In July, 1848 the Russians moved against the Romanian revolution in Moldavia and Wallachia, which inflamed the Western Powers. The revolution in the principalities had been anti-Russian from the start. Romanian liberals and nationalists were opposed to the Russian-dominated administration that had been left in place by the departing tsarist troops following their occupation of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1829–34. The liberal opposition was first centred in the boyar assemblies whose political rights had been severely limited by the Règlement organique imposed by the Russians before handing back the principalities to the sovereignty of the Ottomans. The rulers of the principalities, for instance, were no longer elected by the assemblies, but appointed by the Tsar. During the 1840s, when moderate leaders like Ion Campineanu were in exile, the national movement passed into the hands of a younger generation of activists – many of them boyar sons educated in Paris – who organized themselves in secret revolutionary societies along the lines of the Carbonari and the Jacobins.
It was the largest of these secret societies, the Fratja or ‘Brotherhood’, that burst onto the scene in the spring of 1848. In Bucharest and Iai there were public meetings calling for the restoration of old rights annulled by the Règlement organique. Revolutionary committees were formed. In Bucharest, huge demonstrations organized by the Fratja forced Prince Gheorghe Bibescu to abdicate in favour of a provisional government. A republic was declared and a liberal constitution promulgated to replace the Règlement organique. The Russian consul fled to Austrian Transylvania. The Romanian tricolour was paraded through the streets of Bucharest by cheering crowds, whose leaders called for the union of the principalities as an independent national state.
Alarmed by these developments, and fearing that the spirit of rebellion might spread to their own territories, in July the Russians occupied Moldavia with 14,000 troops to prevent the establishment of a revolutionary government like the one in Bucharest. They also brought up 30,000 soldiers from Bessarabia to the Wallachian border in preparation for a strike against the provisional government.
The revolutionaries in Bucharest appealed to Britain for support. The British consul, Robert Colquhoun, had been actively encouraging the national opposition against Russia, not because the Foreign Office wanted to promote Romanian independence but because it wanted to roll back the domination of Russia and restore Turkish sovereignty on a more liberal basis so that British interests could be better promoted in the principalities. The consulate in Bucharest had been one of the main meeting places for the revolutionaries. Britain had even smuggled in Polish exiles to organize an anti-Russian movement uniting Poles, Hungarians, Moldavians and Wallachians under British tutelage.
Recognizing that the only hope for Wallachian independence was to prevent a Russian intervention, Colquhoun acted as a mediator between the revolutionary leaders and the Ottoman authorities in the hope of securing Turkish recognition of the provisional government. He assured the Ottoman commissioner Suleiman Pasha that the government in Bucharest would remain loyal to the Sultan – a calculated deception – and that its hatred of the Russians would serve Turkey well in any future war against Russia. Suleiman accepted Colquhoun’s reasoning and made a speech to cheering crowds in Bucharest in which he toasted the ‘Romanian nation’ and spoke about the possibility of the ‘union between Moldavia and Wallachia as a stake in the entrails of Russia’.
This was a red rag to the Russian bull. Vladimir Titov, the Russian ambassador in Constantinople, demanded that the Sultan cease negotiations with the revolutionaries and restore order in Wallachia, or Russia would intervene. This was enough to bring about a Turkish volte-face at the start of September. A new commissioner, Fuad Efendi, was sent to put an end to the revolt with the help of the Russian General Alexander Duhamel. Fuad crossed into Wallachia and camped outside Bucharest with 12,000 Turkish soldiers, while Duhamel brought up the 30,000 Russian troops who had been mobilized in Bessarabia. On 25 September they moved together into Bucharest and easily defeated the small groups of rebels who fought them in the streets. The revolution was over.
The Russians took control of the city and carried out a series of mass arrests, forcing thousands of Romanians to flee abroad. British citizens too were arrested. No public meetings were allowed by the pro-Russian government installed in power by the occupying troops. To write on political matters became a punishable offence; even personal letters were perused by the police. ‘A system of espionage has been established here,’ Colquhoun reported. ‘No person is allowed to converse on politics, German and French newspapers are prohibited … The Turkish commissioner feels compelled to enjoin all to cease speaking on political subjects in public places.’
