Around that glorious year of 1766, a strange bedraggled man wandered into the Montenegrin village of Maini, just a stones throw from Budva on the Adriatic coast. Ordinary in practically every single way, concrete information about this man is difficult to find. He is simultaneously described as being of average height or short, of having a quite monumental monobrow or no remarkable facial features at all. The bugger’s real identity isn’t even known. So why is he here? Well, this unremarkable chap somehow managed to convince all of Montenegro that he was the dead leader of Russia and subsequently took over the Balkan state. This is the story of Šćepan Mali, or Stephen the Little.
Well, it’s barely his story, as it has already been established that we don’t really know anything about him. Steve arrived in Montenegro in 1766 as an alleged monk specialising in homeopathic medicine, and to make a living in such a field you needed to be all sorts of charismatic. Steven stayed with a chap called Marko Tanović, a respected man in the local area, and it was Tanović who began to series of events that would change everything in Montenegro.
It wasn’t exactly a series of events in truth, more of a ‘everyone was convinced of one thing and it all went from there’ sort of jobby. Tanović, for reasons that I’m sure will never ever be discovered, decided to try and convince the local people that Stephen was in fact Peter III of Russia. This was fairly difficult to believe, made harder by the fact that Peter III had been dead for four years by this point. Pete was a hugely unpopular former Russian emperor who had controlled the country for all of six months in 1762, couldn’t speak Russian and was assassinated by his wife Sophie, who you and I know as Catherine the Great.
Five individuals came forward claiming to be the dead emperor over the next few years, but only one of those went on to rule Montenegro for six years and that was our dear Steve the Little. Previous attempts to masquerade as the dead former leader of Russia usually ended up with limbs finding previously unimaginable directions to go in, followed by a rejection on a life extension. The tribal leaders of Montenegro were surprisingly easy to convince however, as many in the state believed Peter had managed to escape somehow and had a huge love for all things Russki. The rumour of the presence of the presumed-dead (and actually dead) Russian Emperor on Montenegrin soil spread fast, and the tribal assembly in Cetinje formally acknowledged his identity and proclaimed him the new ruler of the country.
Surprisingly, Stephen didn’t immediately jump at this chance. Instead, he refused to accept the position until the previously squabble-addicted tribal chiefs stopped their infighting. This was the final proof needed, and even the most cynical in Montenegro were convinced that they were in the presence of true royalty. One man found himself off the cynical scale however, as the old leader of Montenegro Vladika Sava wasn’t convinced and tried to tell folk that Stephen was a crook. I dare say those he tried to tell did some questionable motions with their hands before deciding house arrest at the Stanjevici monastery situated on the slopes of Mount Lovcen.
This judgment was fairly indicative of the rule of Šćepan Mali. The man was undeniably cruel, but overwhelming respected and efficient at the same time. The imposter used his cunning, diplomacy, and charisma to unite the previously tiff-obsessed Montenegrins as well as force the nation forward somewhat. Stevie Boy organised the very first census in the country in 1773, although I dare say it was taken about as seriously as Vladika Sava. Mr. Mali also built roads, which are useful. In truth, his efficiency and competence as a leader was probably the most damning piece of evidence against him being Peter III.
Catherine the Great was fairly interested in hearing that some guy was swanning around Montenegro pretending to be her ex-husband, who she may or may not have had murdered to death four years earlier. That sort of thing tends to provoke interest you see. Cathy sent a delegation to the small Balkan mountain state to see what the heck was going on, but upon realising that Fake Peter III was actually keeping Montenegro together they decided to back him somewhat, as a united Christian state meddling in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire was useful for Mother Russia.
Ah yes, the Ottoman Empire. This being the 18th century and the Balkans, they must be lurking somewhere right? Correct. They had blazed through Greece and as a result set up camp on Montenegro’ border, ready to blitz this unified Christian mountain kingdom and its competent ruler. The Ottomans were one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world at the time and as such figured Montenegro would be something of a cakewalk, and the first day of fighting proved this fairly correct. Day two was different however, as a whole load of rain lashed down and put a stop to the fights. Montenegro was on the losing side of this battle at the time, and the dying and injured were shocked and thrilled to see the Ottomans up sticks and leave. Šćepan Mali was proclaimed a hero for somehow repelling the Ottoman Empire.
The fact that the Russians were attacking the Islamic Empire wasn’t really passed around the press at the time, but pah, details schmetails. The history books tell us that Montenegro fought off the Ottoman invasion at this time, and that Montenegro was experiencing a period of true peace. The country saw a decline in theft as well as blood-feud murder, thanks in part to the establishment of the first permanent Montenegrin court in 1771. Those who committed homicide whilst feuding were rightly tried as murderers, and whilst harsh measures were taken to enforce this the less people being murdered the better right? Exactly.
The more Steve’s power grew, the more the Ottomans wanted shot of him. They had struggled (as in failed) to achieve this during actual battle, so a more devious plan was hatched. Stephen may have been a ruthless leader masquerading as the dead ruler of the largest country on the planet, but this didn’t mean there was no time for a haircut. His barber was none other than Stanko Palikarda, a man that almost certainly haven’t heard of until that very sentence. Little is known about Stanko’s haircutting ability, but a decent amount is known of his Šćepan Mali murdering ability. It was Stanko who murdered the fake Peter III on January 23rd 1774, at the behest of the Pasha of Scutari. Four years after Peter III was killed, Fake Peter III was killed.
Almost all of the advances made during the previous six years went immediately out of the window. The blood-feud courts stopped working and folk went back to murdering each other in a never-ending game of ‘An Eye For An Eye’. The next Montenegrin decade was all bitter intertribal conflict, Ottoman military assaults and power struggles in this beautiful Balkan mountain nation. Governer Jovan Radonjić moved into the strongest position, and it wasn’t until our old buddy Njegoš took over in 1784 that Montenegro could sleep easily.
Logic dictates that all you have read above is complete bullshit. If an unremarkable chap turned up on your doorstep tomorrow claiming to be Margaret Thatcher, the chances are you’d humour him briefly before saying goodbye and carrying on with your imposter-less day. This dude from wherever he was from managed to masquerade as a dead Russian leader and take control of a entire country in the process, and whilst that is remarkable in itself it is arguably even more impressive that he did a really damn good job at it. Is there a lesson in there? If that lesson is that ordinary folk could do a good job governing as long as they pretend to be dead foreign rulers, consider it learnt.
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