There’s been a lot of attention on the tiny Balkan country of Montenegro in recent days — are they an aggressive people? Are they any more or less aggressive than any other people? What’s the metric to use for aggression? That equation changes when you combine Serbia with Montenegro, like the rest of the world did until 2006.
But there is one story in Montenegro’s military history that stands out above all others. In 1767, a man dressed in the rags of the monastery in which he lived arrived in the country’s capital of Cetinje, claiming to be the long-thought-dead Tsar Peter III of Russia. And everyone believed it.
He became Šćepan Mali — known in the West as Stephen the Small.
Ah, the days before Google.
Today, no one knows who he really was before he became the absolute ruler of Montenegro and no one knows his real name. All we know is that the little country was in a full-on war with the Ottoman Empire, then a major world power, who was not thrilled to have a Russian Tsar next door. The tiny, mostly Eastern Orthodox Christian country sought support from mighty Orthodox Russia for its rescue from an Islamic invasion, but Russia was not about to lend help to this pretender to the Montenegrin throne.
They knew Tsar Peter was dead. In his place, Catherine II ascended to the throne. She would later be honored as Catherine the Great and her first step toward greatness was having her husband Peter murdered.
Catherine the Great pictured with all the f*cks she gives.
While most people might think a homeless, religious nut taking control of their country and immediately getting invaded by their larger neighbor would be an absolute disaster, Montenegrins’ fears were put to rest in a hurry. It turns out Stephen was really, really good at this whole “Tsar” thing.
With 50,000 Turkish soldiers marching into a country the size of the greater Los Angeles area in 2018, Stephen managed to silence his naysayers (one bishop who had actually met Tsar Peter III tried to sound the alarm, but no one listened), use his natural charm to win the support of the country’s religious establishment, and then unite the country’s tribes for the first time in centuries.
He’s like a Montenegrin Ronald Reagan.
“Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem… specifically, every government but me.”
The first thing Stephen did was send the Turks packing. With his outdated and outnumbered Montenegrin forces, he routed the Turks just south of Montenegro’s capital and took to the internal matters of his small but new job.
By this time, Catherine sent a delegation of Russians to Montenegro to out the impostor as a fake or kill him, but one of the things she didn’t know about Stephen (which was actually a lot) is that he was really, really likable. So likable, in fact, that when the Montenegrins learned he wasn’t actually Tsar Peter III (for real, though), they shrugged and declared him Tsar Šćepan. Most importantly, no one killed him — they enjoyed his company instead.
The Russians now accepted that there was no getting rid of Stephen and that his strict control of the country actually reduced instability there. And so, they began to help him. They sent the supplies and cash he needed to upgrade his military.
Just in time to fend off another invasion of Montenegro. This time, 10,000 Venetians landed in Montenegro to avenge their Ottoman allies’ crushing defeat, only to be defeated themselves near Kotor. Venice was forced to retreat, taking heavier casualties, having to pay Stephen for permission to leave, and being forced to leave their weapons behind.
Montenegrins don’t take kindly to sucker punches, as it turns out.
This particular victory was so great, even Catherine sent Stephen a medal, a Lieutenant General’s rank, and the uniform to go along with it.
But Montenegro’s glory was short-lived. The Tsar was murdered in his sleep by his barber, whose family was taken hostage by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottomans threatened horrible things unless the Greek barber did their bidding. Sadly for his country, the peace enforced among its tribes by their Little Tsar quickly fell apart without him. The Turks invaded again while they were distracted by infighting.