Having restored order in the principalities, the Tsar demanded for his services a new convention with the Ottomans to increase Russian control of the territories. This time his conditions were extortionate: the Russian military occupation was to last for seven years; the two powers would appoint the rulers of the principalities; and Russian troops would be allowed to pass through Wallachia to crush the ongoing Hungarian revolution in Transylvania. Suspecting that the Russians aimed at nothing less than the annexation of the principalities, Stratford Canning urged the Turks to stand firm against the Tsar. But he could not promise British intervention if it came to a war between Turkey and Russia. He called on Palmerston to deter Russia and demonstrate support for the Ottoman Empire by sending in a fleet – a measure he regarded as essential to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. If Palmerston had followed his advice, Britain might have gone to war with Russia six years before the Crimean War. But once again the Foreign Secretary was not prepared to act. Despite his hard line against Russia, Palmerston (for the moment) was prepared to trust the Tsar’s motives in the principalities, did not think that he would try to annexe them, and perhaps even welcomed the Russian restoration of order in the increasingly tumultuous and chaotic Ottoman and Habsburg lands.
Without support from Britain, the Turkish government had little option but to negotiate with the Russians. By the Act of Balta Liman, signed in April 1849, the Tsar got most of his demands: the rulers of the principalities would be chosen by the Russians and the Turks; the boyar assemblies would be replaced altogether by advisory councils nominated and overseen by the two powers; and the Russian occupation would last until 1851. The provisions of the Act amounted in effect to the restoration of Russian control and to a substantial reduction of the autonomy previously enjoyed by the principalities, even under the restrictions of the Règlement organique. The Tsar concluded that the principalities were henceforth areas of Russian influence, that the Turks retained them only at his discretion, and that even after 1851 he would still be able to enter them at will to force more concessions from the Porte.
The success of the Russian intervention in the Danubian principalities influenced the Tsar’s decision to intervene in Hungary in June 1849. The Hungarian revolution had begun in March 1848, when, inspired by the events in France and Germany, the Hungarian Diet, led by the brilliant orator Lajos Kossuth, proclaimed Hungary’s autonomy from the Habsburg Empire and passed a series of reforms, abolishing serfdom and establishing Hungarian control of the national budget and Hungarian regiments in the imperial army. Faced with a popular revolution in Vienna, the Austrian government at first accepted Hungarian autonomy, but once the revolution in the capital had been suppressed the imperial authorities ordered the dissolution of the Hungarian Diet and declared war on Hungary. Supported by the Slovak, German and Ruthenian minorities of Hungary, and by a large number of Polish and Italian volunteers who were equally opposed to Habsburg rule, the Hungarians were more than a match for the Austrian forces, and in April 1849, after a series of military stalemates, they in turn declared a war of independence against Austria. The newly installed 18-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph appealed to the Tsar to intervene.
Nicholas agreed to act against the revolution without conditions. It was basically a question of solidarity with the Holy Alliance – the collapse of the Austrian Empire would have dramatic implications for the European balance of power – but there was also a connected issue of Russia’s self-interest. The Tsar could not afford to stand aside and watch the spread of revolutionary movements in central Europe that might lead to a new uprising in Poland. The Hungarian army had many Polish exiles in its ranks. Some of its best generals were Poles, including General Jozef Bem, one of the main military leaders of the 1830 Polish uprising and in 1848–9 the commander of the victorious Hungarian forces in Transylvania. Unless the Hungarian revolution was defeated, there was every danger of its spreading to Galicia (a largely Polish territory controlled by Austria), which would reopen the Polish Question in the Russian Empire.
On 17 June 1849, 190,000 Russian troops crossed the Hungarian frontier into Slovakia and Transylvania. They were under the command of General Paskevich, the leader of the punitive campaign against the Poles in 1831. The Russians carried out a series of ferocious repressions against the population, but themselves succumbed in enormous numbers to disease, especially cholera, in a campaign lasting just eight weeks. Vastly outnumbered by the Russians, most of the Hungarian army surrendered at Vilagos on 13 August. But about 5,000 soldiers (including 800 Poles) fled to the Ottoman Empire – mostly to Wallachia, where some Turkish forces were fighting against the Russian occupation in defiance of the Balta Liman convention.
The Tsar favoured clemency for the Hungarian leaders. He was opposed to the brutal reprisals carried out by the Austrians. But he was determined to pursue the Polish refugees, in particular the Polish generals in the Hungarian army who might become the leaders of another insurrection for the liberation of Poland from Russia. On 28 August the Russians demanded from the Turkish government the extradition of those Poles who were subjects of the Tsar. The Austrians demanded the extradition of the Hungarians, including Kossuth, who had been welcomed by the Turks. International law provided for the extradition of criminals, but the Turks did not regard these exiles in those terms. They were pleased to have these anti-Russian soldiers on their soil and granted them political asylum, as liberal Western states had done on certain conditions for the Polish refugees in 1831. Encouraged by the British and the French, the Turks refused to bow to the threats of the Russians and the Austrians, who broke off relations with the Porte. Responding to Turkish calls for military aid, in October the British sent their Malta squadron to Besika Bay, just outside the Dardanelles, where they were later joined by a French fleet. The Western powers were on the verge of war against Russia.