Early in 1821 the Russian foreign minister, Capo d’Istria, heard news he had long been awaiting: a group of Greek patriots had begun a rebellion against the Turks (Greece was then part of the Ottoman Empire), aiming to throw them out and establish a liberal government. D’Istria, a Greek nobleman by birth, had long dreamed of involving Russia in Greek affairs. Russia was a growing military power; by supporting the revolution–assuming the rebels won–it would gain influence over an independent Greece and Mediterranean ports for its navy. The Russians also saw themselves as the protectors of the Greek Orthodox Church, and Czar Alexander I was a deeply religious man; leading a crusade against the Islamic Turks would satisfy his moral consciousness as well as Russian political interests. It was all too good to be true.
Only one obstacle stood in d’Istria’s way: Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister. A few years earlier, Metternich had brought Russia into an alliance with Austria and Prussia called the Holy Alliance. Its goal was to protect these nations’ governments from the threat of revolution and to maintain peace in Europe after the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich had befriended Alexander I. Sensing that the Russians might intervene in Greece, he had sent the czar hundreds of reports claiming that the revolution was part of a Europe-wide conspiracy to get rid of the continent’s monarchies. If Alexander came to Greece’s aid, he would be the revolutionaries’ dupe and would be violating the purpose of the Holy Alliance.
D’Istria was no fool: he knew that what Metternich really wanted was to prevent Russia from expanding its influence in the Mediterranean, which would upset England and destabilize Europe, Metternich’s greatest fear. To d’Istria it was simple: he and Metternich were at war over who would have ultimate influence over the czar. And d’Istria had the advantage: he saw the czar often and could counteract Metternich’s persuasive powers through constant personal contact.
The Turks inevitably moved to suppress the Greek rebellion, and as their atrocities against the Greeks mounted, it seemed almost certain that the czar would intervene. But in February 1822, as the revolution was reaching a boiling point, the czar made what in d’Istria’s eyes was a fatal mistake: he agreed to send an envoy to Vienna to discuss the crisis with Metternich. The prince loved to lure negotiators to Vienna, where he would charm them to death. D’Istria felt the situation slipping out of his hands. Now he had just one option: to choose the envoy who would go to Vienna and brief him in detail.
D’Istria’s choice was a man called Taticheff, who had been Russia’s ambassador to Spain. Taticheff was a shrewd, experienced negotiator. Called in for a meeting shortly before he was to leave, he listened carefully as d’Istria laid out the dangers: Metternich would try to charm and seduce Taticheff; to prevent the czar from intervening, he would offer to negotiate a settlement between the Russians and Turks; and, of course, he would call for a European conference to
discuss the issue. This last was Metternich’s favorite ploy: he was always able to dominate these conferences and somehow get what he wanted. Taticheff was not to fall under his spell. He was to give Metternich a note from d’Istria arguing that Russia had a right to come to the aid of fellow Christians suffering at the hands of the Turks. And on no account was he to agree to Russia’s participation in a conference.
On the eve of his departure for Vienna, Taticheff was unexpectedly called in for a meeting with the czar himself. Alexander was nervous and conflicted. Unaware of d’Istria’s instructions, he told Taticheff to tell Metternich that he wanted both to act in accordance with the alliance and to meet his moral obligation in Greece. Taticheff decided he would have to delay giving this message as long as he could–it would make his work far too confusing.
In his first meeting with Metternich in Vienna, Taticheff took measure of the Austrian minister. He saw him as rather vain, apparently more interested in fancy-dress balls and young girls than in Greece. Metternich seemed detached and somewhat illinformed; the little he said about the situation in Greece betrayed confusion. Taticheff read d’Istria’s note to him, and, as if without thinking, Metternich asked if these were the czar’s instructions as well. Put on the spot, Taticheff could not lie. His hope now was that the czar’s rather contradictory instructions would further confuse the prince, letting Taticheff stay one step ahead.
In the days to come, Taticheff had a splendid time in the delightful city of Vienna. Then he had another meeting with Metternich, who asked him if they could begin negotiations based on the instructions of the czar. Before Taticheff could think, Metternich next asked what Russia’s demands might be in this situation. That seemed fair, and Taticheff replied that the Russians wanted to make Greece a protectorate state, to get the alliance’s approval for Russian intervention in Greece, on and on. Metternich turned down every proposal, saying his government would never agree to such things, so Taticheff asked him to suggest alternate ideas. Instead Metternich launched into an abstract discussion of revolution, of the importance of the Holy Alliance, and other irrelevancies. Taticheff left confused and rather annoyed. He had wanted to stake out a position, but these discussions were informal and shapeless; feeling lost, he had been unable to steer them in the direction he wanted.
A few days later, Metternich called Taticheff in again. He looked uncomfortable, even pained: the Turks, he said, had just sent him a note claiming that the Russians were behind the trouble in Greece and asking him to convey to the czar their determination to fight to the death to hold on to what was theirs. In solemn tones suggesting that he was angry at the Turks’ lack of diplomacy, Metternich said he thought it beneath his country’s dignity to pass this disgraceful message to the czar. He added that the Austrians considered Russia their staunchest ally and would support Russia’s conditions for resolving the crisis. Finally, if the Turks refused to concede, Austria would break off relations with them.
Taticheff was quite moved by this sudden emotional display of solidarity. Perhaps the Russians had misread the prince–perhaps he was really on their side. Fearing that d’Istria would misunderstand, Taticheff reported this meeting to the czar alone. A few days later, Alexander responded that from now on, Taticheff was to report only to him; d’Istria was to be excluded from the negotiations.
The pace of the meetings with Metternich picked up. Somehow the two men discussed only diplomatic solutions to the crisis; Russia’s right to intervene in Greece militarily was no longer mentioned. Finally, Metternich invited the czar to attend a conference on the question in Verona, Italy, a few months later. Here Russia would lead the debate on how best to settle the matter; it would be at the center of attention, with the czar rightly celebrated as Europe’s savior in the crusade against revolution. The czar happily agreed to attend.
Back in St. Petersburg, d’Istria fumed and ranted to anyone who would listen, but shortly after Taticheff got home, the Russian foreign minister was kicked out of office for good. And at the later conference in Verona, just as he had predicted, the Greek crisis was resolved in precisely the way that best served Austria’s interests. The czar was the star of the show, but apparently he did not care or notice that he had signed a document essentially precluding Russia from intervening unilaterally in the Balkans, thereby conceding a right insisted upon by every Russian leader since Peter the Great. Metternich had won the war with d’Istria more completely than the former minister had ever imagined possible.