish questions and defended the integrity and independence of the country, together with the liberties of Polish nobles, against Russian encroachments for a long time in the 18th century. This paper argues that the Ottoman position in Poland allowed the dissemination of Enlightened arguments used by the nobility, such as liberties and even patrie (described as vatan and memleket) enter Ottoman diplomatic parlance to be used consistently throughout the century even into and beyond the French revolution. The Empire was part and participant of European diplomacy, and as such it took part in the circulation of concepts among its rivals. The Transottoman dynamic of diplomatic relationships contributed to the emergence of a common language where concepts were mobile and shared, which made arguments understandable to all parties involved.

Taking its cue from Reinhart Koselleck’s Begriffsgeschichte this paper analyses the terminology used in Ottoman diplomatic documents dating from the first half of the 18th century until 1770. Such documents include Ottoman declarations, letters sent to and received from foreign monarchies, minutes of discussions with foreign ambassadors, spy reports and letters sent by Polish-Lithuanian nobles. The aim is to explore especially how the terminology is used and abused in Ottoman-Russian discussions by both sides allowing the creation of a common diplomatic language. This examination will also contribute to debates surrounding Ottoman approach to diplomacy and the debates about an alleged Ottoman belief in an ever-expanding border that was only dismantled in late 18th century.