Istanbul, the cosmopolitan capital of a multinational state that has been regarded with respect by its contemporaries, was inevitably affected by the revolutions that changed world history. Even in an era in which, compared to present times, communication was weak and in which it was not possible for Istanbulites to obtain in-depth information about developments in Europe on a day-to-day basis, it is obvious that the European revolutions were followed closely via the Sublime Porte’s envoys in Europe. As news of the events that are considered to have triggered the French Revolution, such as the summoning of the Estates General (May 1789) and the storming of the Bastille (July 1789), had never arrived in Istanbul, the arrest of Louis XVI was met with astonishment in the diplomatic circles of the capital. However, just like the Sublime Porte, ordinary Ottoman Muslims of Istanbul were pleased that, after the French Revolution, Europe was turning into a war zone.

It was not possible at all for Istanbulites, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, to understand these new revolutionary ideas or to truly embrace them. In the Ottoman social setting, which had no experience of European feudal social organization and the resulting class-based social structure, concepts that had found meaning in Europe, such as liberty or equality, were devoid of meaning for Istanbulites. Fraternity found its expression in religious identity, not citizenship or a sense of national belonging. The planting of the liberty tree, the most important symbol of the revolution, on the shore opposite Sarayburnu, in a place where it could be seen from Topkapı Palace, and the celebration by the French embassy in Istanbul of the execution of Louis XVI by guillotine (January 1793), were events most Istanbulites did not concern themselves with. For the average person on the street, “Republican” meant nothing more than a foreigner who wore a tricolored cockade, and “supporters of the ancien régime” meant nothing other than poor Christians who had been forced to emigrate from their homeland.

There were, however, three aspects of the French Revolution that did catch the attention of the residents of Istanbul. The frequent street brawls in Pera (an area that was densely populated by foreigners and non-Muslims), diminishing trade with the French, and the flow of refugees into Istanbul from France and other parts of the Ottoman state all raised concern among Istanbulites. Indeed, clashes, sometimes with weapons, took place between foreign embassy personnel and other foreign nationals in Istanbul in the 1790s. The Sublime Porte tried to preserve a neutral stance on the pretext of the terms of capitulations. Disputes arose between non-Muslims in Istanbul whose trade connections had improved with the new regime, and their co-religionists who had lost their business partners in France, about the nature of the revolution, an event that they did not fully grasp. These tensions also increased the violence on the streets.

Many Ottoman non-Muslims who lived in various Ottoman port cities and had business connections with France simply did not feel safe when the army of the French Republic arrived on the coast of Dalmatia; they left their homes and immigrated to Istanbul. French émigrés who were forced to leave France as a direct result of the revolution, as well as non-Muslim Istanbulites who had trade links with the old regime, formed anti-revolutionary groups in Istanbul. Clearly, those supporting the revolution were not a homogenous group either. There were two revolutionary groups in Istanbul, shaped by different material and political interests: the Club Populaire de Constantinople and the Société Republicaine des Amis de la Liberté et de l’Egalité. Members of these associations were not all French nationals. Many American and English revolutionaries, as well as other non-Muslim Istanbulites who were trying to establish business ties with the new regime in France, were also members of the aforementioned associations.

The propaganda efforts of the French embassy were clearly directed toward these groups. One example of this can be seen in the newspaper Le Bulletin de Nouvelles, which had previously been published by the French embassy and resumed publication in the 1790s under the name La Gazete Française de Constantinople. Moreover, copies of the French Constitution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and revolutionary propaganda brochures were printed by the embassy press and distributed in the streets of Pera. However, the effect of these propaganda texts, distributed in social settings such as coffee houses, was seriously reduced due to the fact that they were written in either English or French. In any case, the aim of the French embassy was not to spread revolutionary ideas in Istanbul but rather to protect the political, and more importantly the commercial, interests of France in the Ottoman state.

In addition to the House of Habsburg, which led the countries that stood in opposition to the revolutions in Europe, both the Prussian and Russian ambassadors registered protests about revolutionary activities to the Sublime Porte; revolutionary propaganda was brought to an end after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. In fact, copies of these revolutionary newspapers and pamphlets, which had previously escaped notice by anyone other than local tradesmen with business relationships with Paris, were now totally withdrawn from circulation. Furthermore, the liberty trees were uprooted, the French ambassador was imprisoned in Yedikule, and the possessions of tradesmen who had been doing business with the French revolutionary government were confiscated. Oddly enough, in 1806 it would be Napoleon, originally the reason that revolutionary activities in Istanbul had come to an end, who would initiate these same activities once again.

