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The Russian Retreat

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

The retrograde movement of the Russians in Turkey is much more complete than we had supposed it could be, and more than, even in the worst case, now seems necessary from a military point of view. It appears that the pledge of the Czar to the Emperor of Austria and his orders to his generals include the total evacuation of Moldavia as well as Wallachia, leaving not a Russian soldier on Turkish ground, while a powerful Austrian force will instantly come forward to take their place and enforce a separation between the recent combatants. But it would be an error to suppose that the Russians withdraw because of their defeat at Silistria or to accept for truth the blustering assertions of the English journals, which give to that defeat the character of a rout, and would fain make the world believe that 15,000 or at the utmost 17,000 men, sallying from the fortress, could drive away 100,000 or at the least 90,000. The Russians were repulsed beyond a doubt, bloodily and utterly repulsed again and again, as their precipitate, ill considered, unscientific, confused attacks deserved to be, bravely as they were executed; the Turks fought with heroic courage that never was surpassed, and with a degree of military skill that must make this siege memorable in all history; but we have yet to see any reason for believing that they compelled the enemy to raise the siege. Indeed, our best information is to the effect that the Russian batteries on the left bank were still held and employed against the fortress after that last murderous sortie, in which some exaggerated dispatches affirm that these batteries were captured by the garrison. The truth evidently is that the Russians finally withdrew from before Silistria simply because the Czar had agreed with Austria that on a certain day his troops should all be out of the Principalities. He had ordered them to take Silistria be-forehand, in order to leave Turkey with the prestige of at least one victory; in that they failed and had to march away under the disgrace of the failure; but their march was not a flight with a pursuing enemy in their rear. They might not, and probably would not, have been able to take Silistria even by a regular siege; they probably could not have gained anything from the campaign, and in that event might have retired upon the Sereth; but they were still stronger than the allies, Turks and all, and, for defensive purposes at least, far stronger. Besides, the allies had not yet been brought against them, and no decisive battle had been fought. It is, therefore, certain that this retreat to the Pruth is dictated by diplomatic considerations, and not by any military necessity growing out of the superior power or better strategy of Omer Pasha and the allies in Turkey.

But while it would be a mistake to suppose the Russians were actually driven from before Silistria, it would be equally a mistake not to see that the war generally is going against them, and that the Austrian intervention offers the best means of mending their fortunes. We do not here allude to their successive reverses at Oltenitza, Chetatea, Caracal, or Silistria, comparatively small affairs, in which the Turks beat them, and which they have nowhere matched with successes of equal brilliancy. All of these conflicts together had no decisive or desperate results; but in Asia their game has steadily been a losing one, and the loss now threatens to become final. Of their numerous forts on the Black Sea only two remain; while inland Shamyl and his mountaineers have not only freed their immediate hills and valleys from the hated Muscovite[a], but have cut off the communications of Count Woronzoff with Russia, and, acting with the Turks on the south are marching upon Tiflis with a strength which may possibly compel the surrender of the Count with all the hard-got and painfully-held Transcaucasian possessions of Russia. To lose these provinces, which have cost such vast amounts of blood and treasure, would be, if possible, a greater mortification to the Czar than defeat in a pitched battle in Turkey; and there is no doubt that, so soon as his armies are back across the Pruth, he will at once devote all the forces he can spare from the defense of the Crimea and of Sevastopol, to the work of regaining the passes of the Caucasus and relieving Woronzoff. The success of Shamyl has in all probability contributed much toward' the Russian compliance with the Austrian summons to evacuate the Principalities.

In this important transaction, which so changes and complicates the aspect of the war, Austria holds the post of honor and of advantage. It is a great triumph for her diplomacy, and testifies to the respect in which her military resources are held by all the contending parties. She intervenes as the friend of both sides; the Russians go quietly out to make room for her; and the Porte only follows the advice of France and England in signing the treaty which gives the Principalities to her occupation. She is there, then, as an armed arbitrator intervening between the combatants by their joint consent, because each believes the intervention to be for his benefit. The western powers openly proclaim that it is an act in their favor and the concert with regard to it, which the facts prove to have existed between St. Petersburg and Vienna, before it was known to the world that such an event would take place, and before the army under Paskievich had met with the repulse at Silistria, renders it impossible to doubt that Russia also regards it as an act in her favor. Which, then, is the dupe? and to which party will Austria prove treacherous?

