I grew up hearing about the glory of Cleopatra and Catherine the Great. My grandmother, Despina Gagas Pappas adored Catherine the Great because she had a victorious battle off the coast of the Northeast Aegean island of Chios in the Bay of Chesma, her homeland. I watched the movie several times just to hear Count Orlov say the word Chesma (Tseme), seven miles from the coast of Chios on the coast of Western Anatolia.1
I went to St. Petersburg, Russia in October. I was astonished to see the name Chesma Church. It is a pink and white church, like a frosted cake. Today it is known Chesmenskaya, St. John the Forerunner’s Church. Our guide Olga of expresstorussia.com and intourist.com showed us the Chesma Church on the way to Catherine the Great’s Palace in Tsarskoye Selo. Beautiful, like a pink gingerbread house, with a unique wooden door, Chesma church operates as a church today.
Chesmenskaya, the St. John Forerunner’s Church, as it is known in 2015 St. Petersburg, was dedicated during the Russo-Turkish wars of 1768-1774. Commander-in chief was Count Orlov with Admiral Spiridov. On June 24, 1770, on the Nativity of St. John the Forerunner, a battle started off the coast of Chios. The Ottoman forces retreated to the Bay of Chesma. Russian forces with the help of fire ships set fire to the Ottoman fleet. The Ottomans lost over sixty ships and 10,000 men. Russian casualties were minor. Admiral Spiridov reported to St. Petersburg “Glory be to the Lord God and honor to the Russian fleet. We attacked the enemy’s naval fleet, broke it, burned it, turned it to ashes, sent it up high in the air and sunk it…and thus gained dominion over the Archipelago.”
This was the first Russian naval victory since the time of Peter the Great. A silver medal was issued to commemorate the Russian victory. The inscription states “WAS: Chesma, year 1770, 24th day of June. Catherine the Great commemorated the event by building around St. Petersburg. The sites included: the Chesma Obelisk in Gatchina: Chesma Hall in the Peterhoff Palace; Chesma Rostral column in the center of the Big Pond in Catherine’s Park of Tsarskoye Selo. Chesma Church was the main memorial built in 1977, in the presence of Gustav III, King of Sweden. On June 24, 1780 on the 10th Anniversary of Russia’s victory in Chesma, the temple was sanctified in the presence of Joseph, emperor of Rome. Since that day, the newly-built church, palace and neighborhood became known as CHESMA. 2
Why is the Battle of Chesma important to Greece and the Balkans? It was a forerunner of the latter Greek War of Independence (1821-1829) and the first of a number of disastrous fleet battles for the Ottomans against Russia. The defeat of the Ottoman fleet speeded up rebellions by Orthodox Christian nations in the Balkan Peninsula, who helped the Russian army in defeating the Ottoman Empire.3
November 2015 marks the anniversary of the annexation of Chios and the Aegean islands, except for the Dodecanese islands, to Greece, as a result of the 1912 Balkan Wars. Russia’s Battle of Chesma is known only to Greek and Russian scholars and not in the mainstream Western history. In Chios, books written in Greek about the lost Hellenic centers of Western Anatolia, describes the Battle of Chesma in detail. My amazing 2015 trip to Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novgorod opened my eyes to an unknown history off the beaten trail. “People without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”- Marcus Garvey.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaSiXa_cmBY -1934 Catherine the Great movie.
- St. John the Forerunner’s Church (Chesmenskaya tserkov), (Moskovsky branch of “Sankt-Peterburg” bank, St. Petersburg).
- https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Cesme; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chesma
Photo 1- Chesme Church in early Ocotber 2015.
Photo2- Wooden doors of Chesma church.
Photo3- Chesma church iconostasio (altar screen).
Photo4 – Chesma church at night.
Photo 5 – Victory medals.
Photo 6 – The Battle of Chesma off the coast of Chios.