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A woman behind the German lines, by Ekaterina Nikolaevna Vinogradskaya

By Ekaterina Nikolaevna Vinogradskaya

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In the seventeenth century, the tsars of the Romanov dynasty began to make inroads into the territory of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west; this included most of what is today Belarus and the area of the Ukraine east of the Dnieper. It was under Tsar Peter I (1682–1725) that Russia became a force to be feared in Eastern Europe. In a series of wars owing their success to Peter’s determined modernisation of Russian arms and administration, Russia defeated the regional great power of the day, Sweden, and seized control of the Baltic coast from Riga to the Gulf of Finland.

For the first time Russian armies advanced into the Balkans, occupying Moldavia and Wallachia; an appeal was made to the Balkan Christians to rise up in Russia’s aid, and the Baltic fleet sailed around Europe to appear in the Mediterranean. 1 It was Russia’s outright annexation of the Crimea in 1783, and its opening two years later of a naval base at Sevastopol, which led to the fourth Turkish war in 1788–92; the Turks were forced to cede a further strip of Black Sea coast as far as the Dniester.

The peoples of the Balkans, together with the Slav inhabitants of Russia, were Greek Orthodox in religion and eventually developed literary languages using a Cyrillic or Greek-based alphabet. The Ottoman invasions introduced a new religion, Islam. This was the faith of the new Ottoman overlords, but its establishment did not herald the forcible conversion of the Christian population. On the contrary, the Ottomans by medieval standards were remarkably tolerant of other religions. As long as non-Muslims acknowledged the sultan’s suzerainty, they were free to practise their faith and even allowed autonomy in running their own churches.

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