The young man across from me is leaning back in his chair, stretching his chest. “After all these years, we’ve shot down a plane.” His eyes widen. “And brother, it’s a Moskof plane!” He looks up to the blue sky, smiling, letting the thought sink in.
In the Turkish public consciousness, using the term “Moskof” for Russians has a derogatory edge to it, yet carries with it a dose of fear as well. The Moskof is not like the Rum (Greek) — a former subject who is antagonistic at times — but more like the whining younger brother you are not supposed to beat up. Nor is he like the Arab, the backstabbing Bedouin who is too sleepy to do any damage unless incited by the treacherous Englishman. No, the Moskof has a special place in the pantheon of Turkey’s enemies. He is the big, hairy beast hanging over the Turk’s home. And every once in a while, he descends on us in godless savagery.
The first bite he took was in 1783, when he decimated the Ottoman navy and annexed Crimea, the home of the Muslim and Turkic Tatars. The following centuries saw the loss of one Balkan province after another, often with Russian support. The Russians saw the conquest of Constantinople as their historic mission, not only because they wanted a warm water port to use in wintertime, but also because Constantinople — or Tsargrad, as they called it — was the historical capital of their religion. They would have taken it, too, had the British and French not intervened. They were worried that Russia was becoming too powerful on its diet of chunks of the Ottoman Empire, so in 1853, they sided with the Ottomans in the Crimean War, barely just stopping the tzar’s army. At the end of the day, there were myriad reasons why the Ottoman Empire went into a slow and painful decline, but Turks have not forgotten who started it all.
The First World War was Moskof’s opportunity to finish the job. He incited the Christian Armenians, oppressed by Ottoman rule, into fully-fledged rebellion. That episode scarred not only Turks’ view of their neighbors, but their conception of themselves. By the Second World War, the rivalry was between the Soviet Union and the Republic of Turkey. They were formally on the same side this time, as Turkey joined the Allies towards the end of the war. But once it ended, Stalin refused to renew the Turco-Russian non-aggression pact, and began breathing down Ankara’s neck, demanding that it allow Russia greater freedom in its passage through the Turkish straits, as well as making territorial demands on some of Turkey’s eastern provinces. The pressure rose when the Russian navy staged a show of force in the Black Sea, resulting in U.S. President Harry Truman accepting Turkey deeper into the Western camp, and eventually, in 1952, as a NATO ally. As Soner Çağaptay writes in his recent piece, this gave Ankara some respite from Russian aggression. But in the decades that followed, the Moskof came in other guises.
During the Cold War, a leftist intelligentsia heavily influenced by the Soviet experience emerged in Turkey. One of its most famous members was the poet Nazım Hikmet, who eventually went into exile in the Soviet Union. People like Hikmet were opposed by the Komünizimle Mücadele Derneği (meaning “the Association for Fighting Communism,” or AFC,), founded in 1948 with the rallying cry “Communists to Moscow!” The association stands testament to communism’s power to unite Turkish nationalists and Islamists under the same banner, a feat seldom replicated since the USSR’s demise. The struggle between right and left went on for a generation, eventually heating up so badly that in the 1970s, university campuses became battlegrounds between nationalist “fascists” and communist “Moskof uşağı,” or Moskof’s stooges. In 1980, the military staged a coup to break it off.
The communists and nationalists both received brutal treatment at the hands of the military, crippling their political activities for decades to come. Since they were not too active on the streets, the Islamists got off relatively lightly, and continued their work. For the generation of Tayyip Erdogan, Abdullah Gül, Bülent Arınç, Beşir Atalay, and other young Islamists, the struggle against the atheist Moskof was akin to the fight against the penetratingly secular state: It was just, above all, and deeply authentic to the spirit of the nation.
The Cold War eventually brought Moskof to his knees. Turkey’s right wing had picked the winning team. The Islamists — now well-organized and funded — rose to prominence for the first time in Republican history. In 1994, they won regional elections and in 2002, they formed a majority government under the AK Party. Led by Erdogan, the AK Party government has since won four general elections.
Power tempered the Islamists’ view of the outside world, including that of their northern neighbor. Economic relations between Turkey and Russia grew, making the country Turkey’s second largest trading partner. Russian armies were once again coming down to warm sea ports, but this time, they paid good money to stay at beach resorts in Marmaris and Antalya. In time, Erdogan also developed a close relationship to Putin, and distanced himself from his colleagues in the European Union.
As a result, the AK Party generation that grew up in the 2000s only heard of “the Moskof” from their cantankerous grandparents, and even then it was mercurial: “Don’t you run around my house like a damn Moskof, put a sweatshirt on!”
But old enmities take more than a generation to dissolve. Those who paid attention still saw the Moskof grinding his teeth on their ilk in Chechnya and recently, Crimea. And now, the beast is on the other side of a proxy war in Syria, ripping into Muslim Turkmen.
Only this time, there is a champion who has been telling Turks that centuries of decline have come to an end. Erdogan promises a new rise, invoking the battle of Manzikert and the conquest of Constantinople. “New Turkey,” he says, will reclaim its rightful role as the region’s preeminent power.
And now, Erdogan has shot down a Moskof plane. We all saw it streak across the Levantine sky. Whatever happens, he cannot apologize. That would mean breaking a promise to the tens of millions who never really stopped dreaming of Empire.
Image: Dragoons of Nizhny Novgorod pursuing the Turks near Kars during the battle of Aladja, October 3rd 1877
“This article first appeared on War on the Rocks on December 7, 2015”