The Great Game Begins… In Herzegovina

The Great Game Begins… In Herzegovina

In general he did a lot of useful things for Russia, one of which was the creation of Russian intelligence.  –Vasili Sokolov – Echo of Moscow Radio

The fabled and feared Russian intelligence apparatus was not native, but was imported in the person of a Balkan man who referred to himself as an Illyrian Count – Sava Vladislavić.

A later representation of Sava Vladislavić

The Vladislavić family was driven from their home village near Jasenik in Herzegovina by a conflict with the local Čengić bey.  Sometime around the mid-1600s, slander and accusations turned into land confiscation, and the family split up and fled; the men to Montenegro and the women and children to Ragusa – what is now Dubrovnik.  In both cases the Orthodox religious family was helped to escape by  Muslim families who were close friends.

Ragusa – what is now known as Dubrovnik.

Sava Vladislavić grew up in Ragusa, a highly educated son of the noble elite, who also studied in Venice, Spain, and France.  

Although no records have yet been discovered as proof, Sava’s education must have been thorough.  He enters the historical record again sometime before 1700, this time in Constantinople where he is serving as a dragoman (interpreter) for the British.   For such a role, Sava must have been fluent in at least three languages: his birth language of Herzegovina, Turkish, and French.  It is possible that he also spoke English as he worked for them, but fluency in French would have been sufficient.  The record of his employment with the British also states that he had come under suspicion of spying by the Ottomans.  

In 1700 is Sava’s first official association with the Russian government, now referred to as Sava Raguzinsky, with sideways references to his passing of information to the Russian envoys.  

The information he passed must have been impressive, because in April 1703 the Tsar’s uncle Admiral Count Apraksin wrote to Peter the Great, “I wrote to you, Master, about Sava Raguzinsky, who wants to see you.  Without your order I cannot let him go.  Tell me what to do with him.  He is very much a needed man; he knows things well there and is smart.

Count Apraksin

In July 1703, Sava met with Tsar Peter, and Peter was impressed with him.  So impressed, he reimbursed Sava for all his expenses and gave him a free trade agreement allowing him unrestricted rights to business in the Russian sphere.  

“To Our faithful Illyrian nobleman from Us, the Great Lord and Imperial Majesty, for his faithful service,” read Tsar Peter’s protocol.  

It seems on its face like a shocking development – one that a foreigner with no previous ties with the Tsar would normally be given.  But deeper thought gives another possibility: perhaps Tsar Peter was giving out the first “cover” identity in modern espionage. According to the signed, sealed, official protocol of the Tsar of Russia, Sava Vladislavić was a merchant selling Russian furs.  

Tsar Peter the Great

And as such, he returned to Constantinople. 

During his second stint in Constantinople, Sava worked closely with the ancestor of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Tolstoy. In a letter back to Russia, Tolstoy said of Sava, “Thanks to the attention of Sava Vladislavić, I have such friends who can quickly find out the secrets and tell them to me.

Sava passed treaty information between the Ottomans and European governments to Russia and managed to survey the Black Sea coastline and send it back to the Imperial Court, the first survey done of the strategic area.  It provided the basis for the Russian Black Sea Fleet approximately 80 years later.  Sava was also responsible for the purchase of a very young African slave for the Tsar, a man that the Tsar would educate and who would serve the Russian Empire through the ranks of the military to General. A man named Abram Petrovich Gannibal, the direct ancestor of Alexander Pushkin. 

In 1708 Sava left Constantinople and received a large grant of lands in what is now Ukraine, but his service to the Russian Empire was far from over.  

In 1709 Sava came into the intelligence that allowed Russia to win the Battle of Poltava against Sweden.  He found that the Swedes had bribed the Ottoman Empire into attacking the Russians and opening up a second front to blunt Russian strength.  When Sava informed Tsar Peter about the plans, the Tsar did not seem inclined to accept his information until Sava offered himself to be executed if his information was incorrect.  

Tsar Peter agreed to give Sava enough money to outbribe the Swedes in the Ottoman court, and  on 8 July 1709 the victory at Poltava went to Peter the Great.  

In 1710, Tsar Peter made Sava Vladislavić the Court Advisor for the Issues of the Orthodox East.  Sava, with his loyalty to Russia and birthplace in the Balkans, began the foundation of the Pan-Slav movement

His role became even more prominent in 1711, when the Tsar Peter declared war on the Ottoman Empire.  Sava was instructed to use his relatives and contacts to begin a revolt to coincide with Peter’s Russo-Ottoman War.  

Sava succeeded in convincing the Bishop Prince Danilo to organize an uprising, but when Peter lost his campaign and had to sign an unfavorable peace treaty, Montenegro was stuck with terrible consequences. 

In the year 1711 Mikhail Miloradović came to Montenegro, to the great misfortune of the Monastery and Montenegro…[Vizier Kiuprili] razed Montenegro and destroyed the church and the monastery. — a 1714 Montenegro Chronicle

The defeat didn’t seem to hold Sava back- in 1716 he was sent to Venice by the Tsar and spent his time there purchasing artwork, supervising the education of Russian noble students, and negotiating a treaty with the Vatican. 

He remained in Venice until 1722; managing great feats in his personal life as well.  Sava married a Venetian noblewoman named Virginia Treviso and so impressed the composer Vivaldi that the opera La Verita in Cimento was dedicated to him.

Although Sava had been vocally supporting what would become the Pan Slav movement throughout his career, in 1722 he published an official translation of the book “The Realm of the Slavs,” which contains a long and detailed discussion about Kosovo.  The book proved to be a sensation both in Russia and in the Balkans, and is the written basis of the Pan Slav movement.

But Sava’s biggest feat was still to come. In 1725 he was officially raised to the Russian nobility and made a count.  At this time he petitioned the Russian government to use his native name of Vladislavić rather than the nickname many used of Raguzinsky.  He was then created Minister Plenipotentiary in China and sent to negotiate the borders between China and Russia.  This Sava did successfully, at the same time negotiating the right to build an Orthodox church in what is now Beijing. He concluded his work in China in the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, for which he was awarded the Order of St Alexander Nevsky.  

None of Sava Vladislavić’s children  reached adulthood, and their sudden deaths weakened the great man.  He died in 1738 and was buried in the Church of the Annunciation in the Monastery of St Alexander Nevsky.

Sava was 69-years-old at his death, but he had lived enough experiences for three lifetimes.  He founded the Russian intelligence system, changed the course of history at the Battle of Poltava, set the borders between China and Russia in perpetuity, laid the foundations of the Pan-Slav movement, enabled the birth of Russia’s most famous poet, and had an opera by Vivaldi dedicated to his name. They were momentous achievements.  

But Sava Vladislavić may be more controversial today than he ever was during his lifetime.  Born in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, raised in what is now Croatia, a devout Orthodox adherent – Sava always referred to himself as “Illyrian” during his lifetime.  In fact, books from his library donated to multiple Balkan monasteries are inscribed in his own hand, “Count Sava Vladislavić of Illyria” .  Historical documents and historians themselves also do not agree on the best description of Sava’s ethnicity; he is referred to as Greek, Illyrian-disguised-as-Greek, Montenegrin, and Bosnian.  Wikipedia and many Serbian sources list him as Serbian.  But all of these identities were well established in the time frame in which Sava lived, and he didn’t use any of them to describe himself.  Count Slava Vladislavić, the person who created the basis for the Pan Slavic movement, always used the term Illyrian.  

To read more about Balkan history, please click here


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