In the popular Greek imagination, there was the fall of Byzantium and then, 400 hundred years of continuous darkness in which the Greek nation gradually lost its civilisation and spirit, oppressed under the upturned slipper of the Ottoman conqueror. What is not widely known is that since the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Greek people were, in various regions, constantly engaging in revolts, whether this be the revolt of Greco-Albanian Giorgos Kastriotis, or that of the Himariote fighter with the fascinating name of Krokodeilos Kladas, who led a revolt in Mani in 1480, or even that of the Epirote Bishop of Larissa, Dionysios the Philosopher, renamed the ‘Skylosopher,’ by the Ottomans, who led an agrarian revolt in Agrafa in 1600 and another in 1611, when he managed to occupy the city of Ioannina for a brief period of time.

These early revolts were generally fomented by Venice, which still controlled vast tracts of territories along the coastline and the Aegean islands for much of the early Ottoman occupation. In later years however, the mantle of protector and prospective liberator of the Greek people was assumed by Russia, especially during the reign of Catherine the Great, who sought to expand her empire at the Ottoman’s expense, reclaiming territory along the Black Sea that had been settled by Greeks in times ancient. Catherine the Great even conceived of a plan to retake Constantinople and have her grandson Constantine preside over a newly resuscitated Byzantine Empire, underwritten by Russia, of course.

It is for this reason that the Orlov revolt, that is, one of the most major and most recent revolts against the Ottomans in Greek territory, is mostly referred to by historians as an ‘incident’ within the broader context of the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774. Catherine the Great dispatched Count Fyodor Orlov to the Aegean, where he was to contact the Cretan shipping magnate Ioannis Daskaloyiannis, and raise the Greeks of Peloponnesus.

Even before Fyodor Orlov arrived in Peloponnesus with his small group of fighters and provisions, various attempts were already being made to provoke a revolt among the Greeks. An officer in the Russian Imperial Artillery Corps, Giorgos Papazoglou had been active in the region, attempting to foment an insurrection among the affluent Christian kotsabasis of the region. Especially prone to his particular form of propaganda was Panagiotis Benakis, one of the largest landowners of Peloponnesus, who as well as owning six vast agrarian estates, also controlled much of southern Peloponnesus’ external trade and the collection of its taxes.

As a result of his immense influence, Benakis was the master of a patronage network that included both Muslim and Christian notables and it was due to this influence that Orlov decided to appoint him leader of the rebellion. It is stated that he may have even had Benakis commissioned into the Russian army as a general.

The plan was that Benakis, working in concert with Orlov, would seize control of Peloponnesus so as to render it secure by the time a Russian occupying fleet would arrive. Yet as Thomas Gallant writes, the uprising was never anything more than a power struggle between Benakis and the other factions that opposed him, more specifically, those led by the most powerful Muslim notable in the region, Halil Abdi Bey of Corinth, as well as the Zaimis family of Kalavryta, who went on to play an important role in the Greek revolution and the formation of the modern Greek state. In the months prior to the uprising, Greeks and Muslims alike were informing the acting governor Hassan Effendi that Russian agents were actively inciting Greek and Muslim notables to rise in rebellion.

When Orlov arrived at Kalamata in mid-February 1770, he joined with Benakis and his 4,000 fighters in attacking Koroni and Methoni. Another Greek collaborator from Mykonos, Antonios Pasros, led a mixed band of Russians and Greeks to rendezvous with Yiorgakis Mavormichalis and the forces of the Koumoundouros family, both of whom were also to play an important role in the 1821 Revolution, and to attack the city of Mistra. They were successful and massacred its Muslim inhabitants. However, every other attack, including those at Leondari and Kalavryta, were met with a complete failure.

The reasons for the failure of the uprising were manifold. The majority of the Greek inhabitants of Peloponnesus met the ‘freedom-fighters’ with complete indifference. As well, many powerful Greek clans refused to compromise their own privileged position by taking part. Indeed, some of the most powerful clans, such as the Zaimis family, actively opposed the uprising, not for any other reason than that it was being led by the Benakis clan, who were their rivals. One member of the family, Andorusakis Zaimis, even wrote to Muslim notable Syleyman Penah of Gastouni, reassuring them that he had nothing “to fear from our rayas, so please be at ease. If any one of them participate in the rebellion, I will kill them myself”.

What the Russians had not realised is that rather than expecting all Greeks to unite under their banner in order to fight for freedom, all they had achieved was to entangle themselves in a brutal, on-going power struggle between competing factions. The minute they picked one side, they thus alienated all other factions against them. Meanwhile in Crete, the military support promised to Daskaloyiannis by Orlov did not materialise and he was captured and skinned alive.

From the Russian point of view, Count Orlov’s mission was a success, damaging the Turkish fleet, directing Turkish troops south, and contributing to the victory that led to the signing of the Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji, where Russia was at least recognised as the protector of the Orthodox Christians of the Ottoman Empire.

From the Greek point of view, the affair was a failure which is generally blamed on the Russians for providing half-hearted support to the national aspirations of the Greek people. As a result, many among the next generation of Greek revolutionary leaders would look to Britain and France for protection in the years to come.

What is fascinating, however, is to see how clientilism and networks of patronage among the Greeks conspired to render ineffectual any attempts at united
action for the purpose of nation building. Considering that the same networks and factionalism caused the Greek revolution to descend into a civil war on more than one occasion, resulting in the intervention of the Great Powers in order to save ‘Greece,’ the fact that the 1821 Revolution actually took place is indeed a miracle.

* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.