This is my review of Crimea (Allen Lane History) by Orlando Figes.
“Crimea” explains the power struggles of mid-nineteenth century Europe: the ramshackle Ottoman Empire, ironically dismissed by the Russian Tsar Nicholas 1 as “the Sick Man of Europe” as he falls prey to his growing obsession to liberate the Eastern Orthodox Christians from Turkish dominance; Austria, traditionally an ally of Russia, but now unwilling to go beyond “armed neutrality”, for fear that encouragement of uprisings of Slavs in Turkey will give its own minority groups ideas of rebellion. France is keen to gain victory against Russia after its earlier humiliation under Napoleon Bonaparte, and the English – concerned more about commerce than religious rights- wish to deflect the Russians from their suspected designs on India. This melting pot of conflicting aims causes one of the frequent wars between Russia and Turkey to boil over into the conflict which has left the fragmented legacy in our history of the “Lady with the Lamp”, Florence Nightingale (who gets scant mention here, including her failure to realise that soldiers were dying in droves because the local water supply was contaminated), the balaclava hat against the perishing winters and the heroic, misconceived charge of the Light Brigade (which was not quite the disaster it was portrayed).
Once he “gets into” the battles in the Crimea, Figes’ account is gripping. He brings out clearly the chaos, incompetence and misplaced courage under fire – yet frequent barbarism with looting of the dead, beheading them in the hope of monetary reward being one Turkish tradition . WW1 is foreshadowed, with the accounts of soldiers fraternising between onslaughts – the officers from opposing sides sometimes sipped champagne together as their men cleared away bodies so that the battle could continue.
Although I found interesting the first chapter on the unholy disputes between different religious factions in Jerusalem, and there is the intriguing incident of the Tsar travelling incognito (for fear of assassination) to England to persuade Queen Victoria and the Prime Minister to agree to a future carve-up of Turkey, not realising that Parliament might need to be consulted, the opening chapters are hard to follow in places, particularly the important section on “The Eastern Question”. Figes invites you to skip the first 130 pages, but the analysis of the background is important and it would have been better if he had simply provided better maps, a glossary of key characters, and a simple “time line” of critical events. I suppose this reflects the historian’s usual dilemma as to how much prior knowledge to expect of the reader.
The evaluation of the aftermath gives food for thought: the Russians focussed on their victories during the war, rather than their overall failure, and managed to recoup within 25 years their losses under the Paris Peace Treaty. They proceeded quite quickly to fight the Turks again, having made strenuous attempts to update their military organisation. The epilogue on the British commemoration of the Crimean War in rather sickly Victorian poetry is a bit of an anticlimax.
Overall, this is more digestible than many historical tomes, and I found much of it fascinating.