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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

1783: The Founding of Sevastopol

Shortly after Russia annexed the Crimean Khanate in April of 1783, Catherine the Great moved to consolidate her power in the south. This was a necessary step in her challenge to Turkish hegemony in the Black Sea region. In order to accomplish this political goal, Catherine sought a port which would allow her to control the Black Sea. She settled on a site which General Alexander Suvorov had begun to fortify in 1778.[1] It was the obvious choice. Situated in the southern Crimea, it consisted of a great bay with several harbors set in a "natural amphitheater" of rocky hills.[2] At Catherine's behest, Rear Admiral Thomas MacKenzie founded what would come to be known as Sevastopol in June, 1783. In its early days, the city was called Akhtiar, which translates as "White Gorge" or "White Cliff."[3] One year later, in 1784, Catherine ordered Prince Grigory Potemkin to continue fortifying the port.[4] In the process, he renamed it "Sevastopol." It soon became the home of Russia’s fledgling Black Sea Fleet. By 1792 the town had grown to include some 15,000 inhabitants.[5] In its early years, Sevastopol was home to Englishmen, Frenchmen, Greeks, Swedes, Germans, and more.[6] As time wore on and the city became more militarized, demographic homogeneity increased (albeit inorganically) to the point that one foreign traveler, writing in 1854, commented “No one unconnected with the [military] services lives there, and all but Russians are discouraged or forbidden to do so… It was said that no foreigners were permitted to remain [in Sevastopol] more than twenty-four hours.”[7]
 The bay and harbors at Sevastopol were widely recognized as some of the best in the world. The inlet was surrounded by rolling hills which offered a natural defense, and the harbor itself was deep enough for even large ships to come and go with ease. In terms of its size, the main military harbor had ample room for up to 100 ships and other harbors housed shipbuilding activity.[8] On top of all that, the port's strategic location at the southern tip of the Crimean Peninsula facilitated projection of naval power throughout the Black Sea, essentially in the Ottoman Empire's backyard. After all, Sevastopol was a mere two to three days from Constantinople by steamship.[9] The construction of fortifications, which began under Potemkin, reached its height in the early to mid 19th century under Tsars Alexander I and Nicholas I. It was during the reign of the latter that the formidable 192-gun Nicholas fortress was constructed to guard the entrance to the harbor. This fortress, along with several others - including Forts Constantine and Catherine, which between them boasted more than 220 guns - were key elements of Sevastopol's considerable manmade defenses.[10]
[1] “Foundation and Development of Sevastopol.” Accessed March 20, 2018.
[2] Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner. 1. Vintage Books ed. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.
[3] “History of Sevastopol. Chronology.” Accessed March 20, 2018.
[4] “Foundation and Development of Sevastopol.” Accessed March 20, 2018.
[5] “History of Sevastopol. Chronology.” Accessed March 20, 2018.
[6] O'Neill, Kelly. Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Great's Southern Empire. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017.
[7] Scott, Charles Henry. The Baltic, The Black Sea, And The Crimea: Comprising Travels in Russia, a Voyage down the Volga to Astrachan and a Tour through Crim Tartary. London: R. Bentley, 1855. Featured in “Sevastopol.” Bentley’s Miscellany; London 36 (January 1, 1854): 331–336.
[8] Montefiore. Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner.
[9] McCormick, Richard C. A Visit to the Camp before Sevastopol. 212 p. New York: D. Appleton and company, 1855. //
[10] Smucker, Samuel M. The Life and Reign of Nicholas the First: Emperor of Russia. J.W. Bradley, 1860.

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