Quick: What was the Crimean War about?
If you can’t easily answer the question, or even locate the Crimean War within a couple of decades of the mid-19th century, then you are not alone. As Figes (History/Birkbeck Coll., Univ. of London; The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, 2007, etc.) notes, even in France, which lost some 100,000 soldiers in the conflict, the Crimean War is very nearly forgotten. The author locates the origins of the war—now remembered almost exclusively for the so-called Charge of the Light Brigade—in several proximate causes. The clash of three ambitious empires (Russian, Ottoman and British) was one; related to it was the growing Russian Orthodox presence in the Holy Land, and related to that the rivalry among Islam, Catholicism (and Anglicanism) and Orthodox Christianity. The French “were most alarmed by the growing Russian presence in the Holy Lands,” writes Figes, and they pressed for ways to contain it—and not just that, but also the growing Russian influence in the Balkans, still dominated by the Ottomans. Louis Napoleon found perhaps unexpected allies in the British, rivals with Russia for dominance in Central Asia; for the Ottomans, meanwhile, the conflict was one in just many with Russia. The author ably chronicles the savagery of all parties—drawing on hitherto unknown Russian and Turkish archives, he reckons that the death count was more than 1 million, including the unfortunate dead of the besieged Russian city of Sevastopol—and illustrates the utter modernity of this first “total war.” Figes closes with a fascinating account of how the war shaped the nations that fought it; in Russia, for instance, it helped launch the later pan-Slavic movement and is commemorated as a noble defeat against Britain’s “aggressive imperialist aims in the Black Sea”—in short, as a foreshadowing of the Cold War and the “clash of civilizations” among Islam and the West.
Narrative history at its best, with patient unfolding of events unknown and forgotten—but that have consequences even today. A thoroughly impressive book.