Beginning with this new era, which commenced with the appointment of General Sebastiani as ambassador to Istanbul in 1806, the style of propaganda also changed. Now, the target audience was the Muslims of Istanbul. However, the new Turkish-language propaganda brochures, which presented Napoleon and French revolutionaries as brothers who could save Muslim Istanbulites from the oppression of the “Muscovites,” were of no use.

In line with the conditions of the age, the wave of European revolutions, beginning in France in 1830 and then again in Italy in 1848, ultimately resulted in significant cultural changes across Europe. These waves of revolution were also felt deeply in Istanbul, which was closely integrated with the international political and trade systems of the day. Of the revolutions that had begun almost simultaneously throughout Europe, the effect of those in Poland in 1830 (the November Revolution) and in Hungary in 1848 were felt most strongly in the Ottoman capital. At the time, Istanbul had a reputation as a city that was more secure than other European capitals, where the balance of power shifted rapidly. It was also seen as a place of refuge for European revolutionary groups. In addition to the traveling Italian and Russian revolutionaries who were engaged in political activities in various countries, trying to spark a revolution, Hungarian and Polish revolutionary refugees were among the groups that helped to change the face of Istanbul.

1- The letter sent from London to Sultan Abdülmecid to thank his support for the religious and civil freedom of Hungarians living in Ottoman State (BOA)

The arrival of Michael Czajkowski (Mehmed Sadık Pasha) in Istanbul was a turning point in this regard. Czajkowski was one of the leaders of Poland’s November Revolution, which began in Poland in 1830. Czajkowski’s primary goal was to draw Ottoman policy closer to England and, as a result, to Poland. However, he also sought to create the first of many planned independent colonies for Polish revolutionaries in safer locations while Poland was under Russian occupation. The father of this idea had a name that was well known in European diplomatic circles, the Polish revolutionary Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. It is no coincidence that Czartoryski chose Istanbul for the realization of this project. Keeping in mind that the Ottomans had sided with the Poles since several partitions of Poland in the 18th century, and that they were in close contact with England through the services of Lord Palmerston, Istanbul was the most secure place for a Polish colony. With the ascension of Sultan Abdulmecid to the throne, the Poles increased their efforts and established a small, autonomous village close to Istanbul. While the village was outside of Ottoman jurisdiction, its proximity to Istanbul clearly afforded protection. The initial name of the project was Adampol, a reference to Czartoryski. This small settlement, which over time would become known as Polonezköy, grew even larger after the 1848 Polish revolution. Prior to another Polish revolution, which took place in January 1863, more than 100 Poles were living in this area. After Russia crushed the later revolt in 1865, Polish refugees flocked to Istanbul once again. However, despite this growing population of Polish refugees, the Ottoman administration was unable to withstand international pressure, and changes were made to the autonomous structure of the village; finally, in the 1880s, Polenezköy was brought fully under Ottoman jurisdiction.

2- Russian Embassy Building

The Polish and Hungarian refugees not only changed the physical appearance of Istanbul. There were significant numbers of aristocrats, well-educated soldiers, bureaucrats, doctors, and engineers among them. These well-educated refugees, who had been brought up with the ideals of the French Revolution—freedom, equality, and fraternity—and who were burning with a newly found nationalism, a movement on the rise in Europe as a middle-class ideology, found places for themselves within the administrative and military structures of Istanbul. For instance, Murad Pasha (Josef Bem, 1794–1850), Nihad Pasha (Seweryn Bielinski, 1815–1895), his son Rüstem Bey, who would later serve as Turkish ambassador to Washington, Arslan Pasha (Ludwig Bystrznowski, 1791–1878), who would be the military attaché to Paris, and Muzaffer Pasha (Wladyslaw Czajkowski, 1843–1907), an instructor at the military academy, were among the many Polish and Hungarian refugees—authors, engineers, and scientists—who converted to Islam. Istanbul, a cosmopolitan world capital, found it easy to accept and integrate its new residents. The impact of the Tanzimat reforms on society helped to ensure the wide acceptance of this phenomenon; equally notable were the many refugee families who converted to Islam. However, changing their religion did not mean that their accumulated knowledge was erased or that their lifestyles or traditions instantly disappeared. Refugees who had recently converted became a part of the modern elite in Istanbul and offered fresh perspectives on home and family life; in many ways, they exemplified the European lifestyle and the associated political ideas. Not only offering a European model to middle-class Istanbulites (who were now more open to change than they had been in the past), Polish and Hungarian refugees also functioned as de facto translators and representatives of the new worldview that was taking shape in the 19th century. These refugees, who were instrumental in changes to Istanbul’s sociological and ideological fabric, also played an important role in the emergence of new understandings of the concept of free peoples within a nation-state—that is, the idea that all were equal—in Istanbul’s political circles. This considerable influence can be seen in the fact that Mustafa Celaleddin Pasha (Konstanty Borzecki, 1826–1786), who wrote one of the first books on the origins of the Turks, was a refugee who converted to Islam. The effect of Hungarian nationalists on the development of Turkish nationalism was so great that the name of Macar Street (Hungarian Street), the street on which the first Hungarians who immigrated to Istanbul settled, would later be changed to Turan Street—Turanism being the pan-Turkic movement that considered the medieval Magyars members of the Turanic or Turkic family.

