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Šćepan Mali (Stephen the Little; died 22 September 1773) was a Montenegrin nobleman who was de facto ruler of Prince-Bishopric of Montenegro from 1767 until his death in 1773, ruling as a tsar. He seized the throne by falsely representing himself as the Russian Tsar Peter III.
Šćepan Mali's origins are not known. It is assumed that he was from Dalmatia or Bosnia and that his name was Stefan Rajčević. He first appeared in Montenegro in 1766. During this time, he lived in Podmaine Monastery and operated as a self-styled doctor.
During Christmas fasting in 1766, rumors spread that Russian Tsar Peter III, who was thought to have been murdered by the lovers of Catherine the Great in 1762, was "hiding" in Montenegro and was none other than Šćepan. Having affection for Russia, Montenegrins accepted the newcomer as their new tsar (1768) under the name of Stephen the Little (Šćepan Mali). Bishop Sava Petrović-Njegoš conveyed to the people a Russian message that Šćepan was an ordinary crook, but the people believed the "tsar" rather than Bishop Sava. Following this event, Šćepan the Little put Bishop Sava under house arrest in Stanjevići monastery.
Metropolitan Sava II wrote "The land has been silenced" and that all of Montenegro was under Šćepan Mali. When Šćepan Mali ruled Montenegro, he began to behave like an absolute ruler.
The Ottoman Empire was afraid of a Russian tsar in the Balkans. In May 1768, the sultan ordered an expedition to Montenegro. A few months later, 50,000 Ottoman soldiers were sent to capture Šćepan Mali but were decisively defeated 10-20 km south of Cetinje (The Battle of Ostroški Klanac).
Soon after, Šćepan began to heavily modernize the army. He used the style of Peter the Great's infantry, but because of a short supply of horses, he had no cavalry. The new green uniforms were donated by the Russian government from its old 1720s stock supplies.
The Russian Government sent Prince Georgiy Dolgorukov to gain control of Montenegro and eliminate Šćepan Mali. In August 1769, he arrived in Montenegro but was unable to capture Šćepan Mali. The Montenegrin people, upon hearing from Šćepan himself that he was not Tsar Peter III, recovered from their shock and proclaimed him Tsar Šćepan I. Šćepan the Little was a very cruel but respected and feared man during his reign. After realizing how much respect he commanded and that only he could keep Montenegrins together, the Russian diplomat Dolgoruki[clarification needed] abandoned his efforts to discredit Šćepan giving him even financial support. In 1771, Tzar Šćepan founded a permanent court, composed of most respected clan leaders, and stubbornly insisted on respect of the court's decisions.
In 1770, the Venetians, then an ally of the Ottoman Empire, sent a 10,000-strong force to Dubrovnik to fight Šćepan Mali. The armies met at Kotor. The Venetians suffered 500 wounded and some 350 killed, and the Montenegrins officially won with much lower casualties. The retreat of the Venetians was secured by Šćepan himself for 10,000 gold coins paid by the Venetians and the surrender of all their weapons and four cannons. This was the only time Montenegro used westernized tactics of warfare (e.g. line infantry and such) in the 18th century.
In 1772, Šćepan was given a rank of Lieutenant-General of the Russian Imperial Army, the Order of Saint Vladimir, 2nd class, and a hussar's uniform as a gift from Catherine the Great. He was one of the first recipients of the medal.
He was killed while sleeping late on the night 22 September 1773 by his barber, a Greek by the name of Stanko Paljikarda whose family was captured by the Turkish Pasha and was threatened with their safety and lives.
The importance of Šćepan personality in uniting Montenegrins was realized soon after his assassination conducted by order of vizier of Skadar, Mahmut-Pasha Bushatlija. Montenegrin tribes once again engaged into blood feuding among themselves. Mahmut-Pasha Bushatlija tried to seize the opportunity and attacked Kuči with 30,000 troops. For the first time since Vladika Danilo, Kuči were helped by Piperi and Bjelopavlići, and defeated Turks twice in two years.
Serbian historian Vladimir Ćorović supported the theory that he was the center of a plot of a certain circle of people around late Prince-Bishop Vasilije, whose aim was to start a large revolt against the Ottomans in Montenegro. Vasilije himself was a chief developer of Russian cult in Montenegro. Vuko Markov Marković from Maine, who was a host to Šćepan when he arrived in Montenegro, traveled with Vasilije during his last journey to Russia and supposedly saw the Tzar. He was later the main witness of Šćepan's "identity". According to Montenegrin historian Rastislav V. Petrović, he was in fact Jovan Stefanov Balević from Bratonožići. Balević was born in Pelev Brijeg in 1728 and was captured with his father in 1737 during the Serb Uprising of 1737–39 in the Brda region. He was then sent to Sarajevo where he was ransomed by Bosnian archbishop Umilinković who provided him with education in Sremski Karlovci. His upbringing in Karlovci according to this theory explains his Vojvodina accent, for which he was remembered and which made him stand out amidst different dialects spoken in Montenegro. In 1745 Balević left Timișoara to study at University of Halle where he received a degree in 1752, thus becoming the first Montenegrin Ph.D., after which he returned to Karlovci where he worked in Austrian administration, before emigrating to Russia. His biography accounts are scarce after his emigration to Russia. Simeon Piščević in his Memoires mentions him working in "Montenegrin commission", established by Vasilije and Catherine the Great whose aim was to help Montenegrin migration to Russia. Rastislav Petrović makes the reconstruction of his life stating that he rose from captain to major in Russian army and that he was an agent in Orlov Revolt. He cites a statement from a dragoman of the Ragusan consulate in Methoni in 1770 according to which one of three Orlov's officers was in Montenegro at the time presenting himself as Steffano Piccolo (Italian for Stefan the Little).
- Jagos Jovanovic, Stvaranje Crnogorske drzave i razvoj Crnogorske nacionalnosti, Obod-Cetinje, 1947