Of course, like every other power, Austria pursues her own interest alone. That interest requires on the one hand that Russia should not hold the Principalities and control the mouths of the Danube and the Black Sea, because a large and increasing part of Austrian commerce goes in that direction. Besides, for Russia to annex Turkey or any part of it might breed disturbance in the Slavonic tribes of the Austrian empire, among whose members Panslavism, or a union with Russia, already has numerous partisans. It is therefore plain that Austria never can consent to the absorption of Turkey by Russia, unless she receives at the same time an equivalent addition of territory and power elsewhere, which is impossible. But on the other hand, the sympathies of Austrian policy are all with the Czar and opposed to France and England, and her real leanings will always be against the western powers. That Russia should be humiliated as a punishment for making a needless war, cannot be regarded as a cause of mourning at Vienna; but that she should' be seriously crippled Austria will never suffer, because in that case the Hapsburgs would be left without a friend to help them out of the next revolutionary slough. This brief statement appears to us to comprise the motives that must govern the Viennese Cabinet throughout the further developments of the war. It will be treacherous to either of the belligerents or to both, just so far as the interest of Austria and the imperial dynasty shall seem to require, and no farther.

Now by the fact that Russia withdraws and ceases from her encroachments, and that the evacuated provinces are handed over to Austria, the latter is at once enlisted to prevent any further injury being done to the former. Austria may remain in nominal friendship with the allies, but it is for her interest that they should fail in any ulterior attacks on the Czar, and we may be sure that she will do everything to make them fail, short of an actual declaration of war, which in any case she dare not resort to. She must then be treacherous to the western powers; they are the dupes in the treaty which allows an Austrian army to occupy the Turkish provinces; and that they will in due time discover as the war goes on.

It was apparently the plan of Lord Aberdeen, the English Prime Minister, that it should not go on, but that the quarrel should now be settled according to the wish of Austria, on the basis of the status quo, with possibly a transfer of the protectorate of the Principalities from Russia to the house of Hapsburg. This plan we may, however, now set down as defeated through the self-exposures of Lord Aberdeen's notorious speech, and the subsequent debate in Parliament, of which we give a full report in this paper[184]. The British people, excited by these revelations, will not consent, at least not at present, to make peace without having, for the enormous sums the war costs them, some result more substantial than the mere restoration of things as they were. They hold the crippling of Russia to be indispensable, so that she cannot soon again thus upset the world; and they expect impatiently some brilliant feat of arms, such as the capture of Kronstadt or Sevastopol. Without such a tangible achievement to pay for going to war, they will not now agree to make peace. This disposition of theirs will probably lead at once to a change in the ministry and to a prolongation of the war. But it by no means follows that, because the war is prolonged, any harder blow will ' be struck at Russia than she has already suffered, except it be the conquest of her Transcaucasian provinces by the Turks and Circassians without any Western help. And, judging the men who will probably remain in power at London after Lord Aberdeen has retired to private life, by their acts hitherto since the beginning of the war, it would be no occasion for surprise if at some future day we should see them signing a treaty of peace on the very basis for favoring which Lord Aberdeen is now driven from office. So far Austrian diplomacy has carried the day, and it is very likely to win at last.

Written on June 19 and 23, 1854;
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4126, July 10;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 952, July 11
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 670, July 15, 1854 as a leader
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Nicholas I.—Ed.

[184] The words "of which we give a full report in this paper" were inserted in Marx's and Engels' text by the Tribune editors, and the words "a full report" refer to Marx's article "The War.—Debate in Parliament" (this volume, pp. 258-66).

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.253-257), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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