Reviewed by: Saul David
Author: Orlando Figes
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25
The Crimean War of 1853–6 was, bar the Napoleonic Wars, the most significant conflict of the 19th century. It involved four major powers – Britain, France, Turkey (on one side) and Russia (on the other) – and, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the First World War.
It was also a major turning point for some of the armies involved, particularly the outdated British and Russian forces, and was followed by extensive reform.
Yet the story has been largely ignored by top-flight historians who have concentrated instead on the world wars. Until now. Figes, author of four acclaimed books on Russian history, is the ideal man to do this war justice and he does not disappoint.
Where previous books in English have concentrated on the Allies (especially Britain), Figes uses primary sources from all the combatants to give the most comprehensive, fully fleshed account yet written.
His chapters on the origins of the conflict are a tour de force. It has long been assumed the Allies fought the war to stop Russia dismembering Turkey and gaining access to the Mediterranean. Figes agrees, but adds a hitherto underplayed ingredient: religion (hence the subtitle).
It was, he explains, a war “fuelled by the religious passions that had been building over centuries”; especially in Russia where the delusional Tsar Nicholas I saw it as his divine mission to restore Constantinople as the seat of eastern Christianity.
Even British clerics saw the war as a crusade. But politicians were motivated by realpolitik, especially Palmerston (prime minister from early 1855) who argued for the dismemberment of the Russian empire and a redrawing of the European map.
The actual outcome – the demilitarisation of the Black Sea, the confirmation of Turkey’s territorial integrity and the protection of its Christian subjects by the signatories, plus a minor loss of territory by Russia – was for Palmerston and many Britons a huge disappointment.
All the iconic figures are covered, including Lord Cardigan and the Charge of the Light Brigade, Tolstoy in Sevastopol and Florence Nightingale at Scutari, but Figes is at his best when he tackles the great historical questions: causes, course and consequences.
Russia was the biggest casualty. Though it lost hardly any land, it would not “recover the dominant position it had held in Europe until after 1945”. Moreover the war, says Figes, had “exposed the shortcomings of every institution in Russia” and the desire for reform – only partly sated by the emancipation of the country’s serfs in 1861 – would lead inexorably to the Russian revolution.
Figes closes with a chapter on myth and memory. It is a fitting end to an exhaustively researched, beautifully written book that returns this myth- laden conflict to its rightful place in the history of the 19th century.
Saul David is the author of Victoria’s Wars (Viking, 2006)