At Odds with European Conventions: Russian Laws of Maritime Warfare in the 1768-1774 Russian-Ottoman War

By Julia Leikin
Submitted to Session P4925 (Violence, Legality, and Law on the Ottoman Periphery, 2017 Annual Meeting
Mediterranean Countries;
13th-18th Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the first Russian-Ottoman War (1768-1774), the Russian Empire confronted many of the questions raised in the debates over neutral rights to commerce and navigation in wartime that played out over the course of centuries in European publicist literature. Russia’s imposed blockade of the Dardanelles Straits, a misguided effort to put pressure on the Ottoman Porte to surrender by trying to starve Constantinople, was one of the most prominent actions in the maritime theater of the war. In an effort to impose the blockade, the Russian navy and naval auxiliaries captured hundreds of merchant vessels navigating in the lucrative Mediterranean region, bringing them in front of Russian admiralty courts. Faced with new circumstances, Russian admiralty commissions were torn on fundamental questions of blockade, contraband, and neutral vessels’ rights. Among these, the legality of foodstuffs in the blockade was a particularly topical issue, often contested by merchants. The legal expositions on this question placed even the Russian elite at odds with one another.

This paper will draw on original archival research to foreground the practice of imperial Russian admiralty courts in the Eastern Mediterranean during the 1768-1774 Russian-Ottoman War, focusing on the contested question of transport of foodstuffs and provisions during a blockade. While the coherence of European law on many points of maritime warfare was fraught with disagreements, even European norms were largely unanimous on foodstuffs being exempt from blockade. As the paper reveals, Russian practice with regard to this question did not accord to European conventions. The inconsistencies and frequent changes in Russian policy elevated the prize commissions to the role of watchdogs that ensured that merchant prizes were adjudicated according to the most up-to-date laws. Evidence from these admiralty courts reveals not only the peculiarities of Russian practice, but also the influence of orientalist perceptions of the Ottoman Empire on interpretation of the laws. Pointing to the dilemmas surrounding the legal interpretation of this question in a formative period of Russian and European practice of the law of nations, my paper brings to the foreground some of the common legal, practical, and moral arguments that continued to pervade legal interpretations of contraband, blockade, and neutrality through the first world war and persist to this very day.