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The Crimean War: A History (2010)

by Orlando Figes

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From "the great storyteller of modern Russian historians" comes the definitive account of the Crimean War, a forgotten war that shaped the modern age. Figes reconstructs the first full conflagration of modernity, a global industrialized struggle fought with unusual ferocity and incompetence.

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I enjoyed the first 2/3 of the book, however the last 1/3 was a trudge to get thru. I wished the book had ended sooner ( )
  klrabbit58 | May 6, 2021 |
On July 18, 1854, two British warships under the command of Captain Erasmus Ommaeny bombarded the monastery on the main island in the Solovetskie Islands in the White Sea. The monastery itself had no real military or political value, but as Ommaney lacked the forces necessary to attack the main Russian base in the area at Archangel he decided that the monastery was a suitable enough target to win his men plaudits at home. After the outdated Russian batteries defending the monastery were destroyed, Ommaney demanded the surrender of the place; when this was refused he launched a second bombardment before sailing away in frustration, his bold military action having caused a total of six casualties, all among his own men.

There is no mention of Ommaney's adventure in Orlando Figes's history of the Crimean War, which is unfortunate considering how nicely it encapsulates the pointlessness that is a dominant theme of his assessment of the conflict. Its absence is also revealing, as it shows Figes's focus to be squarely on the eponymous theater of the war. There is some discussion of the combat in the Caucauses, a couple of passing mentions of fighting in the Baltic and no mention of battles anywhere else. This is also unfortunate, as it would have been interesting to see him employ the same penetrating analysis to these other overlooked theaters that he applies to the fighting in the Crimea. His book offers a reexamination of a often-overlooked conflict, one that demonstrates its underrated significance to the history of Europe in the 19th century.

Figes spends the first part of the book teasing out the complicated origins of the war. While many factors were involved, he considers the role of the Russian tsar Nicolas I to be the most significant one, giving greater weight to religion as a motivating factor in his actions than have previous historians. Yet this only served to define some of the particulars of what was an ongoing struggle between the major European powers over the fate of the Ottoman Empire and her territories. Pressured by Russia, the Ottomans received support from Great Britain and France, each of whom were motivated by different interests and seeking different goals.

Achieving their various goals eventually cost the sides involved far more than they had anticipated. When war did break out in 1854, the British and the French were divided as to what to do to strike at the Ottomans. Eventually an assault on the Russian Black Fleet and their main naval base at Sebastopol became their goal, motivated as much by the allies' desire to move their forces out of cholera-afflicted Bessarabia as anything else. Their landing and subsequent advance soon developed into a ponderous siege of the town. Here Figes excels in describing the siege and the major personalities involved, capturing the bravery of the men and the appalling errors which were made by their leaders in waging it. The fall of Sebastopol, along with Nicholas's death and succession by his reform-minded son Alexander II, led to a negotiated peace that was a humiliation, one which was soon reversed by a combination of adroit diplomacy and fortuitous timing. Figes concludes with a chapter in which he looks at the weight given to the conflict in the national imaginations of the various countries which sent men to fight and die there, a few of whom were immortalized but most ultimately forgotten.