At the same time, the fact that after the 1848 revolution a Hungarian colony existed in Istanbul caused the attention of eminent Turkologists in the Balkans, who shared the same ideological framework as the revolutionaries, to shift to Istanbul. In this regard, one of the first names to come to mind is that of the Hungarian Turkologist Arminius Vambéry, who played a significant role in the development of nationalism within the borders of the Ottoman state. In addition, the efforts of Ahmed Vefik Pasha are notable. He helped establish the first contacts between the Ottoman government and Hungarian and Polish refugees; in addition, his role in the birth of Turkish nationalism and his leadership in Turkish language studies are noteworthy. Clearly, refugees flocking into Istanbul after the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 not only introduced European ideologies and concepts to the Istanbul elite but also ensured that they found allies among the capital’s educated middle class. Some of the refugees were unable to find a postion for themselves within the bureaucracy; these people opened bookshops in Istanbul, paving the way for the introduction of new books printed in Europe into the Ottoman state, and thus the acceptance of these ideas and movements in the capital.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Istanbul was initially more concerned with its own revolution and the subsequent world war; as a consequence, in stark contrast to the reaction in the capital to the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the two back-to-back Russian revolutions, in 1905 and 1917, were followed from a distance. The winds of freedom—blowing in not only from the 1905 Russian Revolution, which resulted in the declaration of a constitutional government and the birth of multiparty political life in that country, but also from the Iranian Constitutional Revolution, which began in the same year—were certainly felt in Istanbul, and the proponents of freedom and equality within the Ottoman capital were ideologically supported. The Tatar intellectuals who came to Istanbul from Kazan during this period undoubtedly had a great influence on the formation and development of a dynamic intellectual life in Istanbul. Istanbulites initially responded with great enthusiasm to the 1917 October Revolution, which ensured the implementation of a socialist system of government and put an end to Russian involvement in the First World War. However, a mere three years after the October Revolution, the residents of Istanbul began to oppose the war against religion that had been initiated by the Bolsheviks. In the context of this new popular discontent with the October Revolution, the propaganda of the White Russian movement and the White army—basically a coalition established by the powers opposed to the Bolsheviks (Reds) and thus to Communism in the Russian Empire—was effective.

During the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), the arrival of Russian immigrants who referred to themselves as White Russians played a central role in the development of opposition to the Soviet government in the Ottoman capital. The sheer number of refugees was significant, increasing the population of Istanbul by 30 percent. Simultaneously, in addition to this massive influx of refugees, Istanbul experienced a decline in the supply of commodities, which caused increasing inflation and difficult living conditions; for many families, this meant less food on the table.

At the same time as attempts were made to settle Russian civilians who had fled the civil war, an increasing number of camps were established around Istanbul and the islands for soldiers of the White Russian army. The White Russians who came to Istanbul in this period brought with them new types of nightlife and entertainment to which Ottoman society was unaccustomed. Russian-style nightclubs and restaurants became commonplace in a number of neighborhoods throughout Istanbul, with Pera being the central area; black caviar, Smirnov vodka, and borscht occupied the top places on the menu. The introduction of gambling games, such as bingo and roulette, into the entertainment life of the capital, and the unstoppable rise in prostitution led to the Russian refugees being seen as agents of evil and mischief by the residents of the city. Even though the Russians started to leave Istanbul at the beginning of 1923, the year that the civil war in Russia ended, the overall impressions of Russian immigrants remained. Some of the Russian counter-revolutionaries settled in Istanbul, just as some of the Polish and Hungarian refugees had done, making new contributions to the capital of a country that was trying to maintain its multinational identity within the framework of the nation-state.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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