Figes's book is a superb history of a often-overlooked war. His background in Russian history and his command of the Russian-language sources allows him to provide a far more complete examination of the conflict than exists in most English-language accounts, while his abilities as a writer help bring the war to life. In this sense Ommaneny's escapade can go unnoticed, overshadowed as it was by the far larger and bloodier farce that took place further south that Figes recounts with both humanity and insight. The result is a book that, while far from the final word on this complex and multifaceted conflict, is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon for the author's success in providing such an entertaining and informative account of a war that has long been denied its due. ( )
  MacDad | Mar 27, 2020 |
The Crimean war of 1853-1856 is one of the forgotten ones not only in the world as a whole, but in Ukraine as well. It is actually interesting why this is the case. After all, three Greater Powers took part in a conflict, which cost almost a million lives and it was the first on many issues from real time war journalism and photography to eerie foreshadow what trench war will mean in the WWI. Just compare it to some more known wars of the 19th century – from Napoleonic to Franko-Prussian. Its death toll and time span are similar to the US civil war but it remains generally forgotten. Even in Ukraine I guess if one tried a survey asking what were the formal reasons the war started many more will answer correctly on the US civil war than on the Crimean war.
I previously read several books on the subject by Russian authors, both from the early and mid 20th century (points of view shifted from a ‘noble tsar defending the faith’ to ‘awfully bad reactionary government and brave ordinary solders’). The author has a number of books on Russian and Soviet history thus it is very interesting to see his view on the subject.
The book actually gives the war is much broader narrative – from the concert of Europe in 1815 to repressions of revolutionary movements in Poland and Hungary before the war to lessons learnt after it. The war itself I roughly half of the page count.
The author neither glorifies nor vilifies any of the sides, which is a pleasant break from the earlier books on this war I’ve noted above. It shows that while solders on each side fought bravely, there were also maraudering, looting, heavy drinking (even by Muslim Turks). The issues often omitted in Russian narratives are for example the fact that solders going on night sorties from Sevastopol were often drunk or that they surrendered like other solders did. That after Inkerman battle the Russian commander had refused the allied offer of a truce to clear the battlefield for fear that his troops would become demoralized and might even mutiny at the sight of so many dead and wounded on their side compared to the losses of the enemy, so the Russian dead and wounded lay there for several days and even weeks.
Another important issue often omitted are Crimean Tatars. Before the war they were the majority (over 80%) of population – hardly surprising if one remember that the Crimea was annexed by Russia only in 1783. During the war they were both beaten and robbed by Russians, and committed crimes against the latter, e.g. in Kerch after it was occupied by allies. After the war a massive russification started, emptying hundreds of villages just in a few years.
Overall a very interesting overview of the Crimean war, recommended
( )
  Oleksandr_Zholud | Jan 9, 2019 |
Good Read - Aside from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade", I knew next to nothing about this area of History.
Well written with lots of those little things which make for enjoyable reading.
Last British campaign in which being a gentleman accounted for anything. Turning point at which the little man in the trenches got his due. ( )
  busterrll | Mar 4, 2017 |
Excellent. This is actually three books. The first one--up to p. 140 or so--is about the origins of the Crimean war. At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem Catholic and Orthodox Christians would fight each other to the death for the right to, say, be the first to celebrate the Easter Mass. Disingenuously, Nicholas I of Russia used a concern for the Orthodox living under Turkish rule as an opportunity for imperialist expansion. He really wanted to partition Turkey. Russophobic Britain was having none of it. They believed, not without reason, that Russia wanted India. This pushed them into an alliance with France to challenge Russia when it occupied the Danubian Principalities, Ottoman territory.

The second book is an account of the conflict itself, which was brutal and marked by an appalling lack of planning and leadership on all but the French side. For the British it devolves to the point of travesty. The incompetence of British officers leaves one astonished, gaping. For example, no provision was made for the Crimea's harsh winter because they thought it would be a short campaign. When the harsh weather came the ensuing tragedy had to make headlines in London before asses were gotten in gear and the appropriate supplies made available. By then of course it was too late for the first winter. The tommies in their made-for-summer tents, soaked through for months at a time, died in their thousands.

The third and final book is on the aftermath of the war. How it affected the principal combatants (France, Britain, Russia, Turkey) economically and politically. Russia's humiliating loss became a significant factor in her decision to free the serfs. One can't after all fight with an army of slaves; there's a certain problem of motivation. Tolstoy was at the Siege of Sevastopol and his comments, taken from Sevastopal Sketches as well as his letters, deepen the book in surprising ways. The first great battle, fought in the fog at Balaclava, is a breathtaking read.

What I liked most was the way the book served as a linking narrative for me for many events I had read about--from Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow in 1812 through World War II. Written in simple, declarative prose there is little or no use of tedious novelistic devices. I warmly recommend The Crimean War. Now, if you would be so kind, please sign the Charter for Compassion at http://charterforcompassion.org.

Paix Peace мир barış ( )
2 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
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THESE DAYS news is what we can digest after Sunday lunch, along with shopping advice and tips on gardening. Television make-believe, not newspaper journalism, increasingly shapes our view of the world, as life turns into a high-speed information mosaic and much journalism becomes a glossy adjunct of advertising.
added by Donogh | editThe Irish Times, Ian Thomson (Oct 16, 2010)

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From "the great storyteller of modern Russian historians" comes the definitive account of the Crimean War, a forgotten war that shaped the modern age. Figes reconstructs the first full conflagration of modernity, a global industrialized struggle fought with unusual ferocity and incompetence.

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